Street tree heroes: standing up for street trees

Protests, petitions, planting and paints. It takes all sorts to stand up for street trees.

Credit: Philip Formby / WTML
Credit: Phil Formby / WTML

The UK’s towns and cities have a long tradition of street trees.

They’re part of our urban identity. We’re rightly proud of London’s planes, of Edinburgh’s leafy parks, of Bristol’s green reputation.

Millions of trees line our streets, squares and city roads, a green network that breathes life into grey and busy places. And with more of us living and working in towns and cities than ever before, they couldn’t be more important.

But our street trees are under attack.

Under threat

The situation in Sheffield has dominated headlines. The city has become synonymous with tree felling, controversy and public outcry. Pictures of grandmothers woken from their beds, residents being arrested and trees lying felled with ‘save me’ love hearts still attached have caught national attention.

And many more healthy trees are still condemned to death. Their crimes? Nudging kerbstones out of place. Dropping those deadliest of urban hazards, leaves. Obscuring the view (of other buildings). Quite the rap sheet.

Whatever the justifications, the maintenance cost for their care can be a real concern, and cash-strapped councils may be tempted to turn to quick, cheap fixes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Living history

Street trees have long been symbols of status, wealth and prospering communities.

The Victorians really set the standard. In the mid-1800s, the fashion for tree-lined boulevards in the cities of continental Europe led to calls for street tree planting here in the UK. Expanding towns would absorb field boundary trees and incorporate them into street designs. There were even the beginnings of recognition for the health benefits of street trees at a time when urban poverty and class divides were hot topics.

Today, we enjoy the fruits of our ancestors’ labours.

The people in those Victorian streets are smiling and proud of their newly planted trees, now grown into beautiful mature trees.

Mark Johnston
Ex-tree officer and author

Mark Johnston, ex-tree officer and author of Street Trees in Britain: A History, spent years researching the connection people have felt to urban trees over the centuries and their place in modern urban life. They tell a story of where we’ve come from, of community cohesion and of traditions, folklore and pride. He stresses that it’s impossible to capture the value of our oldest street trees in purely financial terms.

“They’re more than just current environmental assets. They’re part of our heritage and the history of our communities. They’re the most amazing living things in our streets. If we lose them, we lose part of our history.”

Good neighbours

Urban trees hold historical and cultural significance. They’re part of our urban heritage. They’re landmarks. Old friends.

Urban trees also have a host of other benefits. They clean our air. They shade our pavements. They lift spirits, feed wildlife and beautify our surroundings. They can even help reduce flooding.

Without trees, our towns and cities would be very different places. But despite their best qualities, street trees suffer from something of an image problem. Poor public perception, apathy and misinformation compound the problems trees face and spur local authorities to make ill-informed management decisions.

How can we fight these misconceptions? How do we raise the profile of our trees and build an understanding of their crucial importance? How do we transform a perceived cost into an investment and persuade both councils and residents that street trees are worth it?

Our trees are not alone. They have a voice in the passionate people across the UK, from all walks of life, using a number of means to stand up for the trees they love.

Meet our street tree heroes.

The campaigner

It wasn't recognized as a rare tree in the wider local community until it was threatened in December 2015. I raised the attention that this was such a rare tree. I didn't know about the butterfly colony then but I knew it was a rare tree.

We got a hundred people just for a photo opportunity to publicise the fact it was so rare and it shouldn't be felled. Through that publicity a local resident who lives just over there said "Oh, I think this butterfly is a rare butterfly that's associated with the tree." It was the white letter hairstreak butterfly which has declined by 97% in the last 30 years and this tree is host to a colony.

We hired an independent engineer to say that the stupid bespoke solution that the council quoted £50,000 for wasn't needed. It was much cheaper than that, about £3,000 max.

The start of a compromise was built, then one of the council officers got involved who was much more authoritarian and intended to crush the campaign and fell the tree, so it raised further publicity. We got to the point where the council were about to severely prune the tree in February 2018. We got protesters to come out – about 40/50 – to block the pruning and that forced Amey and the council to actually sit down with me personally and agree a plan that would minimize the chances of the tree being felled. It’s still not perfectly safe because certain things have to be monitored, including when the roads resurfaced – will they sever a root and what will that mean – but broadly the experts suggest that the tree should be safe now. They've removed one minor dangerous branch and so hopefully this tree is now saved.

But it's been a huge effort over a long, long time – December 2015 to now, March 2018. So two and a bit years, two and a quarter years to get to this point.

Paul Selby,
Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG)

More than 5,000 street trees have been felled in Sheffield to date. In all, around half the city’s trees are marked for replacement, many of them healthy, well-loved and in the prime of their lives.

Local tree action groups have sprung up across the city in response to the felling, organising petitions, demonstrations and campaigns to raise awareness.

“There is a myth out there that the campaigning is all about saving every single tree when that’s not the case,” explains Paul, a campaigner with Sheffield Tree Action Groups. “Around 10% of the trees probably do need to be felled, whether that’s because of disease, severe damage or danger, but having spoken to experts – whether highways or arboriculture experts – 90% of the trees should be saved. That’s what we’re all about – to have transparency. To have proper consultation and engagement with residents. To make sure that a tree strategy is followed and an evidence-based approach is taken so that trees are only felled when necessary.”

The campaign has raised the profile of street trees and brought the issue into the public eye. So far, something like 300 trees have been saved. One in particular really brings the loss home for urban wildlife.

One of the few mature elms to have weathered the devastation of Dutch elm disease stands on Chelsea Road. Itself a rare survivor, it’s home to a colony of endangered butterflies that have narrowly avoided being wiped out.

“It’s not until you realise what’s going to be lost that you put a value on it,” Paul says. “As you’ve probably seen from the media footage, people are willing to put their freedom at risk – to potentially be locked up or be given huge fines – to save their healthy street trees. That’s how much Sheffield residents love their street trees, and we’re known across Europe and the world for it.”

Paul thinks people should feel empowered to fight for street trees, and that together they’re a force to be reckoned with.

“There are people in this campaign who don’t have a lot of expertise or knowledge of nature and wildlife – some of them don’t even know what species the trees are – but they do know the benefits they bring. People are willing to fight to save their street trees.”

And his message for councils? “Don’t underestimate the importance of street trees to people and don’t underestimate their value. They’ve got more benefits than the cost of felling. Take that into account, be transparent and open in your decision-making, consult residents properly, and what you’ll find is you can get rid of the unhealthy trees without controversy. You can work together to actually save trees.“

The planter

Sandy Kerr,
Helensburgh Tree Conservation Trust

When Sandy moved to Helensburgh in 1975, he knew it was the town for him. “There’s a mile of flowering cherry trees in spring,” he says. “What a fantastic place to live.”

The town is a bit of a well-kept secret. It has a long history of tree appreciation. As early as 1875, local people demanded the planting of trees, and it’s thought some of the oldest cherries still flowering today may be examples of those original pioneers.

Many other trees have been planted in the decades since, and in spring the streets produce a stunning display of blossom celebrated with their very own festival. Its beauty has earned the town the nickname ‘the Garden City of the Clyde’, and it’s even one of the National Tree Collections of Scotland – the only street tree representative on the list.

Helensburgh’s grid layout and wide verges are perfect for accommodating street trees, but they’re not without their costs. Government reform and budget cuts meant that no new planting or tree replacement was on the cards. With some of the established trees coming to the end of their life, residents decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Helensburgh Tree Conservation Trust was formed.

Residents pay a small annual membership fee to belong to the charity. These proceeds are used to purchase saplings from a Scottish nursery and fund planting across the town, replacing trees lost to disease and storm damage and in-filling gaps in the display. A team of local volunteers then look after the trees, repairing supports and keeping the trees in good nick. Some 1,000 trees have been planted to date.

"We want to look after the treescape of Helensburgh," Sandy says. "We're trying to maintain the character of the town by doing what would previously have been done by the council. We don't have the powers of a local authority so our job can be difficult at times, but the vision is that we can help ensure Helensburgh continues to be a great place to come and enjoy the trees."

Sandy’s forestry and ecology background stood him in good stead as a trustee for the charity, which has become something of an authority in the town. “People come to us to ask about taking down problem trees,” Sandy tells us. “We use it as an opportunity to advise. We ask them to consider replacement planting in their gardens, for example. And we involve the community. One of our successes has been planting in one of the local council housing schemes where everybody told us they would be vandalised. We involved the youngsters there and they weren't vandalised – they're very proud of their street trees and so are we!”

The artist

My name’s Sarah Deakin. Myself and a colleague set up STARTS just under a year ago.

I think we’ve come to realise that it offers a safe space. I know Annette and I particularly, we call it our refuge. If you’ve been out protesting the felling of trees or been at demonstrations, or just been trying to keep up the campaign on Twitter or on Facebook or whatever, it can be really upsetting and emotionally draining, and people are exhausted. We feel like we are in a battle to keep something really important to us.

So this provides a different atmosphere where the same people can still get together, but we can chat calmly. There’s no felling going on. It’s a safe space really.

People come along who wouldn’t consider themselves artists. You get a lot of people who say ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since I was at school’ but it doesn’t matter. It’s about the activity. It’s about the action, just being together and having a go. Anybody can stick a piece of paper on a tree and do a bark rubbing and make a collage out of it – you don’t have to be an artist. It’s about more than that really.

And yes there’s a definite need for it. People keep saying ‘when’s the next one, when’s the next one?’

Sarah Deakin,
Street Tree Art Sheffield (STARTS)

Art can offer people a way to express themselves, and the brush is sometimes mightier than the sword.

For some residents of Sheffield, what started as a simple way to appreciate street trees among friends has quickly grown into something much more.

“Myself and another colleague set up STARTS just under a year ago,” Sarah tells us. “Two of us decided to do some painting sessions after a very fraught summer. It’s a very gentle, passive way of getting the message across to people who might not be aware of what’s going on or who don’t want to see an active protest – they might feel a bit threatened talking to people in that sort of situation. So it’s a much more gentle way of just sharing our love of the trees.”

The movement caught on. It’s become a way of supporting residents who have been affected by the felling of trees, and it’s resonated with many.

“We had a call from an area in Sheffield where there had been some quite difficult situations between residents,” Sarah remembers. “Some wanted the trees down, some wanted to keep them, and there was aggression and animosity. A lot of residents didn’t feel their voices were being heard although they wanted to keep their trees, so they asked if we’d go there to show support.

We did the following week, and 30 people turned up to paint and draw. We realised then that this was going somewhere. It was something that people needed.”

And with a little help, the movement has grown.

"The Woodland Trust got wind of what was going on. We set up as one of their Tree Charter groups and they gave us some funding to put on an exhibition. We also got some sponsorship from Treespect and the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust."

Hundreds of children, beginners and established artists attended a mass paint-off of all the trees on Western Road, some of which are threatened by felling. Planted as a memorial to former school pupils lost to the First World War, they’re a poignant reminder of the connection between trees, communities and our history. The exhibition that followed attracted national media attention and sent a message that couldn’t be ignored.

Crucially, celebrating street trees through art has offered people a way to contribute to the cause without confrontation.

“I think there are a lot of people whose mental health is being affected by what’s happening. People are really grieving the loss of their trees, but they don't necessarily want to go out and actively protest. Our art sessions not only raise awareness of the wider campaign to save street trees, they provide people with a refuge and a place to be at peace and be calm."

The resident

Alice Whitehead,

For Alice, trees are in the blood.

“Trees have always been really important to me. My dad is a landscape historian and he’s spent much of his life trying to protect trees on landscapes with Tree Protection Orders, so it’s sort of ingrained in me.”

Alice is a freelance writer. She lives on a street in Far Cotton that was once lined end to end with trees. Today, square patches of mud mark some rather conspicuous absences between the few remaining survivors.

“When we moved here 12 years ago, there were roughly 20 trees in the street. Then every couple of months, I would see a team come out and chop one down. Mostly it was trees that had either got diseased or died, but they’d occasionally chop down healthy trees where they were leaning into houses and they’d received complaints about shading.”

Alice’s frustration is evident. The removed trees are not replaced, and those that are struggling but might otherwise be saved seem consigned to felling without consultation with residents. “I felt like something could be done about the disease or the decline of some of the trees to try and save them,” Alice says. “I asked a tree officer about it. He said they’re dangerous and it’s all about health and safety. If a branch falls off, that’s that, so we have to take it down now. They cut them to stumps – you’ll see one up the road – which just looks awful. Eventually they come along and dig them out with a grinder.”

Determined to make a difference, Alice resolved to rally the support of her local residents and show decision makers just how valued her street trees are. Armed with one of the Woodland Trust’s Street Trees Celebration Kits, she held a street party and used her blog and social media presence to collect signatures for a petition to present to councillors.

She’s also an ear to the ground for the Woodland Trust. Northampton Council is soon to be dissolved, and money is tight. By alerting the Street Trees campaigning team to these budget concerns, the Trust has been able to approach council officers with advice and offers of assistance. There’s a chance a cost-effective solution might be found.

Alice knows just how important it is to get this message across.

“You create this incredible bond with trees. They become part of the fabric of your life. When the blossom comes out it really lifts you in the spring. You come out of winter blinking like a mole out of the darkness and there you are looking up at the trees with the beautiful blossom.

There’s so much evidence to show that they help mental health and even the cohesion of society. People come together more in leafy surroundings and areas where there are more trees. It’s incredible the effect they can have on people’s wellbeing.

That’s what councils miss when it comes down to costings – it’s not a cost, it’s an investment, and that’s what councils need to see. These trees are an investment in your community and in your environment.”

Read the latest about Northampton's fight for its street trees at

The professional

There’s a perception among non-tree experts that once a tree becomes mature and reaches its full size then that’s it – you cut it down and replace it. The problem with that is that you’re actually cutting the tree down and removing it at the peak time of its delivery, and it can keep delivering for sometimes hundreds of years, some of these longer lived trees.

So it’s a big problem, and probably the most obvious one, the one that has the highest profile at the moment is in Sheffield where nearly 6,000 street trees have been removed. I’ve been there three or four times now. I’ve seen the trees. There’s no justification from a tree point of view for removing those trees.

We also have Tooting Bec Common. Wandsworth Council removed an historic avenue of horse chestnut trees against significant opposition from local people, against the wishes of the community, and that’s what we’re seeing I think. This is the worrying trend that we’re seeing – that local politicians seem to be becoming increasingly out of touch with the communities they’re meant to be representing.

This tree – this is an oak here – must be 120 (years old) maybe, it’s a big tree. You lose a tree like that and it takes another 30 or 40 years, if you can get a new tree established, to deliver anything like the benefits this tree can deliver.

Jeremy Barrell,
Barrell Tree Care

When Jeremy advises on street tree management, he speaks from experience.

With a background in practical tree work, he now acts as a consultant, sharing examples of exemplary tree husbandry from cities across the world and challenging poor decision-making.

“Here we have an example of where a council has bent over backward to accommodate trees,” he says, indicating to the bases of several mature oaks lining a street in Surbiton that’s named for their presence. The trees encroach a little way into the road, but rather than remove them, highways authorities have simply diverted yellow lines around them.

“You can see they’ve recently been pruned back,” Jeremy continues, pointing into the canopy as a small flock of parakeets screech past. “Trees of this age need regular maintenance like that to keep them manageable. I’d estimate they’re around 140 years old, and they’ve got many more in them yet.”

But not all of the examples Jeremy brings to mind have been so positive. He’s still frustrated by the removal of an avenue of historic horse chestnuts on Tooting Bec Common in Wandsworth. “Their removal illustrates exactly what I’m talking about – local politicians being out of touch with the wishes of the local community and hijacking technical arguments to get rid of trees.”

Jeremy suspects that in some cases, expensive management solutions are over-engineered because they benefit contractors. He also wants to combat the lack of expertise and understanding that can lead to inappropriate measures being taken.

“Planting trees remote from people is not sustainable mitigation for felling street trees close to people,” he says – just one example of the ill-informed solutions offered up. "People don't always want trees right next to their houses but they do want access to trees because of the benefits they provide. Local councils are not listening to those requirements."

But Jeremy is hopeful about the future. He thinks the tide is turning, and that by increasing pressure and working with decision-makers through groups like the Trees and Design Action Group (TDAG), attitudes to street trees are changing for the better.

"One of the things we're working on is trying to get central government to understand that there is a problem. They're starting to listen and I think over the next few years we'll start to see changes in strategy and policy that will make local authorities take account of these environmental assets."

A council perspective

No one wants to see scenes of needless destruction, distressed residents and confrontation. It’s bad for publicity, bad for trees and, ultimately, bad for people.

As well as supporting the important work people like our street tree heroes are doing, the Woodland Trust works closely with local authorities to put good street tree management into practice. A number of them are already doing great things.

Elton Watson is a tree manager for Wrexham County Borough Council, one of the first to sign up for the Woodland Trust’s Street Tree project. He recognises the value of street trees and is always looking for better ways to keep them a part of the community.

“Anything we can do to improve is a good thing – trees play such an important role,” he tells us. “Access to good quality green spaces encourages exercise and improves mental wellbeing. Given the choice, people would rather live near green spaces. Of course trees can damage highways and footways, but that has to be balanced against the benefits. We want residents to enjoy trees and see them as a positive, not a nuisance.”

After surveying the borough’s street tree stock, the council set out a Tree Strategy that has received much support. Tree cover will be increased, and the replanting of lost trees will be planned for the long term, counteracting the effects of climate change with hardy species suited to life in an urban environment, and mitigating the risk of disease by varying the species selected.

“We aim to maintain mature tree cover in perpetuity for as long as we can,” Elton explains. “Where it makes sense we’ll plant native species, but it’s also about the right tree in the right place.”

Now it's your turn.

The future of our street trees can be a bright one. But we have to demand it.

The government has pledged to plant 1 million more trees in towns and cities and that councils will be given new duties to consult with residents before any felling takes place. A recent report on urban canopy cover shows us lagging behind our European counterparts at the moment, but with a little effort we can improve on our record.

If you’ve been inspired by any of the stories you’ve read and want to champion street trees where you live, sign up for a Street Trees Celebration Starter Kit.

Report a tree in trouble

Is there a possible threat from development to an ancient wood or tree near you? Let us know.

Contact your MP

Your MP in Westminster might be able to help if you’re trying to save local woods and trees. Learn how to contact your MP.

Historical images courtesy of Mark Johnston from Street Trees in Britain: A History, available from Oxbow Books or on Amazon.

The Street Trees project is support by players of People's Postcode Lottery.

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