Merle Karro-Kalberg: Local governments lack city greenery development plans

Trees in the way of a street expansion and light traffic road in Viljandi.
Trees in the way of a street expansion and light traffic road in Viljandi. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Small Estonian cities seem to be suffering from a virus. No, I'm not talking about the coronavirus but a seemingly equally infectious condition that makes one hate urban trees and sees them cut down whenever cities make changes. The linden alley on Haapsalu's Posti street recently achieved posthumous fame, with the bell now tolling for the trees lining the Uus street in Viljandi.

The article was published in Sirp magazine.

Towering linden trees were cut down in Haapsalu, with explanations as to the why of it only following a looming nationwide storm of indignation. New pavement would require cutting the roots of trees that would likely lead to their deaths, which is why smaller trees will be planted as the latter do not block the view of historical buildings.

Now, trees on Viljandi's Uus street are looking at the same fate. Even though trees are designated as to be preserved in the development plan, the street's reconstruction project prescribes cutting them down. The trees were lit up for a memorial service earlier this week. The city justifies the felling with the need to construct a bicycle path. Both cities are felling to make more room. Large trees are to be replaced with lower alternatives so they wouldn't block the view of buildings, get in the way and be pesky in general.

The United Nations' recent climate overview states in no uncertain terms that agreements and good will aside, mankind is now in the danger zone. The July heatwave in our region, floods and fires raging all over the world are just the beginning. We have only the very final minutes of 24 hours to slow down the overheating.

While we are all up to speed and understand the situation in theory, things are dire when it comes to our personal convenience. We know that every one one of us needs to recycle, give up plastics, take their own shopping bag with them etc. to save the world. While we fall short when it comes to making decisions society needs, fail to realize the part trees and bushes play in the ecosystem. We understand that green zones help mitigate climate effects in cities, while we still prefer neatly cut crass to fields of goutwort. Having to choose between a car and a tree, we usually opt for the former. There are virtually no examples of a car park being turned into a regular one. While paving over biologically diverse meadows to create car parks is a common occurrence. Carefully considered and diverse greenery is an effective way of avoiding urban overheating and the creation of heat islands.

A study from 2018 showed that 36 million trees are cut down in the world's cities every year, while close to 70,000 hectares are paved over. A study from 2015 revealed that the Earth has lost 46 percent of its forests. We have no reason to believe those figures have improved since then.

Trees and bushes are the first effective way to create a better environment. Even city dwellers who worship cars and broad streets know to appreciate greenery on a hot day. The corners of shopping center parking lots that still have a few trees are the first places to get crowded on a hot day.

Cities have began putting together climate plans, while green zones and trees are not part of them. Local governments lack vision and development plans for urban greenery. While guidelines and plans are drawn up for built-up areas of cultural and environmental value, transport, light traffic roads, high-rises etc., urban green zones are not on that list. While it is sometimes suggested there are plenty of forests outside cities, monoculture fields and small patches of woods dotted between them do nothing to help urban ecosystems. Development and other types of plans need to consider greenery to a great degree. We need an activity plan for boosting urban biodiversity, restoring biotopes, ensuring the survival of the green network and bringing nature back to the city. Next, realizing these plans in a systemic way requires will and means. Perhaps then we can hope the apocalypse meter moves back from the red towards orange.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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