The roots of the problem: Tree canopy declines as development increases

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt December 12, 2013
A diagram on one of the handouts I received last night.

A diagram on one of the handouts I received last night.

I stopped by city hall last night, Dec. 11, for what turned out to be a surprisingly interesting discussion about trees and urban planning.

The bottom line: development in Decatur is reducing the city’s tree cover.

The city is in the process of crafting a new ordinance to address tree removal. During last night’s input meeting, there was a short presentation on the city’s tree canopy. (If you couldn’t make it last night, you can still give the city your input. Click here for more info.) I’ve looked over the documents handed out at the meeting and a few things stood out to me.

– Between 1991 and 2008, the city’s tree canopy was reduced from 50.9 percent to 46.8 percent. The last time the city studied it was in 2010. It was 45.1 percent. As one of the attendees last night pointed out, that percentage is almost certainly lower now.

– The reduction in canopy is being caused by, “Aging tree population, construction impacts to soil and trees, (and) developments with increased lot coverage resulting in less growing space for tree roots and crowns.”

– Building and development is on the rise. As of Dec. 4, 2013 the city had issued 735 building permits, 75 of which were for single family homes. The number of single family permits issued in 2013 was 369 percent higher than the number of permits issued in 2009.

Single family home permits issued in the last five years:

2013- 75

2012- 73

2011 – 44

2010 -29

2009- 16

According to data provided by the city, the record year for single family permits issued since 1993 was in 2005, when the city issued 83 permits.

– Increasing canopy cover requires planting thousands of trees. In order to increase the canopy from 45 percent (using 2010 figures, mind) to 50 percent, you’d need to plant 3,660 “large canopy trees.” To get it up to 60 percent, you’d need to plant 10,980 of them.

The biggest issue driving all of this development is the desire to live in Decatur’s school district clashing with the city’s landlocked geography. The city’s total geography is only 4.2 square miles.

Last night, attendees learned there would be a draft ordinance published in early January so residents can get a glimpse at what the city may be contemplating.

If you were there and anything else got your attention, feel free to tell us in the comments section.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Ben

    Thanks Dan! My question is, does the tree coverage proportion mean anything? I understand that 50% is better than 45%, but how much better, and by what measure? What do the residents of the City lose by having a 5% smaller canopy? That, in my opinion, is the argument that tree advocates will need to make. Undoubtedly, property owners will be inconvenienced by new rules so citizens need to understand that this inconvenience is worth the gain.

    • Ben, that question is over my head. I’ll have to ask the arborists involved

  • erb

    Dan, was there any discussion of whether the proposed ordinance would only deal with new construction, or would it impact tree removal for all property owners across the board?

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