Why Saving the Humewood Maple Matters

It all began with a tree. One homeowner wanted it cut down and the other didn’t. The problem is that the tree is situated on their shared backyard property boundary. In the City of Toronto, the private tree by-law regulates the removal of trees over 30 cm in trunk diameter that are growing on privately-owned property. To remove the tree, a homeowner would need to apply for a permit from the City and submit a report from a certified arborist. But what if the tree is growing on a property boundary, as is the one on Humewood Drive?

 Well according to the May 2013 Ontario Superior Court verdict in Hartley v. Cunningham et al. 2013, if one of those neighbours decides to cut down or damage the shared tree without the other’s consent they could land themselves in the slammer—or more likely end up with a hefty fine—under the Ontario Forestry Act. This case set a major legal precedent for protecting city trees since boundary disputes over tree removals are quite common, as was described in a recent Globe and Mail story. However, a Toronto Star article revealed that this milestone for urban forest conservation could all come undone. Hartley is appealing the ruling and Cunningham and Scharper are now facing another stint in court. To help with the $35,000 in expected legal fees, Cunningham and Scharper have started a crowdfunding campaign.

Why would anyone give their hard-earned money to help protect a stranger’s tree, you might ask?  Here’s why this legal landmark is so important. The urban forest provides a surprisingly diverse array of benefits to city dwellers—who now comprise over 80% of Canadians. These benefits, otherwise known as ecosystem services, have been shown in scientific studies to range from improving health and psychological well-being to reducing energy costs from heating and cooling and thereby helping to mitigate climate change. Ironically, city trees have even been proven to increase residential property values by thousands of dollars.

But the urban forest is also under threat. Life in the city is incredibly difficult for trees, as they are exposed to invasive pests, degraded soils, frequent damage and vandalism, and threats from new development. One of the biggest challenges for managing the urban forest sustainably is the fragmented ownership of cities. Around 60% of Toronto trees are growing on private property, whose stewardship is dependent upon the values and whims of individual homeowners. Staffers from the City’s Urban Forestry branch are restricted in how they can manage over half of the resource that is their charge. They rely on public education and outreach (the carrot) and, failing that, private tree by-laws (the stick).

The 2010 ‘Every Tree Counts’ study estimated that Toronto’s urban forest provides around $60 million in ecosystem services every year. These ecosystem services do not heed property lines and ownership; they are a common good that benefit neighbours and entire neighbourhoods. With over half of that resource under the protection of the private tree by-law, it is critical that this legal precedent be set and the by-law reflects the functional reality of these common goods. That’s why the Humewood maple matters.


James Steenberg

Ontario Urban Forest Council