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Our City, Our Urban Forest


Trees along Bellingham's Magnolia Street

The line between where our urban areas end and where wilderness begins is blurry. It’s important to remember that forests within our urban areas are just as valuable as those in the most remote parts of the North Cascades. These forests constitute perhaps our City’s most valuable resource.


The Society of American Foresters defines urban forestry as, “the ‘art, science and technology of managing trees and forest resources in and around urban community ecosystems for the physiological, sociological, economic, and aesthetic benefits trees provide society.”


Aside from the obvious benefits like producing oxygen, sequestering carbon, and providing passive cooling; trees and urban forests provide myriad of social benefits such as stress relief, food production, and encouraging recreation. In short, what’s good for our urban forest is good for our community.


The City of Bellingham recognizes that our urban forest is worth protecting and deserves thoughtful management. To this end, City Council has directed staff to draft an Urban Forestry Management Plan (UFMP) to help maintain this forest. But this is easier said than done: space in Bellingham is already at a premium, our forestry department is underfunded, and we’re in the middle of a housing crisis. We value our urban forests and building more affordable housing is a competing priority.


Our Urban Forestry Management Goals

Urban Forestry is complicated, calling upon multi-disciplinary expertise in fields of study as disparate as arboriculture and urban planning. To help understand the state of Bellingham’s urban forest, the city contracted the services of urban forestry experts, Diamond Head Consulting, who performed a survey on the state of Bellingham’s urban forests and compiled their recommendations for specific goals and mechanisms Bellingham could use to achieve those goals:


A. Protect and expand the urban forest in alignment with community values as established in the Comprehensive Plan

B. Protect and restore priority habitat areas, movement corridors, and forests

C. Manage the urban forest in alignment with best practices to support healthy and safe trees

D. Adapt the urban forest for climate change resilience

E. Collaborate with diverse people and organizations in urban forest management

F. Monitor performance, adapt strategies


The City Council members also make sure to note that it’s their priority to make preservation, expansion, and equity guiding principles in how these goals are attained.


Canopy Coverage Conundrum

These goals form the ultimate, high-level vision of how Bellingham’s urban forests might be managed in the future. But, as is often the case, the means to an end are often more rife with complications than the ends themselves.


In this case, Diamond Head Consulting recommends choosing a canopy cover goal to help decide which tools Bellingham should use to meet our urban forestry goals. Canopy cover targets vary based on many factors, but deciding on a goal is traditionally the first step in any management plan. Bellingham currently sits around 40% cover, which is the golden standard for cities its size in the state. But with a need for more housing and development, loss of some existing canopy cover is unavoidable.


Diamond Head Consulting provides three different scenario targets for the next 30 years informed by the City’s estimated growth with assumptions that no new major public land acquisitions will be made beyond existing mechanisms. The targets are as follows:


  • Status Quo (35% Coverage): No change from current practices/policy

  • No Net Loss (40% Coverage): Changes needed to stabilize canopy

  • Growth (45% Coverage): Changes needed to grow canopy 


 The professional consulting firm the City hired recommended a No Net Loss (40% Coverage) goal to City Council, an ambitious and achievable goal for Bellingham’s future. After hearing the presentation from the consultants, City Council directed staff to develop a plan to increase the tree canopy goal 45% coverage.


Why a Coverage Target Matters

Deciding on a canopy coverage goal is our starting point. It represents (abstractly) how much we would need to invest to achieve our goals, and the mechanisms we would need to employ to reach those goals. A canopy cover target represents our aspirations for healthy trees in our city and it forms a basis for how land can be used for other growth considerations, namely for the development of more housing.


To add a bit more context to these numbers, if Bellingham continues with its current urban forest management practice we can expect to see a 5% reduction of our total canopy cover within city limits over the next 30 years. A No Net Loss scenario (40% coverage) would require that Bellingham double the number of trees we plant– at the very least.


In order to see the 5% increase in the canopy growth scenario, Bellingham needs to not only double the number of trees it’s planting, but introduce new law to supplement the Exceptional Tree Protection ordinance that would require permits to fell any tree greater than 8 inches in diameter.


What Do the Experts Say?

We need to balance goals that are achievable and represent the desires of our people while being mindful of the recommendations of industry experts, and keeping all of the ways that Bellingham wants to grow in mind.


Diamond Head Consulting recommended Bellingham adopt the 40% no canopy loss scenario, and their recommendation is grounded in the realities of Bellingham’s current urban forest, and in the inevitable growth the city will experience in the coming thirty years. They give the following reasons for their recommendations:


  • Balance: Offset canopy losses and accommodate multiple community values (housing, transportation, recreation)

  • Enhanced standards: Achieve a higher quantity and quality of greening with development, and improve protection for exceptional trees

  • More community participation: Support and incentivize more voluntary planting on private land

  • Reasonable cost: Fund and resource an excellent urban forestry program for a medium-sized city

City planners and public works officials are also in favor of a 40% coverage goal. They see it as achievable, ambitious, and capable of providing a rich urban forest environment for the city without presenting insurmountable challenges to other pressing issues (like housing).


What Do the People Say?

The people of Bellingham love their urban forest. In a 2022 survey, 80% of participants said they wanted to see the City’s canopy cover expand from 40% to 45%. By advocating for a more ambitious canopy cover goal, City Council is dutifully listening to their constituents, and setting Bellingham on the path to being the city with the highest canopy coverage requirement in the whole state of Washington.


One of the most frequently mentioned concerns raised by council members advocating for the 45% coverage goal was equity. Equity is essential, because the majority of the respondents pushing for increased canopy coverage in the aforementioned survey were based in Sunnyland where canopy cover is very limited. No matter what means or ultimately what goal we as a community settle on, it’s critical that we think about where we plant, not just increasing overall planting.


Our urban forest is vital to the health, wellbeing, and identity of Bellingham as a city. Under no circumstances do residents want to reduce coverage, so there must be some kind of policy in place to replace and enhance any canopy cover lost as the City grows. But, both policy makers and citizens have made it clear that no single goal of the Bellingham community can come at the behest of the others.


In fact, in the same survey referenced above increasing canopy cover was the third most prevalent issue, eclipsed by, you guessed it, affordable housing. Ultimately, the wants and needs of the people are diverse, but they are not disparate; these issues are intimately tied together.


A Growing Problem

Space is at a premium in Bellingham. The fact of the matter is that we don’t have a lot of readily buildable land within the City. We’re trying to promote infill development, and it’s important to keep those parameters in mind; which means that space for development must compete with our urban canopies.


Sorting out land use decisions is a complicated issue on its own, and the problem is exacerbated when you consider additional restrictions developers will face if we pursue all the possible legislative levers needed to significantly grow our urban canopy.


Cities like Bellingham embracing infill and multi-family housing to address their housing needs are working hard to achieve 40% canopy cover as a lofty and aspirational goal. We can be proud of what we have, and aspire to improve the quality of our Urban Forests, but we need to keep our other community values in mind. No matter what that looks like, it’s going to require compromise.


If we’re committed to maintaining our status as a city with exceptional canopy cover, we already need to double the amount of trees we’re planting on our dwindling supply of acreage while balancing the demand for more housing. We’ve already seen examples of developers walking away from housing projects because of community pushback to protect trees.


This is why it’s essential that our UFMP is comprehensive; both to ensure the protection and responsible management of our urban forest, and to allow room for the growth and development that Bellingham desperately needs.


Middle Ground

Unfortunately, middle ground might be more difficult to find than calling it an even 42.5%. Finding compromises that allow for the canopy growth that City Council and citizens want is going to be a challenge— there are some things that inevitably will have to give.


On the planning side of things, maybe this looks like building up, maybe this looks like eliminating parking mandates and easing height limitations to maximize space. It could mean emphasizing sub-targets by setting specific goals based on zoning, development potential, and specifically targeted planting efforts in low-coverage neighborhoods.


At the other end of the spectrum, it’s worth noting that we are not getting the most out of our current urban forest, and maintaining a No Net Loss scenario doesn’t necessarily mean things will be the same. In all scenarios, including ones where we lose canopy coverage, there is room to address equity concerns and maintain an excellent urban forestry program for a city of Bellingham’s size.


Before focusing solely on coverage, we might be better served by taking care of the trees that we already have. During the meeting where Diamond Head Consulting presented their recommendations to the City Council, Director of Parks and Recreation, Nicole Oliver, states “We are woefully behind on our urban forestry with our current staff, we need more arborists. And we would need more arborists to even maintain the less ambitious 40% coverage goal."


Opening their discussion about the UFMP, the City Council emphasized a specific turn of phrase. When issues seem to conflict with one another, we’re not out to “balance” interests; rather, our focus is to braid these interests together. To paraphrase 1st Ward Hannah Stone, if preservation, expansion, and equity are the pillars Bellingham wants to form the basis of its UFMP, they must also be at the forefront of our mentality regarding housing.


ABOUT 

Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.


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WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?

Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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