Mark Cullen speaks with Oakville Mayor Rob Burton on growing the tree canopy

October 19, 2012  Mark Cullen SPECIAL TO THE STAR–mark-cullen-speaks-with-oakville-mayor-rob-burton-on-growing-the-tree-canopy

He who plants a tree plants a hope. — Lucy Larcom, “Plant a Tree”

Who will speak for the trees? I asked this question last week and I have been impressed by the number of people who have reached out to me through my website and offered answers to this burning question. I will report on the responses that I have received in a later column, but I want to share the results of a meeting that I had with Oakville Mayor Rob Burton.

As the volunteer chair of Trees For Life, the Urban Tree Coalition, I have met many politicians, municipal staff, and like-minded volunteers in the not-for-profit sector. I have been most impressed by the commitment that Burton has made to tree planting and maintenance, as well as the preservation of heritage trees in his town. He has succeeded in raising the discussion about urban trees from a “nice to have” to “urban infrastructure.” Like police services, public health, and education, trees have extraordinary value. Sometimes it is only when they are threatened, or when we lose them, that we realize how true this is.

In my view, he is the greenest mayor in the GTA. I have determined that through my own extensive research. When I discussed with him the goal of doubling the tree canopy in Oakville by the year 2057, I was became convinced that he is a very green politician.

Here is a short version of my interview with Burton.

MC: You mentioned that a tree pulled you into politics after selling your business and retiring. Tell me about the historic tree that was saved, who saved it, and what your role was in the process.

RB: I was a retired television network founder and executive when I was drawn into an effort to save the environmental lands across North Oakville with one group of friends who had done hundreds of hours of research to reveal that valuable environmental features and the lands needed to support them were going to be paved over. Just before the election, it was revealed that a road expansion was going to require the removal of a very healthy giant great white oak, hundreds of years old. We citizens were “allowed” to save it if we could raise about $380,000 to route the road around it. When I was elected, we were $75,000 short. Premier (Dalton) McGuinty, (Halton) Regional Chair (Gary) Carr and I agreed that our governments would split the cost of topping up the fund to save the tree. The next year, we saved the 2,300 acres of environmental lands in North Oakville.

MC: Oakville has a reasonably dense urban tree canopy now (close to 30 per cent). Why do you feel that it needs to be built upon?

RB: All our experts agreed that the American Forests Tree Canopy Goal of 40 per cent is a reasonable goal for Oakville. Oakville’s rapid growth during the ’80s and ’90s, and first few years of this century, had reduced Oakville’s tree canopy with subdivisions that often featured “stick trees” that never grow much. Oakville and Halton Region Councillor Allan Elgar called them “lollipop trees,” and we’ve expanded our tree concerns to ensure (trees) are planted with 30 cubic metres of quality soil to promote good growth. My belief in this goal is based on a feeling that a town that calls itself Oakville ought to be known for its trees. If you want to picture what a city with 40 per cent tree cover would feel like, Washington, D.C., has been reporting tree cover of 37 per cent (and they are planting trees to get to their target of 40 per cent.)

MC: What are your goals for growing the tree canopy?

RB: Our goal is to grow the canopy to 40 per cent by 2057, the year of our bicentennial. Oakville was chartered by Ontario in 1857.

MC: How did Oakville get its name?

RB: Oakville was named for its great oaks when William Chisholm founded it in 1837. He tended to see those trees as a harvestable resource for things like ship masts and planks.

MC: Who was responsible for removing many/most of the mature trees in Oakville for development? When? What was the outcome?

RB: No one developer can be singled out for tree removal between the 1980s and 2006: they all did it. The outcome is that we had an Urban Forestry Strategic Management Plan created with the University of Toronto. We used GIS and other tools to inventory our trees and provide the research base for our plan to get to 40 per cent tree cover.

MC: What are the highlights of the Oakville tree strategy? How many trees will be planted? By when? Does the plan include saving heritage trees?

RB: Generally speaking, we need to average more than 13,000 more trees per year to reach our target. We also save heritage trees. Heritage designation for trees is possible under Ontario’s Heritage Act, but it isn’t easy.

MC: Where is the money coming from to implement the plan?

RB: We are funding our tree canopy goal through a mix of revenue sources: development fees, taxes and other revenues.

MC: Why do you feel that it is important to have a healthy tree canopy?

RB: A healthy tree canopy is essential for a healthy community. There are business reasons for growing the tree cover, too. Consumers shop longer and pay more in tree-lined areas, while buildings sell faster and for higher rental rates. Green cities equals green economies. Trees clean the air, provide habitat for wildlife and sequester carbon.

MC: You mentioned that your constituents are champions of trees. More so than in other municipalities? Why do you think this is so?

RB: Oakville loves its trees. When the emerald ash borer threat became known, Oakville adopted the country’s most aggressive plan to fight back and save as many as possible. I believe many Ontario municipalities are, like Oakville, working to increase their urban forest canopy. I know we hear from more and more cities and towns asking us to share our strategy with them. Many municipalities have recognized their loss and decided the value of having more tree cover is worth the work and time it will take.

MC: In terms of your own vision for the future of Oakville, what is the role of trees? What kind of municipality will your grandchildren experience?

RB: Our grandchildren will enjoy a greener, cleaner town if successive generations of politicians and residents stick with our vision and see it through to 2057 and 40 per cent tree cover. Imagine crossing the border into Oakville and noticing two things right away: more trees and no billboards.

Oakville’s stated vision: To be the most livable town in Canada.

Question of the Week

Q: I read your advice about raking leaves onto the garden for the winter. I am concerned that the leaves will smother my bulbs and perennials.

A: Run the leaves over with your lawn mower a couple of times before raking them onto the garden. The smaller pieces of leaves will decompose more quickly and make it easier for bulbs to emerge next spring.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. You can sign up for his free monthly newsletter at, and watch him on CTV Canada AM every Wednesday at 8:45 a.m. You can reach Mark through the “contact” button on his website and follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook. Mark’s latest book, Canadian Lawn & Garden Secrets, is available at Home Hardware and all major bookstores.