Why Do Neighbours Fight Over Trees? Ecology.

ginkgoSometimes neighbours end up fighting over trees. Sometimes it can get ugly.  In fact, a recent legal battle over a maple tree in Toronto attracted attention from both national media outlets and one of the country’s more prominent defense attorneys.  With all the widely known benefits that homeowners derive from trees, it does seem surprising that such arguments would arise. It turns out that lawnmowers and urban ecology are to blame for all this strife.


To explore the issue, let’s take a stroll in my own neighbourhood of Cabbagetown in Toronto.  It’s a typical older, residential neighbourhood with your garden variety maples growing pleasantly along the street sides. Many manicured front lawns even daunt especially eye-catching tulip magnolias, flowering dogwoods, and ginkgo trees that are tended with care by local residents.


But a walk down the neighbourhood’s laneways and alleys will afford you a view of a different urban forest, made up of countless wild-looking trees precariously growing beside and through backyard fences.  This rugged lot is composed of Manitoba maples, Siberian elms, and tree of heaven, among others – all fast-growing, pioneer species that tolerate and even thrive in forgotten or degraded urban sites.


Trees like these that were brought into Ontario cities from afar do an incredible job at growing wherever there is room, whether they are wanted or not. In particular, backyard fencelines that are missed by the lawnmower provide some of the most ample habitat in cities. When these trees grow up, they bulge through fences and across property lines.


fenceThe benefits of having a tree on your property span across ownership boundaries, but so do the costs.  All too often neighbours
disagree on whether these costs outweigh the benefits. What’s more, that Toronto legal battle over the maple set the precedent that these trees belong to both neighbours, and approval from both is needed to legally prune them or cut them down.


These shared trees – loved and hated – are the trees that neighbours fight over.  But for better or worse, a sizeable portion of a given city’s urban forest and the ecosystem services it delivers is made up of these accidental, misunderstood, often contentious trees.


James Steenberg

Ontario Urban Forest Council


Tree Talks are a regular blast of short, sweet, and timely stories about the urban forest, created by the OUFC to educate Ontarians on some key issues. If you are interested in becoming an OUFC member and/or submitting a story, please contact us.