When I first moved to London, I thought that the Brits had a pretty good relationship with trees.

This pleased me. I grew up in downtown Toronto, Canada, where residential streets (even in the very centre of the city) are completely lined with maple trees everywhere you go. Here’s a picture of the street I grew up on circa 1997 or so.

Isn’t that lovely?

Walking home from school, I used to spend ages staring at the leaves overhead, feeling dwarfed and comforted by the canopy that towered far above.


Trees are crucial for any city. This isn’t just my opinion, this is a fact. They make it shady and cooler in the summer, reduce smog, absorb storm water, prevent soil erosion, suck up carbon dioxide (and thus mitigate climate change), produce oxygen, and muffle noise. Some say you can actually measure the benefits in solid dollar amounts – the US Forestry Service found that in a fifty year lifespan the average tree generates generates $31,250 worth of oxygen, provides $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion.

But, more than that, trees just make us feel better. Some studies claim that patients with views of trees from their hospital windows heal faster, and that trees significantly improve relaxation and well being in research subjects – but we don’t really need a study to tell us that, do we? We didn’t come down from the trees that long ago, it makes sense that we should feel nice to have them around.

Toronto is basically unparalleled when it comes to its urban forest. It’s often said that the city boasts more trees per area than any other big city. I’m not sure if this is entirely true, but this pamphlet from the city of Toronto says that there are 7 million trees in the city – more than two for every resident. This is in great part due to the fact that the city forces home owners to have trees, by law (I think it’s something like one tree on a front lawn for every other house). Try and cut a tree down – yes, even one on your own property – and you will be fined up the wazoo.

Most people wouldn’t think of hurting the trees in their neighbourhood, though. Torontonians positively adore their trees. Check out this great piece in the Toronto Star about the efforts people are going to in order to save the city’s oldest elm tree.

Sadly, most of the world’s big cities are not so protective of their greenery, or even have much to speak of. I was worried that a life in a teeming metropolis like London would mean a life less shady. But when I first came to London I lived in South Kensington, where there are many big, stocky plane trees about.

Not bad – there could be more trees along the street, but those are nice and big at least.

Again, not bad – there could be more of them, but those sure are lovely green beasts right there.

So, like I was saying, when I first lived in London, I thought the Brits had an ok relationship with their trees. But at this point I lived in one of the richest areas in the city (lodging with my grandparents) – if you move farther out into less affluent neighbourhoods the picture is very different indeed.

Obviously it varies from place to place, but this photo of my mother’s neighbourhood in East Ham, in East London, is pretty typical.

Here’s another one from one of my favourite areas, Stoke Newington – which is more affluent and trendy, but even more lacking in trees (on this street anyways).

As I spent more and more time in London’s more distal areas, I really started to get the feeling that Londoners really aren’t all that fond of big trees. I mean, look at the pathetic stumps on the plane trees in the picture from my mother’s street. All over London, once a year tree surgeons rob the upmost branches of their new twigs to prevent the roots from “over” growing and cracking the concrete, and to prevent leaves from falling into the street and becoming a “nuisance” in the fall.

(Um, hello? It’s called FALL for a reason. You’re supposed to enjoy it. Raking leaves and making big piles to jump in is an inalienable right of every child.)

Now, you might think that London is lacking in trees because the city is old, and that the mammoth trees planted a hundred years ago are just dying out. This is partially true.

But a report from the London Authority says that 40,000 trees have been cut down by the city’s councils in the past five years. All over the city Londoners have been tearing down their trees because they see them as a nuisance – a source of pesky leaves in the gutter, a perch for birds to sit on and poop on cars, an opportunity for children to climb and hurt themselves.

But, according to this lengthy piece from The Guardian, “the real villain is the insurance industry.”

If a hairline crack appeared in your spare room 40 years ago, you shrugged your shoulders and decorated over it. In the 1970s, however, subsidence became an insurance peril – insured for and claimable – and what Andy Tipping [chairman of the London Tree Officers’ Association] calls the “insurance merry-go-round” began. It spins like this: householders and insurance companies find it easiest to blame street trees. Consultants who assess claims can lose their own professional insurance if they do not cover every conceivable cause of subsidence, so they, too, blame trees. Councils then face expensive claims to which the cheapest solution is to do the insurance company’s bidding and remove the suspect street tree. “Everyone is frightened of insurance companies. They’ve created a Frankenstein’s monster,” says Tipping. “What we are faced with today is someone coming along, seeing a tree by a house, pointing their finger at the tree and saying, ‘That’s the problem.'”

According to this excellent piece from The Times, “Some 40 per cent of the trees felled are due to insurance claims, according to the assembly report, of which perhaps 1 per cent were justified.”

Aaaahhh, the insurance companies – now that makes a lot more sense than mild-mannered English people hacking down their own greenery out of spite and ignorance. I wouldn’t put any devious act past the insurance industry. Remember when they refused to pay out to Hurricane Katrina victims for hurricane damage because they claimed their homes had been damaged by “flood” instead? Charming, that was.

So maybe I’m being too hard on the Brits. Maybe this isn’t really a case of them being loony, but just being lazy and complacent about the defoliation of their capital. But for whatever reason one of the world’s greatest cities is losing about 8,000 trees a year, new ones aren’t going to grow on their own (at least, not anytime soon), and the ones that remain aren’t going to last long unless they are given some legal protection. If things continue at this rate London could truly become unbearable to live in.

Screw the insurance industry and put in some bloody by-laws. If cities in the “colonies” can figure it out, surely the motherland can.

This is the second part of the series, “The lunacy of the British.” The series will continue until I stop finding things about them to complain about…which will probably never happen. You can read the first installment, with an explanation of the inspiration for the posts, here.