Category Archives: Education

Is Our Tree Protection Ordinance Fair?

In an earlier post, I laid out some weaknesses in the revised tree ordinance that the Department of City Planning released to the public in March.

On Thursday, June 25, the City Council’s Community Development/Human Resources Committee held a working session on the draft ordinance. The chair is Matt Westmoreland, and Amir Farokhi is a member.

I am pleased to say that in its report to the committee, City Planning announced several pending changes that would be improvements over the March draft. For example, City Planning is now proposing to use the same standards for public and private trees, enforced by arborists gathered into a single office. To give another example, the earlier draft’s overly complicated “tree significance” scheme will be greatly simplified. And there’s much more, as you can see from the graphic above.

As the City actually releases its new language, I will keep you updated. We can expect to see a new draft in late August or early September, and I believe the City hopes to vote on a final version before the end of the year.

In any case, for now, I want to turn to a simple question:

Is our current approach to tree protection, even when we update it for the first half of the 21st century, going to get the job done? If you’re interested, read on.


Irfan & Sukumar, “Watch how the climate could change in these US cities by 2050,” Vox, May 24, 2019

Consider that by 2050,  Atlanta could well be an oven, an oven with the dial turned up. Of course, nothing says that has to happen. We can do something about it. But we have to act now.

We don’t have to experience 23 days in the year — up from just one now — when it feels like 105 degrees or more in the shade, as the Union of Concerned Scientists is projecting could happen.

We don’t have to draw near the fatal tipping point —  when sweat will no longer evaporate from our skin. Until very recently, it was thought that we had decades until murderous heat was a common occurrence in some regions of the world. Now we know that it’s already happening.

Areas in the U.S. Southeast where heat/humidity mixtures have driven temperatures to ‘wet-bulb’ readings of 31 degrees C (equivalent to 125 degrees F on the “real feel” heat index). Green markers show one occurrence from 1979-2017; orange, 3; red, 10.

We don’t have to be terrified that a brutal heat wave will coincide with a massive blackout.

What can we do? We can radically rethink how we preserve and replenish our tree canopy in Atlanta. Why? Because trees are a simple, cost-effective way to cool our city, and if we don’t take steps to cool our city, we will suffer.

The How and Why of Tree Protection in Atlanta

In Atlanta, we protect trees by treating them as a common pool resource. Simply put, you own the trees on your property, but because your trees are so important to the entire population of Atlanta, you’re limited in what you can do with them.

The law says you can’t remove a tree without a permit from the City (unless it’s quite small). You can’t “top” a tree to reduce its height. You can’t prune a limb by cutting it flush with the trunk.

We have a tree protection ordinance that gives the rest of us considerable control over how you use your own property.

Again, the rationale for limiting your right to do with your property as you see fit, is that without trees, our city will be rendered all but uninhabitable: unbearable heat, unbreathable air, undrinkable water.

The benefits that trees provide — affecting temperature, rainfall, water purity, clean air, noise buffering, traffic slowing, wildlife habitat, human health (physical and mental), and more — are called environmental or ecosystem services.


In 2017, researchers announced the results of their analysis of urban forest ecosystem services in 10 megacities (at least 10 million inhabitants) around the world. Median tree cover in those cities is 21%, with potential for another 19% tree cover in the city.

The dollar value of those benefits, the scientists say, is roughly $500 million annually to each city. Planting more trees, they add, could raise that to $1 billion annually for each city.

For context, the City of Atlanta’s proposed budget for 2021 is $2.23 billion in operating funds. And Atlanta has more than twice the amount of tree cover in comparison to the group of ten cities in that study.

Do the math! Without our tree canopy, Atlanta’s budget would have to be much higher than $2.23 billion to keep you alive and comfortable. And so your taxes would have to be much higher, too.

So What’s the Problem, Jim?

The difficulty with our current approach to tree protection, friends, is this:

  • No one pays the owner of a tree for the ecosystem services that it provides to the city as a whole; while
  • She alone bears the costs of maintaining her tree in good health, removing it when it dies or becomes dangerous, and replanting it to replace the benefits it had been providing to Atlanta; even though
  • The owner of that tree may be struggling to keep a roof over her head and food on her table.

It is crucially important that everyone understand the implications of this fact: eighty percent (80%) of our city’s trees are located on private property.

Some tree owners can easily bear the costs associated with a shade tree. Many can’t.

One of the bids to remove this tree in Gordon Park was $5,847. Do you have that much money lying around? Do you think every homeowner in Atlanta does?


Our current approach to tree protection relies on authorizing “tree cops” to enforce a law that imposes an unfair and unsustainable burden on many of our neighbors in Atlanta.

Our current approach to tree protection tends to encourage people to think of trees as money-pits and hassles, not as desirable amenities.

Our current approach to tree protection tends to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Our current approach to tree protection has not stopped the steady loss of tree canopy in Atlanta.

What would a different approach look like? Consider that the State of Georgia has not one but two laws that use the tax system to encourage property owners to manage their land for ecosystem services: the Forest Land Protection Act and the Conservation Use Assessment Covenant.

Is it time for Atlanta to look at that? It’s past time. Unless and until we make it possible for people to value trees at their true worth, we cannot succeed in avoiding killer heat, and everything that will come along with it.

Fear of Trees

125-year-old southern red oak being removed LEGALLY, after inspection by a City of Atlanta arborist and issuance of a permit consistent with the Tree Protection Ordinance

Everything is connected — remember that, and I’ll come back to it in a moment.

I grew up in a small town in rural Georgia. Really small: not even 2,500 people (i.e., about half of Inman Park’s population). In those days and in that part of the world, children spent a lot of time outdoors. Lots and lots of time outdoors.

From an early age, therefore, older people were continually instructing us in the proper evaluation of risk. Mommy and Daddy were not going to be around to protect us from each and every danger: we children had to learn for ourselves how to live a full, active life with an acceptable level of risk.

This is a poisonous snake; that one isn’t. This is poison ivy; that’s Virginia creeper. Don’t you ever point a gun — even an unloaded gun, even a toy gun — at another person. “No” to getting into water until we could swim and swim well. What’s more, we were instructed never to dive headfirst without knowing exactly what was below the surface. We knew to be prompt about cleaning and disinfecting all wounds. We learned deep respect for fire. We were taught that an animal with rabies behaves such-and-such a way …

And so on.

Even so, people were killed and injured in the woods and fields around my hometown, just as they are every week on I-285 and the Downtown Connector. I remember the awe in my father’s voice when he told me about a man who was sitting in his pickup on the shoulder of a road. From behind him, a logging truck came rumbling by. At just the wrong moment, one of the logs rolled off the top of the pile, smashed through the back window of the man’s pickup at 55 mph, and decapitated the unfortunate fellow.

I think about all of that when I encounter neighbors who are afraid of trees growing near their homes.

“It’s just a tree. I’m a human being. My spouse and our children are humans. As far as I’m concerned, there is no level of danger that is acceptable to me. None at all. That tree needs to go. Why should I have to worry about it being blown over onto my house? It’s just a tree.”

That’s what I imagine they’re thinking. And on one view, it’s very hard to argue with that way of thinking.

It’s just a tree, after all, and it’s just one tree.

We live amid danger. Danger from bad drivers. Danger from lightning and flooding. Danger from criminals. Danger from aggressive dogs. Danger from high summer temperatures. Danger of contracting an infectious disease. Danger of getting fired or laid off. Danger of becoming anxious or depressed. Danger of losing a spouse or child. Danger from terrorism and nuclear weapons and unhinged politicians.

Amid so many dangers in life, even I can understand the appeal of eliminating the risk posed by that large tree. And if I make the effort to imagine what it is like not to have grown up learning how to tell the difference between a cottonmouth moccasin and a harmless watersnake, I can manage to be more sympathetic to those neighbors of mine who have a different tolerance of risk with regard to an oak that will fall one day (or a mosquito that may be spreading disease, which is a topic for a different day).

All that said, let me leave you with two thoughts.

First, unlike an animal, which will fight tooth and claw to live, a tree will die without apparent protest, without a sound. And yet you are connected to that tree in profound, complex, essential, and still mysterious ways. I’m not being spiritual here. The clean air you breathe, the clean water you drink? Gifts from our forests. Ponder that, the next time you hear the whine of a chainsaw.

Second, I do get a little angry when I sense that any of my neighbors is insufficiently concerned about the impact of “small-decision effects.” That’s a fancy way of saying that if everyone cuts down all of his or her larger trees, we’re all going to suffer. Which is another way of saying that some people, sadly, are very happy for me to tolerate risk from a large tree, so long as they don’t have to.

Life, in significant part, is one long effort to manage risk, in such a way that we neither die as a consequence of recklessness, nor fail to live fully as a consequence of timidity. We need our urban forest, friends — so please keep making an effort to find that happy medium between unnecessary fretting and blithe unconcern (which, fortunately for us, a good arborist can help us with).

Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers

There are earlier posts of mine about gas-powered leaf blowers: read them here and  here. Washington, D.C., recently enacted a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, to take full effect by 2022. The journalist James Fallows and his wife Deb were among a small group of neighborhood activists who started working toward this in 2015. You can read here a short article by Fallows at The Atlantic with links to additional information.

Public Service Announcements

Getting Some Tree Work Done?

Get multiple bids with detailed estimates of the costs and time required.

Ask whether the work will be planned and supervised by an arborist who is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.

What equipment will be used? If you are told that a crane or boom lift is necessary, ask why the work can’t be done by tree workers climbing with ropes.

How will they clean up your property at the completion of the removal or pruning?

Exercise some due diligence. If you spot a tree worker in a boom lift (see photo above) wielding an unsecured chainsaw without any protective gear at all (hardhat, safety glasses, earplugs, gloves), you’ve hired the wrong company. If workers seem to you to be insufficiently careful around the chipper, you’ve hired the wrong company. Ask them to stop work immediately and insist on speaking with a manager.

Note that some tree services are investing in electric equipment and committing to practices that are better for the environment. If you can afford to pay a little extra for that service, you will be encouraging other companies to do the same.

Here’s an earlier post on this website about selecting a tree service company.

Hiring a Lawn Service? 

Does the company offer a clean and quiet service using battery-powered and manual equipment? Does it have expertise in organic lawn and plant care?

What is the minimum number of times each month that you absolutely need this service? Do you need it year-round, e.g., even in winter?

Can the work be scheduled at a time when it is least likely that the noise will disturb your neighbors, e.g., not on a weekend and not early in the morning or late in the afternoon?

Do the workers seem professional and well-trained? Do they wear protective gear? Are they paid a living wage?

Hiring Someone to Spray for Mosquitoes?

Before you sign up, do your homework. Are you breeding mosquitoes by leaving standing water on your property? Can you adequately protect yourself by applying repellent or screening a porch? What chemical will the company use, and what can you find out about that chemical by doing your own research? Are you vulnerable enough to the inconvenience of a mosquito bite or the remote chance of contracting a mosquito-borne disease that it outweighs the environmental damage caused by the spraying, e.g., the killing of bees?

Here’s a Consumer Reports article on whether to spray your yard for mosquitoes and ticks. And once again, as with anyone visiting your property to do work, insist on professionalism and adequate safety measures: if the young person misting your yard is wearing no protective equipment at all, for example, ask why.

New Tree Wells!

Many, many thanks to Peter Coyne and his son Declan of Oakview Landscape Construction for our new tree wells on Ashland Avenue.

Declan is working toward his Arrow of Light rank in Cub Scouts and this was his community service project. He talked with Inman Park Tree Watch about the contributions that urban trees to energy conservation, and then he and his dad got to work.

Think Big, Atlanta, or Go Home

Let’s imagine a different way of doing things.

In an earlier post, written while I was on vacation, I reported on a proposed development at the so-called Villa De Grip property, located near the intersection of North Highland Avenue and Elizabeth Street, across the street from the restaurants Sotto Sotto and Fritti.

Here’s a screenshot of the plan, showing the addition of a proposed new building on the corner of North Highland and Copenhill, as well as a new multistory parking deck at the rear of the property.

An aerial view of the property indicates clearly how much tree cover will be affected by the construction of the new building and parking deck:

Atlanta’s existing tree protection ordinance will almost certainly not stand in the way of this project. Consistent with the ordinance, the developers are proposing to replace these native, over-story tree species (water oak, sweet gum, winged elm, loblolly pine, etc.) mostly with non-native, smaller (trident maple) and mid-canopy species (e.g., Chinese elm). What they cannot replace, they will write a check for, according to a simple formula¹ that treats all trees the same, whether they’re trees that might live 30 years or trees that can live 200+ years.²

What might a different approach to tree and urban forest protection involve? Let’s imagine, via some ideas that other cities have already implemented and others that Atlanta tree advocates are presently discussing: Continue reading Think Big, Atlanta, or Go Home