In Sydney and Canberra, plans for new light rail projects are forging ahead, designed to ease traffic congestion and improve accessibility. While this is no doubt a great thing, concerns are growing as a significant number of mature urban trees are likely to be impacted.

Just recently, a row of historic fig trees was cut down along Anzac Parade in Sydney, making way for a new light rail. Louise Boronyak, Senior Research Consultant at the University of Technology Sydney, writes, “The challenge of retrofitting transport systems into an established urban fabric means difficult decisions are inevitable. But what if building these new transport systems actually leaves parts of our cities more vulnerable to even bigger challenges, such as climate change?

“In Canberra, the ACT government is set to remove approximately 860 trees. In Sydney, about 1277 mature trees will either be removed or have their canopy or roots pruned. Of the condemned trees, 871 are classified as trees of significant value. These trees, some of which were 160 years old, provide an array of benefits that make our cities liveable. These include clean air, amenity, biodiversity and cooling in hot temperatures.”

With trees creating their own microclimates, reducing ambient temperatures, the scary reality is that removing urban trees today will mean the cooling benefits will be lost for at least another 20 years. Of course, this relies on replacement plants being planted in the first place and then surviving to maturity.

Boronyak concludes, “As someone who works in the area of climate change adaptation, I can see how the loss of these trees will have major environmental, economic and social consequences. As a local resident who has walked and cycled daily under the trees, the loss has a personal cost. It is imperative that we find better ways to balance the needs of growing city populations, while ensuring the protection of the natural environment we ultimately rely on to survive.”