Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Brian Rudman: In matters of life and limb, professors should lead the way

When it comes to protecting CBD trees, Auckland City does do a great inquest! The felling of the much admired, Parliament St jacaranda after Christmas has been marked by not one, but two official reports.

The latest, entitled Desktop Analysis of Trees in the Private Realm, will be presented at Friday’s meeting of the environment, heritage and urban form committee.

The message is that the 274 (give or take a few) "unscheduled" trees on private property in the central area should be very afraid. The report reiterates that they are at the mercy of the nearest property developer’s chainsaws.

Unlike trees in the rest of the city, CBD trees don’t enjoy any general tree protection. Out in the suburbs a property owner has to go through a lengthy rigmarole to get permission to chop down, trim or dig near the roots of any native tree over 6m in height or with a girth greater than 600mm. For exotics, the height trigger is 8m and the girth 800mm. It’s a much-needed restraint on our settler instincts to slash and burn, and permission is often not granted.

But that’s only in suburbia. In the central city, unless a tree is marked out as "notable" on the district plan, it’s fair game. David Sanders, senior planner, explained it thus in a report in February. "In the Central Area environment, with its intensive urban form and associated high land values, the emphasis of the tree protection methods ... is on ensuring that trees contribute to the amenity of the public realm."

Thus the emphasis is on tree protection in public parks and streets, with a total of 500 protected in places like Albert Park, Old Government House grounds and other public areas, and another 65 on private property.

None of this is new. I remember back nearly five years ago writing about the furore associated with Manson Developments hacking down anything green immediately upon buying a development site at the corner of Emily Place and Shortland St. A few months later, a century-old London plane tree was felled to make way for a new lecture theatre at Auckland University’s engineering school. Auckland Museum’s curator of botany, Ewen Cameron, was upset at the lack of consultation, noting it was one of only a few large, well-formed plane trees in the city.

Friday’s report, based on an analysis of aerial photographs, highlights how "a large portion" of the unprotected trees in the CBD are concentrated to the east, on the slopes of Grafton Gully, and up into the grounds of Auckland University. The analysis estimates there are 39 unscheduled large trees with canopies greater than 12m in diameter, 39 trees with canopies between 8m and 12m and 82 with canopies under 8m. Of the 39 large trees, 19 are in university land "or clustered on the railyard land in Quay Park".

Given the horrors that have occurred on the Quay Park site, my surprise is that any tree has survived intact. Those that remain deserve to be awarded the arboreal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, and be granted protection for life.

As for the university trees, I’m amazed they remain unprotected under the city’s scheduling process. Sure, it’s hard to imagine the professors out with their chain saws doing damage to the university greenery, but the felling of the century-old plane tree and the removal of historic houses over the years, were timely reminders that PhD and Philistine share the same page in some dictionaries.

Five years ago Tony Palmer, the university’s grounds superintendent, rang me with his concerns for the unprotected state of the virtual botanic garden of native plants surrounding the original university campus. Since the 1920s, successive professors of botany had gradually brought the bush to the CBD. Mr Palmer feared for what might happen to this treasure after he had gone.

On Friday the committee will be ask to authorise further study to flesh out the details of the unprotected trees. Could I suggest the university bush is already one of the most studied pieces of greenery in the land. What is needed in its case is a decision to give it some protection. Suggest to the professors they set an example to the other private owners of central city trees by applying for scheduling themselves. Then let’s get serious about the others.

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