Tall linden, maple, spruce, honey locust and pine trees cluster at the corner of Sackville Street and Gerrard Street East in Toronto. Farther east stand more linden and maple trees; on Sumach Street, a towering silver maple tree dwarfs a two-storey red brick dwelling. These trees have grown since the 1950s, but their days are numbered. Toronto Community Housing, which owns the properties, plans to cut the trees down in Phases 4 and 5 of the redevelopment of Regent Park.
The Regent Park “revitalization,” begun in 2006, aims to take a 28-hectare neighbourhood of subsidized housing that, while leafy, feels isolated from Toronto – and reintegrate it into the city. A 2006 survey counted 1,400 trees. A 2007 city plan prescribed “retention and relocation of existing trees where possible, and the planting of new public trees on all public street rights-of-way.” The plan called for 1,600 new trees. A city rendering of the redevelopment depicts a cyclist riding along a street so thick with trees it resembles a forest.
The reality is different. More than a decade into the project the developer, Daniels Corp., has built new streets and replaced two-storey homes with mid-rise buildings, but retained few trees. There are no signs that trees have been moved. Hundreds of new trees have gone in. Some appear bushy and green; many others struggle. And residents are grappling with the reality that their tree canopy is less healthy than before.
“We are losing an entire mature urban forest and we are losing our ability to grow it back because the trees and green infrastructure are in such poor shape,” said Stephanie Beattie, who bought a condominium in Regent Park five years ago. “I want the city to hold Daniels and Toronto Community Housing to account and replant the dead and dying trees, and remediate the soil so the trees can grow.”
“We used to have a lot of big trees,” adds Sureya Ibrahim, who has raised three children in Regent Park. “We don’t have that now.”
Problems abound. Ms. Beattie, a communications consultant, walks her dogs, Carl and Shamus, through the neighbourhood. She stops often so children can pet the dogs. In the old Regent Park, she points out healthy trees. Farther south, many recently planted trees are dead or stressed. Horse chestnut trees on Sumach Street south of Dundas bear scant, yellowing leaves. Alongside the Daniels Spectrum building on Sackville Street, of eight London plane trees, one is healthy, four are struggling (one with more shredded plastic than leaves on its branches) and three are dead.
Under Toronto city rules, the care of trees on new streets lies with the developer for the first two years and then passes to the city. When a tree dies within two years of planting, the developer must replace it and then is responsible for the new tree for another two years.
Martin Blake, a vice-president at Daniels, said that for now his company remains responsible for the trees in redeveloped areas south of Dundas Street. Daniels plans to replace unhealthy or dead trees next spring, before it turns over the new streets to the city.
“We all want healthy street trees,” added Remo Agostino, vice-president of development at Daniels. “There are trees that were replaced that died again. The question is – why did that happen? We need to make sure we plant at a time that will hopefully be the best for that type of tree.”
In Phase 1, Mr. Agostino said, Daniels planted tree species specified by the city. Some species such as London plane and tulip trees proved vulnerable, he said. The 2013 ice storm killed many trees in Regent Park, he added, and the city waited several years to replant.
Daniels officials say new trees have fared better in later phases of the project. But a 2018 city audit of 28 hackberry, horse chestnut and London plane trees Daniels had planted on River Street, Shuter Street, Tubman Avenue and Wyatt Avenue in Phase 3 (not yet turned over to the city) found 25 trees “planted too deep.” Twelve “show signs of stress.” Eleven trees were listed in “good” condition, 13 “fair,” three “poor” and one dead.
City soil audits around street trees in Regent Park in 2017 found compacted soils with high salt levels. During development, the weight of trucks, excavators and cranes can compress soil around a building site, leaving the ground more like asphalt and less like a sponge.
“It’s been brought to our attention that there’s a problem in this development and the survival of these trees is not that high,” said Raymond Vendrig, the city’s manager of natural environment and forestry management. “As these new blocks are being developed, city staff are working with the developer, monitoring the work and making sure that compacted soils are being removed and that our soil specifications are being met.”
Melanie Sifton, a PhD student in urban forest health at the University of Toronto, said soil compaction stresses new trees. “We call compaction the silent killer,” she said. “Air, water and microbial life in the soil are at levels that are unsustainable for many trees.”
Local Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam met on Oct. 4 with Ms. Beattie, city officials and the developer to discuss Regent Park’s trees. She said it can be tricky to replace trees when other infrastructure has been built around them. “It’s not as simple as cutting down the tree and replacing it,” she said. “When those trees don’t take root, they have to carefully and surgically replace them."
Toronto, with a tree canopy cover of 28 per cent, aims to increase canopy cover to 40 per cent by 2050. Ms. Beattie, whose great-grandfather grew up on Gerrard Street, remains hopeful for a leafy future in Regent Park. “We are a community under construction for 25 years,” she said. “Trees take particulate matter out of the air. We need trees.”