These urban foresters in Kelowna, Kamloops work to make their booming cities greener | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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These urban foresters in Kelowna, Kamloops work to make their booming cities greener

Kamloops' Albert McGowan Park.

The Thompson-Okanagan region’s two biggest cities, Kelowna and Kamloops, added almost 24,000 new residents between them in the last census period and look to add another 80,000 over the next 20 years.

That means more housing, more roads, more shops and more services will be required, but it doesn’t necessarily mean less green space or tree cover.

“We drafted an urban forest management strategy a few years ago,” Jeff Putnam, parks and civic facilities manager for the City of Kamloops, told iNFOnews.ca. “We were at around 16%, and, when we checked in 2020, we were over 18% urban forest canopy. We’re actually trending in the right direction.”

Kamloops uses arial photography that measures only City of Kamloops land so that may not be reflective of the city as a while.

READ MORE: Largest ever Kamloops residential development clears final hurdle at City Hall

Kelowna, on the other hand, uses satellite imagery to measure all the tree canopy in the city, excluding orchards in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

It had a target of 16-20% canopy cover by 2020 but had reached 22.9% by that time. It’s aiming for 25% but is challenged by a 13.5% population growth in the last census period and an expected 40,000 to 50,000 new residents coming in the next 20 years.

READ MORE: Kelowna's population grows more than twice as fast as Kamloops: census

“We’re pushing away from growing in the suburbs and densifying the core areas so that we can maintain some of that green area and canopy cover,” Andrew Hunsberger, Kelowna’s urban forestry supervisor, told iNFOnews.ca. “Our downtown core areas are quite low, obviously. We’re pushing for more density in those areas too, so, we’re going to continue to lose trees, unfortunately.”

The downtown tree canopy cover was only 12.4% in 2019 when it was last measured.

READ MORE: 2 highrise towers to be 'jewel-like centrepiece' of UBCO’s downtown Kelowna campus

Since then a new RU7 zone has allowed four-plexes to be built on single-family lots in the downtown area and a number of highrises have gone up, or are about to, while commercial, industrial and residential buildings have been built in the north end of the downtown core.

“Any large city where you have dense population, it’s a struggle,” Hunsberger said. “These road right of ways are only so big. We’re putting in big towers. These towers shade out sunlight. The opportunity to have more trees is difficult but we’re pushing for it and there are some good examples.”

The City of Kelowna, for example, negotiated with the Mission Group when it recently built the Ella highrise downtown to create a better environment for trees.

“They put in what is called filler cells,” Hunsberger explained. “Under the hard surface there are these big skeleton frameworks that can carry the weight of the concrete but it is filled with nice top soil underneath and is irrigated so the trees have the soil volume to grow. A lot of the big issues with these trees in downtown areas is they don’t have soil volume. They’re grown in these little coffins, essentially.”

“Structural soil” trenches have been dug along both sides of Bernard Avenue downtown so tree roots have room to grow.

“Where we’ve moved to with most of the development is structural soil or filler cells because soil volume is so critical,” Hunsberger said. “Otherwise they grow so big and run out of soil and they just peter out. But we want trees that are going to be around for many many years.”

Both cities have some form of tree protection bylaws.

In Kamloops, one resident was fined $28,000 after topping a half-dozen city trees to improve the view, Putnam said.

Kelowna has a bylaw that protects trees on city property and uses an international standard to value the trees that are damaged or killed then charge the developer. Some individual trees can be worth $20,000.

Kelowna does have a heritage or significant tree registry that was drafted some years ago but it didn’t really focus on true heritage trees.

Some were things like Siberian elms (an invasive tree the city is trying to get rid of), aspen, cottonwoods and silver maples, all of which are fast-growing, short lived trees.

Negotiations are held with developers to try to preserve and build around truly significant trees, Hunsberger said.

He would also like to see the big towers set back further from the roads to make more room for bike lanes, sidewalks and trees.

Both cities also have programs where residents can buy subsidized trees to plant in their yards, which have been highly successful.

But the way the data on tree cover is collected does not allow for direct comparisons since Kamloops only looks at city-owned land while Kelowna looks at tree canopy over 3.5 metres (which excludes fruit trees). Neither measure green space overall, such as lawns, gardens and shrubs.

Statistics Canada is trying to measure the “greenness” of cities across the country but their methods also have limitations.

It used satellite imagery to measure all green space within communities throughout Canada from 2001 to 2021 with readings taken between June 25 and Aug. 26 each year. 

It showed the “greenness” of Kamloops dropped to 5.2% in 2021 from 32.6% in 2001. Kelowna dropped to 43.9% from 73.8%.

“There are definitely some really big holes in the way that they do it,” Hunsberger said.

For one thing, 2001 was one of the wettest summers on record so places like Knox Mountain that normally turn brown in the summer would have been green that year.

Hunsberger suggested Statistics Canada look at “greenness” data for June in arid climates, which would include Kamloops, rather than July and August because these cities dry up considerably in the summer, unlike places like Vancouver or Toronto that have humid summers where lawns and gardens are more likely to stay green.

“The decreases can be linked to natural factors, like drought, insects, disease and fires,” François Soulard, research manager for the Census of Environment division of Statistics Canada, told iNFOnews.ca.

The effects of the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire still has an effect on the “greenness” of Kelowna that wouldn’t have shown on the 2001 images.

Soulard clearly recognizes the shortfalls of the research, which is in its infancy.

“The goal is, over time, as part of our new Census of Environment program, to report on the extent and conditions of ecosystems throughout the country, not only in urban areas but for all types of ecosystems,” Soulard said. “But we are just at the beginning of this program and it will evolve over time.”

A closer look at the data over time shows the effects of the 2021 heat dome in B.C. where record breaking temperatures in late June led to drought conditions for most of the summer.

It shows, for example, that the “greeness” of Kamloops was 32.6% in 2001 and only fell to 26.5% by 2020 before plummeting to 5.2% last year. Similarly, Kelowna’s reading fell almost 14 points from 2020 to 2021.

Over time, the Statistic Canada measurement took may be refined enough to provide a consistent and accurate measure of how green these growing cities actually are and what steps must be taken to keep them green.

“Green spaces are essential to building the resilience and liveability of cities through the ecosystem goods and services they provide,” the Statistics Canada report states. “For example, trees and other vegetation can improve urban air quality, mitigate urban heat island effects, reduce or delay storm water runoff, provide wildlife habitat and provide recreational opportunities and aesthetic benefits.”


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