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opinion

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

Vancouver Park Board crews cut down an elm tree on 6th Avenue in Vancouver in early November, 2018.Adrienne Tanner

Before moving to 6th Avenue in East Vancouver, I often walked my dog along the street, drawn by the beauty of the stately elms that line the boulevard from Nanaimo to Woodland. In the summer, their leaves form a canopy over the road, providing dappled shade on hot afternoons. In the winter, their gnarled, twisted branches break the visual monotony of grey skies. And every once in a while, when the snow falls just so, they shimmer like bejewelled dancers in an exotic ballet. On those days, people come, cameras in hand, from around the neighbourhood to capture the sight.

Vancouver’s Park Board staff does not feel the same affection for the trees. Siberian elms are not the most robust of species. They require maintenance and pruning and every now and then a strong wind or wet snowfall sends a branch crashing onto cars parked below.

Occasionally, an entire tree comes down. This happened about three years back. No one was hurt, but it damaged my neighbour’s house and gave her a scare. Still, even she loves the trees so much she wants a new elm planted in its place. To the Park Board, however, elms represent risk and the city is understandably risk-averse.

Which explains why, in 2011, about a year after we moved to the street, a notice came out saying the Park Board planned to chop down 30 elms, almost a quarter of the trees along 6th Avenue. This put the neighbourhood in an uproar, and we mobilized with a letter-writing campaign, phone calls and dozens of community meetings to try to save them. Our group got the ear of Vancouver’s new Park Board manager Malcolm Bromley, who seemed sympathetic to our cause. He met with us in our homes and agreed to live with the inherent risks baked into an independent arborist’s report which recommended saving all but five of the 70-year-old elms on the chopping block. Mr. Bromley endorsed an East 6th Elms Joint Working Group, a collaboration between Park Board staff and residents that developed plans to prune and care for the existing elms to aid their survival. He also agreed to either purchase or grow and replant elms in every blank spot going forward.

We were thrilled, not only because most of the trees were saved, but also by the consultation process. We felt we’d been heard. When the first new elm was planted in 2012, Mr. Bromley, a few city staffers and park board commissioners attended a small celebration. Mr. Bromley praised the collaboration between the Park Board and residents as a model for all Vancouver.

Even in 2011, it wasn’t easy to source the Siberian elms. American elms are susceptible to Dutch Elm disease and can’t be imported. Siberian elms, which are more resistant to the disease, and are considered an invasive species, not widely sought after. Vancouver’s city arborist Amit Gandha says early attempts to grow the elms failed and after that, it seems park staff just stopped trying.

Residents got on with their lives and when a few more trees were removed over the years, we just assumed the Park Board would replace them with elms. Not so. Over the past month, seven more mature elms have been chopped for safety reasons, bringing the total to 15. We now learn there is nowhere to buy replacements and none growing in the nursery.

Mr. Gandha, who was not involved in the original agreement, is calling a community meeting to plan next steps. I sense his vision does not include elms. Even though we thought this fight was over, we will attend because we still care, not just about the mature trees on our block but across East Vancouver. As the city densifies, there is little space for large trees on individuals lots. All we really have, particularly in East Vancouver where parks are in short supply, are our boulevard trees.

And I’m sorry to say, Mr. Gandha will find that more than just 15 mature trees has been lost on 6th Ave. The goodwill and optimism my neighbours and I felt eight years ago, when we raised a glass to that first baby elm, has evaporated. Community engagement works only when promises are kept.