Calgary Unearthed: Understanding our Trees

Posted on May 28, 2024

I remarked at the outset of this blog that the development of Calgary as an urban center has placed a forest where none should naturally stand. Even a cursory inspection of the online archive of historic photographs available from the Glenbow Archives shows that, except for narrow strips along the banks of the main rivers in the area, the space that Calgary now occupies was more or less devoid of stands of tall trees. One can hardly expect it to be otherwise, as our city is, in fact, a prairie city surrounded by rolling grasslands and farms. Understandably, trees are more precious here among those who appreciate them than just about anywhere else in Canada south of the Arctic Circle. Precious, that is, unless you happen to be a real estate developer in the inner city, but we shall return to this in a moment.

Some call the treeless prairie empty, and urban expansionists easily use this perception to justify the unchecked and under-managed predatory sprawl of cities like Calgary. From this point of view, the tree-lined streets, yards, and other trappings of the city are an improvement over nature; the trees are a testament to the rightness of urbanization. The prior posts in this blog and certainly a vast body of scientific and social scientific studies conclusively show that the prairie is anything but empty. Nevertheless, we have replaced the prairie, and it is time to live with the consequences. To do this, once again, we return to the past, specifically the ideas that shaped the planting of trees in and around the city.

We have commented on the bequeathment of the arrangement of our city, its districts, and street design, from choices made when it was founded. But if we are looking for an explanation as to how all the trees became established, we might have to dig a little deeper. From the 1890s to the 1930s, particularly in North America, there was a resurgence of interest in urban planning that became known as the City Beautiful Movement. The general idea was that a well-constructed and beautified city with extensive private and public green spaces lined with lawns and trees, inspired by the appearance of the great cities of Europe, would promote harmonious living conditions within urban areas. It was a response to the rapid and massive influx of people moving to cities to seek their livelihoods during that time. There were many other factors in play as well, centered around the emergence of a middle-income consumer base and economic booms resulting from resource extraction and the effects of colonialism. Suffice it to say that many North American cities saw explosive growth in tenement housing and slums as a result. Another result of these trends was that urban planning became a recognized profession; a profession that recommended urban beautification as a functional part of a city. In Calgary, the person most regularly identified with planning of this type was Thomas Mawson, whose vision for the city included Parisian-style boulevards, elegant parks, and a great number of trees. As one can plainly observe, Mawson’s plan was never implemented even in partial measure—the economic crash of the 1930s and the Second World War saw to that—but some vestigial remains of its intent are visible around the city, such as the Memorial Park Library and surrounding recreational space, as well as in the continuing practice of planting and maintaining trees and shrubs in every quadrant of Calgary.

We can critique historic urban development initiatives until we exhaust our breath and spittle forming words, yet still remain no closer to understanding the true impact of the urban forest we've planted and cared for. What does it actually do for us, and what must we do to ensure its future maintenance? Regardless of the original intent behind their establishment, trees offer numerous benefits to city dwellers. They reduce city temperatures, which, due to the radiative properties of buildings and concrete, can be three to ten degrees higher than those in the surrounding countryside. Trees also absorb moisture, slowing the progress of precipitation reaching the ground, allowing surrounding soil and ground cover more time to absorb and store moisture effectively. Furthermore, trees increase biodiversity, provide habitat, purify the air, and have been shown to improve the mental health of those living near them. Therefore, economically and ecologically, incorporating trees into city landscapes is highly beneficial.

However, establishing and maintaining urban forests incurs costs, particularly evident in Calgary. A simple roam around the city quickly reveals one of the primary distinctions between affluent and less affluent districts: the presence and size of trees on public and private lands. With regards to municipal democracy, aside from encouraging private landowners to plant and care for trees, little can be done, excluding those owned by the city on such lands. While urban densification, if sustainably implemented, can support trees, private developers often prioritize maximizing profits by cutting down trees on building sites without providing viable replacements. Consequently, trees, and consequently the rest of the city, suffer from their greed, leading to increasingly impoverished ecological circumstances. What was once the "city beautiful" has transitioned before our eyes into the "city efficient" and then to one ripe for exploitation.

In conclusion, the economic and ecological argument for planting and maintaining an urban forest in Calgary is indisputable, even if the cost exceeds that of other places. It is our inheritance, and with care, we can preserve and enhance it by protecting it and resisting greed. While I typically avoid such criticism of developers in forums like this, their excess and irresponsibility necessitate a response. To the readers of this blog, I urge you to plant and care for trees to the best of your ability. Educate yourselves about urban forests; both the library and the internet offer ample high-quality information. Lastly, contact your municipal government representative or councillor and remind them of the city's commitment to double Calgary's urban forest canopy to sixteen percent coverage by 2060, equivalent to planting seventy-five hundred new trees per year. This endeavor is not only worthwhile but morally and ethically imperative given our circumstances.


Shawn Mueller

Communications Team Volunteer 

Green Calgary Association