Getting to the root of Sheffield’s Tree Dilemma

To fell, or not to fell? That is the question

The uncertain future of Sheffield’s trees is an ethical dilemma of much current debate. How much longer can Sheffield retain its position as the 6th greenest city in the UK if, since 2012, the city has lost over 10% of its street trees? Previous inadequate management of street trees has resulted in safety concerns over their effect on pavement and road surfaces; tarmac has been ruptured and paving lifted by tree roots whilst kerb stones have been pushed out into the road.  The possible courses of action have been a source of disagreement between Sheffield City Council (SCC), Amey PLC, the Independent Tree Panel (ITP), local community and action groups; the key stakeholders in this debate. The validity of the condemnation of certain trees has come under question, a situation only exacerbated by the fact that several of the trees marked for felling were planted in 1917 as a memorial to the community members who fought in World War I. In order to make an ethical judgement of the possible options for action, a black-white strategy has initially been used to categorise the possible actions into ‘for’ or ‘against’ felling.

If trees are posing a threat to the surrounding built environment, felling can provide a solution to alleviate damage. In 2012, Amey were appointed by SCC as part of the £2 billion Streets Ahead city-wide refurbishment programme to upgrade roads, pavements, street lights and bridges etc. In order to avoid unnecessary felling, Amey claims to follow a strict 6D’s system; trees should only be felled if they are “Dead, Dying, Discriminatory, Diseased, Damaging and Dangerous”. Before action can take place, affected residents should receive a survey letter from SCC. If 50% of respondents are against the felling decision, an evaluation will be made by experts on the ITP who will provide their analysis to the council to make the final decision.

Amey’s contract with SCC states that up to 50% of Sheffield’s street trees can be felled if deemed necessary by the 6D’s system. However, evaluation of felling statistics leads to some unanswered questions; a survey conducted by Amey in 2012 concluded that, according to the 6D’s criteria, 1,000 trees required felling and over 3,600 needed maintenance. If this was the case, why have 4,000 trees  (over 300% more than identified in the initial survey) been felled between 2012 and 2016?

To Fell?

Poorly managed trees can cause damage to the road, pavement and surrounding infrastructure. Cracked and uneven pavements, made narrower by protruding tree roots, cause mobility issues, limiting the manoeuvrability of wheelchairs and pushchairs. Pedestrian safety is of paramount importance; an individual is 10 times more likely to end up in hospital after a trip or fall from a pavement than be involved in a road traffic accident.

The contract between Amey and SCC states that felled trees must be replanted on a one for one basis; replanted trees better suited to urban environments would be easier to manage in terms of vertical height and root structure. Furthermore, road resurfacing could finally become more than just a short-term solution as the replanted trees could be managed in such a way that their roots would not damage the road surface.

Following this argument, a utilitarian approach to this ethical dilemma would largely support the felling of Sheffield’s trees. Tree removal will increase safety through improved road and pavement surfaces and reduced structural threat from overmature trees, thus bringing greater happiness to the majority.  Additionally, a Kantian ethical theory, where action justification depends on agreement with a norm or rule, further supports the felling of trees. The local council has an obligation to provide safe passage along public roads as legislated in the Highways Act of 1980; the action of tree felling is therefore in agreement with this norm.

Or Not to Fell?

Environmentally, there is naturally a strong argument against the felling of Sheffield’s trees. Trees act as carbon sinks; the 4,000 trees felled since 2012 have resulted in an additional 87,000kg of CO2  in the atmosphere. This is equivalent to 32 extra cars being driven on Sheffield’s roads for one year. Although the Streets Ahead contract stipulates tree replacement on a one for one basis, it is difficult to determine the timescale in which this will be achieved. Furthermore, the ability of a younger tree to absorb CO2 and pollutants is about 1/60 of that of a mature tree.

Sheffield currently possesses more trees per person that any other city in Europe; a statistic that may be under threat by the actions of Amey and SCC. On the global environmental scale, unnecessary felling has many wide-reaching consequences and applying a utilitarian approach deems the action unwarranted as it will not bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. .

Group16pic1.jpg

At this point in our ethical evaluation, it seems pertinent to discuss another key stakeholder; the relatives of those for whom Sheffield’s trees act as a memorial. Trees planted in 1917 are in remembrance of the servicemen who lost their lives fighting for their country in WW1. The significance of such memorials is clear; memorial trees on Oxford Street are registered at The War Memorials Trust and the Imperial War Museums Memorials Register. Furthermore, the memorials could be the earliest of their kind given that they were planted before the end of the war. However, in the centenary of their planting, Amey and SCC have condemned 9 of the 31 trees on Oxford and Tay Street, a decision that is being met with strong resistance from the community when other alternatives to felling are believed to exist, such as the installation of flexible surfacing solutions.

There is a certain level of respect that should be paid to war memorials and it is extremely important that future generations never forget the sacrifices that were made by young men and women from all around the world during WW1 and successive conflicts. Kant’s ethical framework focuses on actions in agreement with a norm or rule. When disrespect has been shown to war memorials such as cenotaphs in the past, the perpetrators have received a heavy punishment for their criminal offence. In this vein, is the act of arguably unnecessary tree felling just as disrespectful and an action that would never be supported according to the norm? Considering virtue ethics, is it morally right for Amey to fell these trees?

A question arises to conclude this ethical dilemma; is the current decision framework sufficiently robust to provide the most ethically sound solution?

Group 16: Jack Law, Emma Robinson, Vanessa Morgan & Martha Mason

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43 thoughts on “Getting to the root of Sheffield’s Tree Dilemma

  1. Interesting article and debate. The ethical impact of felling memorial trees is clear – surely these should be protected and not categorized by the 6D’s system as per the rest of Sheffield’s street trees.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The memorial trees have legal protection as a registered war memorial. The research undertaken by concerned citizens has helped to prevent a rather serious and potentially actionable situation.

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  2. The over-zealous felling of trees is simply down to Amey plc maximising their profits on a fixed cost contract, as tree free roads are cheaper to maintain (paths/roads need repairing less, and trees require less tending to). SCC are complicit in this, as it’s a ‘good deal’ for them. However it’s destroying healthy trees will make Sheffield a (even more) dreary soulless place!

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against felling diseased trees, as they can do more harm then good, but for goodness sake, replace them! Let’s take a leaf out of Singapore’s book and embrace wildlife/nature/foliage, and live in a symbiotic relationship in our urban environments. The alternative is that we live in a grey concrete jungle, void of things of beauty, and then, really, whats the point of living at all?

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  3. Issues such as these really highlight the importance of community resistance. It is no wonder environmental activisim is on the rise – it’s a shame public-elected bodies such as the SCC are under the thumb of corporations such as Amey PLC. However, there must be a balance between what the community wants and the need to create a sustainable environment on a local scale to curb our global environmental crisis.

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  4. Very interesting article. Not only shows the value of keeping trees but regrettably is another example of the public sector failing to manage a valuable community asset and then looking to a simplistic solution that overstates the risks and fails to protect the environment.

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  5. Thought provoking article, Amey need to be specific about the numbers of trees they can replant and when. Trees do cause huge problems to property and the roads but have significant benefits for the community.

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  6. Great read! Very interesting to consider which is the more ethical choice; safe passage alongside roads currently or clean air and green spaces for future community residents.

    In my opinion the answer to the final question is clear, that the current solution is far from the most ethically viable. The felling of roadside trees at such a rate without the full implementation of the 1:1 replacement system is fundamentally flawed. Investment in further green spaces, in new surfacing methods, and in the future of clean air in the city ought to be paramount in the search for a more ethical solution.

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  7. Interesting and thoughtful account. Trees are being felled because of inadequate care by earlier councils which has led to root damage to pavements. However, felling is not the only way to deal with this. Where the tree is otherwise healthy, the damage caused by poor practice in the past can be repaired in a way that will prevent further damage. In the long term, this will probably be more cost effective as it will retain the trees, the improvements they make to the air quality and the support they give to the wildlife of Sheffield. It will also retain the status of ‘greenest city’ which attracts visitors. The one-for-one replacement is faulty as firstly, the new trees are not well planted or maintained and too many of them die or are destroyed by vandals and secondly, they are not the type of tree that provides the broad leaf canopy of the existing trees to which our wildlife is adapted. As a small case study: Sheffield University felled quite a few mature trees during the development of the ‘student village’ on Endcliffe Vale Road. There were fewer owls evident in the area for several years afterwards, and I suspect numbers are still not back to their pre-felling level. The number of bats fell dramatically, and I have not seen these return.

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  8. There is no ethical reason for any healthy tree to be felled Amey could use any of the alternatives in the contract without it costing Sheffield any extra If we are talking ethics perhaps SCC should make Amey use these alternatives

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  9. Very interesting article. It seems that the trees are now paying for under investment in their maintenance .
    There are increased worries regarding air pollution in cities, Large healthy trees help to improve neighbourhood air quality and make us healthier and happier.
    Maintain them, don’t fell them .

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    1. Sometimes trees make air pollution worse, by restricting airflow reducing the effectiveness of wind blowing harmful airborne particles away, and by release of volatile organic hydrocarbons… odd but true fact, in, wait for it, THE GUARDIAN!!! (weren’t expecting that, were you now?).

      But as for happier, I completely agree with you. Many a time has an old oak tree caused a smile to enter cross my foremostly forlorn face.

      https://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/may/13/thisweekssciencequestions3

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  10. A few further ponts to consider.

    1. The majority of street trees scheduled for felling are in good health and have extensive lifespans during which they would provide sustained benefits.
    2. The tripping hazard caused by surface disruption is overstated. A very tiny number of incidents are known to have been recorded over many years.
    3. Solutions such as flexi-pave are available as an option to mitigate surface disruption. At the time of writing you could call the manufacturer to see if the Council has been in touch. I know the answer.
    4. Expert analysis by University of Sheffield academics concerning the survey conducted for the ITP calls into serious don’t it’s methodology and outcomes. Document available on request.
    5. No asset valuation has been conducted on the threatened trees using widely accepted methods such as CAVAT and iTREE. QED no cost- benefit analysis can have been properly conducted. Assets are behing destroyed that are likely worth tens of thousands.

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  11. I’d be very upset if I lived there and a large gust of wind blew a diseased tree onto my house. As long as replacements are planted I can’t see an issue. Perhaps they could plant two trees for every one they cut down – one where the old one stood and another somwhere else in the city.

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    1. The problem is they are cutting healthy trees with much life left on them for profit purpose, nobody is against cutting diseased or dead trees

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    2. Did you read the article or subsequent comments? We are not disputing diseased trees either! 84% condemned are HEALTHY with decades, if not centuries, of life left in them. Condemned at the peak if their environmental benefits.
      To fell for profit is not in the public interest. To fell “because we might not be able to afford to replace them later” is just ridiculous and environmental negligence and vandalism.

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  12. This issue is all about the privatisation of a public resource, namely our streets, pavement and street trees.

    Take the trees on the street in Crookes, Western Road, where I live. Here is their trajectory:

    1) About 100 trees were planted here in 1919 to remember students from a local school who had fought in WW1. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the city and the world were suffering great trauma after the supposed ‘war to end all wars.” At the dedication ceremony on 4 April 1919, Sheffield city councillor J. Kay said: “Keep these trees free from damage.” (The Sheffield Independent, 5 April 1919)

    2) The funds for their planting came from a public subscription drive, presumably organised by mostly working class residents here in Crookes.

    3) The trees were then transferred to the care of the Sheffield City Council.

    4) SCC never looked after them properly.

    5) Today, 56 trees are still alive and SCC/and Amey want to fell 23 of them….and all of which are healthy.

    6) For the Labour Party-controlled SCC today to agree the essential privatisation of these street trees — and others all across Sheffield — and to put them under a control of a multinational contracting corporation and its profit dictates is…. well, bloody scandalous.

    In short, a THEFT from the people of our city.

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  13. A well written article that explains both sides of the argument. The more you look into the way in which trees are chosen for felling the more you realise the flawed system of choosing which trees are to be destroyed, and the craven manner in which the council have ignored reasoned discussion, protests by responsible residents and adverse reporting by national and local television, radio, newspapers and social media.
    The “survey” carried out by the council was a sham. Letters giving a unique code were sent out only to residents who lived on the affected roads in envelopes that looked like junk mail. Two weeks later the survey was opened online for ten days and could only be answered by one person per household. The questions were worded in a very leading manner making it very difficult to answer in a way that said that we wanted the roads and pavements to be improved but not at the expense of losing the mature trees. Many people had lost the letter with the unique code so they couldn’t respond.Others forgot to look for the survey when it was available to see.
    The council then added everyone who didn’t respond to the survey as agreeing with the council policy of felling the trees, you really couldn’t make it up!
    Amey have acted poorly in many parts of the city. The fiasco of Rustlings Road brought them into disrepute, along with South Yorkshire Police. Again. The contract gives them over 14 engineering solutions to improve the pavements and the kerbs whilst keeping the mature trees in place. However when pressed to demonstrate where these measures have been implemented in the city, there are very few examples to be seen. Other cities have used flexible paving and other methods with great success.
    The special significance of the trees on Western Road, Oxford Street and Tay Street has had no effect on the council to date. At a time when we are commemorating the centenary of the battles of the First World War the council seem hell-bent on removing many of the trees that were planted to remember the local soldiers that were killed in the service of their country.
    At a time when the air quality in the city is worsening due to diesel engines there has never been a greater need for mature trees to help clean the air that we breathe. One mature tree is equivalent to sixty saplings. Hopefully when the saplings are mature we will be travelling around the city in much cleaner vehicles but we need help now as we transition from diesel to electric vehicles. Cutting down thousands of mature trees at this time cannot be seen as anything other than a particularly crazy policy carried out by inept politicians. In years to come this PFI contract will be held up as a prime example of how not to do things but the trees will be gone.

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  14. Its more complex than this. Some trees are better at absorbing pollutants than others. Some are not helpful. Some trees if removed may actually damage the nearby properties by creating ground heave. From a partially sighted person’t point of view a dirty great tree is far easier to see than the thin replacements and the thin black street lights. Places that have had large trees removed are liable to dangerous pavement parking which can damage the young trees. High winds have snapped the small trees so they are too small to be resilient. Crime rates in areas that have a lot of foliage are lot lower than areas that don’t. There is less depression in areas where there are trees visible outside. Large trees keep the temperature lower in Urban environments. An important fact in a world where temperatures in Summer are rising to new heights. They also slow down rainfall. Many of the areas they are removing trees from because of pavement disturbance are in quiet backroads so extending pavements and narrowing roads can only help as will slow down traffic in residential areas. Incoming investors are more likely to pick areas with a high number of street trees. The Councils own assessment says trees in a street add an extra 18% to the value of property in that street. Of course some trees have to be removed but not the 50% the Council have agreed to.

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  15. Very intresting subject to read about. Although the 6d’s system could be considered a resonable way of chosing wether a tree gets felled or not, felling trees planted to remember memorial events should surely be protected. There must be other arrangments that could be made to reduce the inpact these trees have on pavments and roads without felling them. With such a large budget more must be able to be done.

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    1. The “6d’s” is not a system it is council/Amey mantra, a list of pigeon hole names the council come out with when nearly all of the trees to be felled fall into the last two “Damaging” and “Discriminatory” for damaging read Kerb line is not laser straight. Tree selection seems to be arbitrary more akin to random selection to fulfil an agreed quata. For discriminatory read don’t challenge this at your peril it is politically correctness hiding a lame excuse – slight undulations in the tarmac that could be fixed or a temporary narrowing of the pathway that does not allow TWO wheelchairs to pass at same time. Typically the replacement will have all the same ‘problems’ eg a new sapling requires stakes for many years that use up the same or more of the pavement. Replacements are not planted properly and will have shallow roots that will have the same effect on the pavement as the roots that the council leave in place after felling.

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  16. A very interesting read. It seems to me that the disadvantages that trees bring can be readily managed, if enough resources are so allocated. However, the positive impact of trees on residents’ well-being is multifaceted and difficult to calculate or replicate in other ways. Investing in order to prevent tree felling unless absolutely necessary therefore seems to me to be an excellent and equitable use of those residents’ hard-earned council tax contributions.

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  17. This is not about safety, as I have complained about uneven pavements and Amey told me they sent an inspector who deemed the pavement fine. Even though the pavement is more uneven and has more cracked slabs than BEFORE they did work on it.

    This is purely a money saving scheme. However its not going to do that long-term as peoples health gets worse due to a lack of trees. Houses are hotter, more pollution, more sun burn, the burden will just be placed on the NHS where it will cost a lot more than using proper engineering solution to retain the trees. But of course, Amey do not have to worry about that.

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  18. Trees are the lungs of the city and are vital for human health and environmental well-being.
    SCC must face up to their current responsibilities to the people of Sheffield and for their welfare in the future.
    The article makes several pertinent points about some current trees restricting access to footpaths and being a potential danger to property so with a heavy heart I reluctantly agree that felling should be considered. However, the 1:1 replacement policy MUST be rigorously enforced.
    The trees which were planted to commemorate the brave souls who gave their lives in the First World War could be replaced in a dedicated memorial woodland sited close to the city centre thereby providing a peaceful area for quiet reflection.
    Other trees could be replaced in dedicated tree zones at the end of streets where 5 or 6 trees would provide areas of spiritual refreshment and contact with the seasons. No-one in Sheffield should have to walk further than the end of their road to find a tree zone. To enable this happen, each plot of land which became available to SCC, must be considered for designation as a tree zone. It would be expensive but all investments in our future have a cost and ultimately, this one is life saving.

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  19. Balanced and interesting article. Still fundamentally believe that whatever the solution by the council provided it should focus on the fundamental identity of Sheffield being a green city and having a pro-tree attitude – both in the short term and long term. I think the amount of protest alone is a sheer indicator that the people of Sheffield are unhappy with the solution, and that the lengths the council went to research public opinion were simply not good enough.

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  20. This is a difficult problem, it seems very apparent that is the trees are unsafe or causing structural damage than that cannot be allowed to continue. However there is clearly a community feeling of a sense of ownership of the trees. If they are cut down then it does leave the streets looking bare and featureless. One suggestion might be sculpting the trees with appropriate themes. And replanting smaller trees at intervals in between existing trees. That way you have an interesting feature and some preservation of the existing trees whilst they are waiting for new smaller trees to become established

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  21. The photos show trees on Western Rd where I reside, ( strangely not mentioned in the article). SCC could have used this opportunity to make a one way street, thereby giving space to build the pavement out into the road to save the trees. The road would become safer for all the children walking up and down to the primary school, less pollution from cars and maintaining the benefits from having pollutant absorbing trees. Trees could be replaced as and when required due to age or disease. As a memorial it would never have been envisaged to last forever….the trees will eventually need replacing. Trees would be all developing at different rates and so the impact would not be felt by residents so greatly. The trees have only been pruned once in the 27 years I have lived here. Trees have occasionally been cut down and never replaced. The clock can’t be turned back….but hopefully trees can be planted all over the city to replace those removed by Amey in the last few years. Meanwhile surely a compromise can be reached to save some mature trees for a few more decades while new trees have chance to bcome established.

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  22. Very interesting and balanced blog. Maintaining the memorial trees is to me of upmost importance, a living memorial that represents much to many. Moving a cenotaph or other such memorial would never be considered. There must be a way, with modern knowhow, to maintain these trees and provide safe pavements and walkways to residents? For the other trees, the felling of diseased and dangerous trees does unfortunately seem to be in the best interests of the community. I agree with a number of the comments here in that, after such felling, the council could endeavour to provide alternative localised green spaces to provide places of relaxation and contemplation for the community, whilst maintaining Sheffield’s reputation as a leading green city. Could other healthier trees be relocated to such areas if they also had to be felled?

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  23. Diseased and dangerous trees do need to be cut down, however, as much as possible healthy trees need to be preserved, or, else we will just turn into a concrete jungle.

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  24. This article raises some good points on the issue of both felling trees and road safety. I travel into Sheffield via car fairly regularly and I can definitely agree that some of the roads are very unsafe, especially for cyclists.

    So if the root cause of these terrible roads are the growing trees, I feel something will have to be done. I don’t fully agree with felling but I would agree with them being removed following the 6D system, under one condition, that one large tree being removed requires ten more trees being planted. To make up for less CO2 being removed from the air, as one smaller tree would not be sufficient.
    When considering the trees that were planted from 1917, ideally I would like them to stay, due to the fact it is a very good memorial for those who have lost their lives fighting for this countries freedom. If this is not possible then the tree should be moved, again this could be difficult, perhaps if the tree could be used to grow ten new trees I would be more understanding of the felling.

    Either way I think something need to be done to look after the roads better and to maintain the statistic of Sheffield having the most trees per person than any other city in Europe.

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    1. Thomas – You wrote: ” If the root cause of these terrible roads are the growing trees, I feel something will have to be done.” The problem is the first word: ” IF.” Trees are not the cause. For decades, SCC has not looked after the trees….and trees DO need attention and management. And the way to manage them now in 2017 is not to chain saw them.

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    2. Thomas – our roads have been unsafe because the lack of investment in them for decades by our Labour Council, not wholly because of the trees… if at all. The trees have put kerbs out of line (who drives or cycles along the kerb edge?) and they have ruffled the pavement creating humps where successive workmen have put yet another layer if tarmac on.
      Yes we wanted our roads and pavements resurfacing (and the majority are now done) but we never expected our trees to subsidise the contract!

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  25. Interesting dilemma. Chop down a memorial to those that saved our way of life, or leave the trees to cause problems for those they saved.
    Personally I’d remove them. We live in the here and now and need to take actions to make the area safe for the current inhabitants. Will take careful management of the arguments put forward though. Perhaps build a new memorial in memory of those that served to ease the way in to removing the trees?

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    1. The Trees are only a 100 years old which is adolescent for a tree. They aren’t sick and are useful in fighting the air pollution the city is badly suffering from. So it is not only about memorial trees. That is just the irony that on the Centenary we are chopping down these trees. Leaving our children and our children’s children with less healthy environment due to the felling of several thousand trees because our Council won’t insist AMEY does as it has done in other cities and protect every health tree that is not dangerous. Some trees have to go but the original estimate was a couple of hundred with less that 10’000 that needed some remedial work. Meanwhile in this systematic slaughter dangerous trees are being left to fall on people’s cars because they are not yet on the timetable for felling. How insane is that?

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  26. If the trees are healthy, we have to keep them. We need to be aware of creeping urbanisation and the need to retain green spaces. Even discounting the links with the war memorials, the trees have to be preserved if at all possible. Alternative solutions should be sought such as the development of more damage resistant road and pavement surfaces rather than the indiscriminate felling of healthy trees.

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  27. A very interesting blog, I think it would be a real shame to cut down the trees given that they’re memorials, secondly they add character to sheffield by maintaining a green theme.
    It is annoying however that the roads and paths are so badly damaged from the tree roots but as an ex-tree surgeon I know that the roots of trees continue to grow for some time after the tree has been felled and so the problem will still remain, the trees should therefore be left alone.

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    1. It is annoying the roots disturbing the pavement but there are remedies for many of the trees that have been successfully applied elsewhere. Also in other cases it really isn’t a big problem as the streets are quiet suburban streets that a slight widening of the pavement would only result in stopping cars using the street as a rat run so not a problem at all. Lastly because of the type of geology and lay of the land there is the danger of groundheave following the removal of the tree.

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  28. The United kingdom Forestry Standard (UKFS) is the government’s approach to sustainable forest management. Trees on the highway represent the urban forest. (Trees in Towns 2. Johnston)
    The UKFS defines sustainability as “The stewardship and use of forest lands in a way and at a rate that maintains their potential to fulfill, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions at local, national and global levels. ”
    Sustainable tree population management is about the maintenance and optimisation of CANOPY COVER in each land use category. It is NOT the number of trees.
    To fully replace the ecosystem benefits of one healthy mature tree you would need to plant 40 to 60 saplings.
    The level of felling in Sheffield is manifestly unsustainable! At a time when Sheffield has been placed on the danger list for dangerously high levels of pollution directly attributable to traffic fumes it beggars belief that we are seeing tree CANOPY cover reduced so drastically.

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