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Liberal leader and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a tree planting with their son Xavier and Hadrien during an election campaign visit to Plainfield, Ontario, on Oct. 6, 2019.

STEPHANE MAHE/Reuters

There is a vestigial image of Canada – a raw and vast land of forests, lakes and mountains. Forests, most of all.

At Confederation, 154 years ago, this was true for most people. Fewer than one in five lived in a city. At the start of the Second World War, close to half the population still lived in rural areas.

But this changed rapidly thereafter. Today, the picture of Canada is inverted: More than four out of five people live in cities, and parks are the closest thing to a forest that most of them will see on a regular basis.

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That makes parks like Mount Royal in Montreal and Stanley Park in Vancouver a critical part of Canadian urban life. But in recent years, cities have begun to understand, and invest in, the importance of urban forestry beyond the boundaries of parks themselves. Urban tree canopies are beginning to be seen as valuable infrastructure rather than as simply decorative, a pleasant respite from concrete and pavement.

Toronto has made some of the best progress to grow its urban forest. Its goal is to reach a canopy cover of 40 per cent by 2050. This is the level at which research suggests an urban forest begins to substantially reduce temperatures – a natural air-conditioning system in an era of climate heating.

In 2008, Toronto had an annual urban forestry budget of about $30-million. A decade later, the budget had more than doubled, to almost $70-million. The investment increased the city’s trees to 11.5 million from 10.2 million. The canopy covers as much as 31 per cent of the city, up from about 27 per cent. Toronto estimated the “total structural value of the urban forest” at $7-billion.

The gains are significant, especially with the loss of trees caused by the 2013 ice storm and the emerald ash borer. Some losses, however, have been self-inflicted. Toronto’s “impervious land cover” – read: pavement and the like – increased by 1.4 per cent over the same decade, while plantable space fell 2 per cent.

Growing urban forests is becoming a priority in other cities, too. Montreal in late 2020 made planting 500,000 trees by 2030 a key part of its climate plan. A primary focus will be lower-income neighbourhoods, which typically have much sparser tree canopies than wealthier neighbourhoods.

This pattern is easily observed in other big cities such as Toronto, in the the northwest part of the city, and Vancouver, in much of the east side. The 2018 heat wave in Montreal that killed 66 people showed that lower-income neighbourhoods, lacking the heat-dampening effect of a canopy, left residents more exposed to risk.

The federal Liberals, as part of their climate change plans, have promised to plant two billion trees by 2030, in forests and in urban areas.

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The program, part of the 2019 election campaign, was delayed by the pandemic and, like so many government efforts, is working on a later-rather-than-sooner timetable. The plan is to spend $3.2-billion over the next 10 years, but only 40 per cent of that is budgeted for the next five years. The initial focus this year is on urban areas.

Canada is staking a lot on these trees – more than just respite from the summer heat. The two billion trees are supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12 megatonnes a year by 2050. While 12 MT is less than 2 per cent of Canada’s current emissions, it is also a big number, about the same as all the emissions in New Brunswick.

When the Liberals announced the plan in 2019, it sounded somewhat flighty. But planting trees is harder than it sounds. It takes money and planning. It’s a multiyear effort, from seedling growth in nurseries to site preparation, planting and maintenance – keeping trees alive and thriving. The right sort of tree is also key. Norway maples are prominent in cities because they grow easily in urban settings, but they are an invasive species.

Beyond the emerging view of an urban forest’s tangible value as infrastructure, trees are simply good for people’s health. “This is your brain on trees,” read a Globe and Mail headline earlier this year. The story detailed numerous studies that show how trees buoy mental health and general well-being. It is the sense of calm anyone can savour, whether sitting in a forest, under a tree in a park or along a cool, shaded city street on a hot summer day.

Urban forests are part of what makes cities thrive. Continued investments will pay decades of dividends.

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