Fighting the ash tree war at Ryerson

“If you look out the window right now, those are all honey locust trees,” says Amber Grant as she points towards Gould Street. “And if you go down College Street, it’s all honey locust; if you go down Bay Street, it’s all ginkgo trees.”

Grant, a third-year environment and urban sustainability (EUS) student, is not playing a game of “Name the Tree” — she’s pointing out the monocultures of trees that dot Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods, a hallmark of the city’s effort to promote green space by planting trees in the city’s core.

But the city’s penchant for planting only one type of tree in some areas has been a source of frustration among some environmental students and researchers. They say this makes ecosystems more susceptible to invasive diseases.

In an effort to combat the city’s habit of creating tree monocultures, Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts launched its Arts Eco Action initiative today to promote diversity in tree populations, among other pursuits.

Jen Fischer, program co-ordinator for Arts Eco Action, hopes this event will make enough noise to send a message to the city about working together for sustainable solutions.

She points to ash trees as an example of monocultures gone wrong. The trees, which cover around 10 per cent of Ryerson’s urban forest, have been ravaged by the emerald ash borer – an invasive beetle that destroys the tree.

Toronto is currently fighting the emerald ash borer crisis by treating ash trees with an injection called TreeAzin, which costs between $250 and $300 per treatment.

The collective cost of this tree crisis is still growing. In 2012 alone, the city says over 4,000 ash trees in were injected with the treatment – by the city’s math, this would mean $1 million spent by the city on treatment that ultimately does not keep the tree alive.

“It’s ridiculous, you’re going to put this treatment on trees, but you’re not planning on planting any new trees that are native to this land?” says Fischer.


Toronto will lose its entire population of Ash Trees by 2017. (Lindsay Fitzgerald / Ryersonian Staff)

Instead, Fischer suggests a pre-emptive approach, urging the school – and the city – to plant other kinds of trees. That way, when an invasive species attacks, it won’t wipe out all the trees in one area.

Losing tree canopies in urban spaces doesn’t only mean losing some recreational benefits of a park. It means losing clean air to breathe, the city becoming more prone to flooding with heavy rains and the loss of a way to naturally cool urban spaces.

But if that’s not compelling enough, a city report says that Toronto will lose $570 million in structural value when all the ash trees are gone.

“It needs to be maintained and protected, which takes awareness from people,” says Grant. “You need diversity in order for a city to be sustainable, but we’re seeing the same thing happen again. Too much planting all the same kind of trees.”

The largest roadblock for Ryerson is that most of the trees on campus are owned by the city — and Ryerson can’t plant on city property. It’s what Fischer calls an “ongoing border issue.

For example, for the five dying trees on Victoria Street, Ryerson’s offer to plant new trees has not been addressed by the city.

“We have to get through to the bureaucracy of Ryerson first, then we can hopefully get through to the city,” Fischer said.

Fischer came up with the idea to start planting more native trees to diversify the campus forest with a project called Nature in the City, which is supported by Arts Eco Action.

It was then passed to Grant and third-year EUS student Robert Ozimek, who have brought it to life with funding and support from the Social Venture Zone (SVZ).

Grant and Ozimek have been choosing new native trees to plant. With the support of Ryerson’s newly-launched web app,, developed by Andrew Millward, EUS program director,  students can identify tree types when walking around the urban forest on campus.

Using GPS, acts as a location device that will find where the person is and tell them about the trees in their immediate area.

The app will also become the framework for Ryerson to monitor the growth of its urban forest, as Grant and Ozimek become the new tree stewards.The app will be also updated as Nature in the City continues to plant trees on Ryerson campus.

Millward heaped praise on the students’ efforts.

“Never before have students taken initiative to do this,” he said.

What Millward says Ryerson needs is a “Strategic Urban Forest Master Plan” developed in partnership with FA Eco Action, Sustainability Matters, Leaf and the City of Toronto, for these sustainability projects to move forward and grow.

Check out the Arts Eco Action launch photo gallery here.


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