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Trees downed powerlines during the storms that hit Auckland earlier this year, cutting power to much of the city (Supplied)
Trees downed powerlines during the storms that hit Auckland earlier this year, cutting power to much of the city (Supplied)

The BulletinSeptember 30, 2018

Storms brought trees down on powerlines. So why is Vector planting more?

Trees downed powerlines during the storms that hit Auckland earlier this year, cutting power to much of the city (Supplied)
Trees downed powerlines during the storms that hit Auckland earlier this year, cutting power to much of the city (Supplied)

Vector’s sustainability manager Karl Check explains why the company is pushing for more urban forests, despite the April storm bringing down large numbers of trees and disrupting supply to thousands of customers. 

The rapid rise of the ‘as-a-service’ model – software, transport, energy and yes, even anything-as-a-service (XaaS) – has got me thinking about the idea of trees as a service. After all, the fundamentals are the same. They perform a number of key services which would otherwise need to be accounted for some other way. We all benefit from the services they provide, without actually needing to think too much about how they perform those services.

Here’s a quick run down:

Home sweet home: The right trees in the right place provide an ecosystem that supports wildlife. That’s especially important in urban areas because wildlife needs a certain amount of space to survive. Without enough trees and the ability to move between them, our built environment just pushes wildlife out of the way.

Carbon sink: Trees suck carbon out of the atmosphere. That’s why the Government wants to plant one billion of them. And as the cost of carbon rises, we’ll feel the pain so keeping more trees around makes sense to lessen that impact.

Air conditioning: Trees in our streets and parks provide shading and play a crucial role in helping to reduce the build up of heat that occurs within a cityscape of paved surfaces. According to this report,  planting 11 million trees in the Los Angeles basin is estimated to save US$50 million per year on air conditioning bills.

A filter that never needs changing: Improving air quality is another service our trees provide us for free. Trees can absorb pollutant gases and filter particulates out of the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark. Some smart cookies have even taken the best parts of a tree to create a super-charged air filter. And what they do for air they also do for water.

Feel-good factor: Some services from trees are now becoming better understood, like the health benefits of being able to see and or have access to nature. Research in Toronto found that people living on tree-lined streets enjoyed feeling younger and richer than those who didn’t.

So, with all these benefits, how do we assess the value of the trees as a service model?

Handily, we have another arboreal neologism: treeconomics.

Trees don’t naturally grow alone and function much better as part of a mixed ecosystem – essentially what we call a forest. Cities around the world are now waking up to the value of their trees and the urban forest is considered a key asset in the fight to adapt to climate change. This is leading to some serious discipline being applied to understanding how to quantify, and thus squeeze efficiency out of, the benefits of trees.

Liuzhou Forest City in China is taking the urban forest to a new level with a plan to cover buildings in plants and trees to combat global warming and air pollution. In Milan, Boeria has created a vertical forest of cherry, apple and olive trees on two apartment buildings in the heart of the city. 

The value of urban trees is why both Auckland Council, through its Urban Ngahere Strategy, and the Department of Conservation, with its stretch goal to connect 90% of New Zealanders to nature, are encouraging more trees in the urban environment. 

But of course there can’t be treeconomics without tree inequality. That’s why Auckland Council aims to increase tree coverage across the city by up to 30%. In some of our lower socio-economic areas, canopy cover is now sitting closer to 10% (the leafy Waitakere ranges boast 74%). 

One of the key principles of the Urban Ngahere Strategy is the “right tree in the right place”. While this has wider meaning in terms of good site selection to enable healthy trees to establish themselves, it also recognises that in our urban environment a well-intentioned but ill-considered tree may impact on what’s around it – roads, buildings and infrastructure – as it grows. 

In some parts of Auckland Vector is having to deal with this sort of legacy, with some trees looking great but landing the public with ongoing, long-lasting maintenance costs to keep the lines clear from trees.

Enter the Vector Urban Forest

To support the idea of the right tree in the right place, and in recognition of the value society gains from seeing trees as a service, Vector has launched an initiative to plant two native seedlings for every tree that is removed for network management purposes. The new planting will be done as part of urban regeneration schemes, aligned with delivering positive environmental and social outcomes.

The Vector Urban Forest kicked off with a planting day for Vector employees and the local community in Puhinui Reserve.

We’re doing this because, as we’ve identified in our discussion paper Working Together on Resilience, tree management is an area where we believe more can be done to help achieve better power network resilience.

Companies like Vector, government (through regulation), and consumers all have a role to play in improving tree management, and the Vector Urban Forest is our attempt to influence change across these stakeholder groups.

As we work through our existing tree management programme, when we issue people with ‘cut or trim’ notices (the formal notification that there’s a tree you’re responsible for that needs attention), we’ll also be telling people that if the tree ends up coming down for network safety and resilience purposes, it will be replaced as part of the Urban Forest.

Ultimately it’s about helping create more sustainable cities and communities. That’s why the Vector Urban Forest has a specific focus on regenerating areas of Auckland that suffer from tree inequality and urgently need more trees to be planted.

We hope this will get people thinking about how we can be a bit smarter about where we put our trees, to make the city not just more resilient in the face of storms, but a better place to live overall.

This content is brought to you by Vector. If you live in Auckland, they also delivered the power you’re using to read it. And they’re creating a new energy future for all of us, as showcased by the incredible Vector Lights in partnership with Auckland Council.

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