Bristol plans to double its tree cover and achieve carbon neutrality in the next 30 years – could your council do the same?

17 Oct 2019


A £4 million, five-year management contract for maintaining Bristol’s trees – and a determination to double Bristol’s tree canopy – got the green light from Bristol’s council cabinet in June. Here we look at the thinking behind Bristol’s urban forest ambitions.

Like the famous Netflix show Parks & Recreation it all starts with the politics of coping with budget cuts – plus an ambitious vision to plant a lot more trees.

One City Plan

"People in Bristol really do care about their parks and green spaces and they make their voices known," says Bristol City Councillor Asher Craig, recalling the citywide outcry when residents realised that their street trees could no longer be managed through pollarding (a type of pruning).

It looked as if street trees would rapidly start declining and then be removed, never to be replaced. "They were really angry and upset about the reduction in the parks’ budget. But we are an administration that listens to what people have to say and will amend proposals or withdraw them."

It’s this ready-to-listen democracy that makes Bristol stand out as a council that is making efforts to tackle climate change.

Bristol’s One City Plan is a 30-year vision of what Bristolians want for their city.

Launched in January 2019, the aim (says Mayor Marvin Reeds) is to create "an inclusive, sustainable city that both breaks down our social fractures and inequalities and reaches carbon neutrality."

One City Plan sets yearly targets but takes pride in being a flexible document created to harness the willingness of the community to get involved and imagine their city as a better, more sustainable place in 2030.

But as the One City Plan was being compiled it was clear there were hundreds of unaligned city strategies, a muddle of disconnected city boards and very few plans looking further than just four years ahead (to 2022). A situation that most councils probably share.

What’s different for Bristol is the care they are putting into collaborative community involvement.

Civic leadership in the face of budget cuts

This new style of civic leadership is one that Asher Craig – selected as Labour Councillor for St George West, Bristol in May 2016 – really rates.

Cllr Craig has already spent 30 years as a community activist, in particular championing the social economic development of people of BME and under-represented communities. She’s now Bristol’s Deputy Mayor with responsibility for Communities, Equalities & Public Health.

Like every council, Bristol has faced severe cutbacks. In Cllr Craig’s portfolio this included overseeing the Parks budget which fell from £6 million to £2 million over five years.

"Our citizens love their parks, trees and green spaces, and the public health benefits are innumerable, but the previous administration had left an enormous financial hole," says Cllr Craig.

"People were coming up to me and saying they would be prepared to pay an extra £10 a month to their council tax just to maintain trees in their street! So, we made a decision that we couldn’t cut the budget anymore, but we needed to try and develop cost-neutral parks’ projects."

"A lot of what we are doing in parks and green spaces is embedded in the One City Plan," she adds, and that includes the ambitious plan to double Bristol’s tree cover by 2046.

The value of trees in Bristol

There are already 600,000 trees growing in Bristol. And these trees work hard: they are worth £280 million to the city, as calculated by the i-tree Eco 6 survey (Benefits of Trees in Bristol) funded by the Woodland Trust, Bristol City Council, Forestry Commission and the Forest of Avon Trust.

Breaking the figures down, those trees store 360,000 tonnes of CO2 and remove about 14,000 tonnes more each year, equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of 9,000 cars.

They look beautiful of course, but other environmental services provided by trees in Bristol include the annual removal of 100 tonnes of air pollution. They also reduce flood risk by soaking up 90,000 cubic metres of water that would otherwise run into drains and cost £140,000 annually to process.

Doubling tree cover

Approximately 1,300 hectares of Bristol is currently covered in trees – and for half the year when the leaves are out that’s 13km2 of glossy green canopy. Adding to this will enhance wellbeing, boost mental health, provide a network of food for insects, birds and mammals, reduce flood risk and bring life, colour and character to the city as well as reducing noise and offering shade and shelter.

As Head of Parks, Richard Ennion explains, the plan to double Bristol’s trees has multiple benefits ranging from environmental to social justice:

  • More trees in the right place supports other measures to reduce flood risk, improve air quality, reduce summer heat stress.
  • Biggest benefit is health – attractive green spaces make people feel better. We will be putting trees into the heart of communities especially where there is little or no green infrastructure. We don’t have all the tools to measure this right now – but we know it is true.
  • Planting trees where there will be greatest environmental gain – see Nature Recovery Network – developed and published by West of England Nature Partnership.

For people in Bristol there are already 4 obvious major changes:

  • There’s a new agreement about how to share costs with the Merchant Venturers (a charitable organisation) at the iconic 160 hectare site, The Downs.
  • Lighter mowing schedules (which means for some green spaces what were lawns now look more like meadows).
  • An invitation for communities to become far more involved in landscape maintenance.
  • A determination to bring more resources into the city by accessing different sources of funds.

Grants and support

Bristol has already lucked out with a big grant from the Future Parks Accelerator (a £10 million pot run by National Lottery Community Fund, National Lottery Heritage Fund and Nesta).

"It was competitive as nearly 80 cities applied, but we got the highest award for our bid, nearly £1 million for the Bristol Parks Prospectus," says Cllr Craig.

In addition to this project, Bristol City Council and Bath & North East Somerset Council have joined forces to develop an independent Parks Foundation to support public parks across the two cities.

The councils have jointly been awarded almost £200,000 from innovation foundation NESTA, as part of their Rethinking Parks Programme, to to try and develop investment and engagement opportunities to sustain and enhance parks across both cities.

The project will build on, and learn from, the work of the Bournemouth Parks Foundation - the pioneering Foundation that was supported by Rethinking Parks in 2014.

What trees and where?

At its simplest doubling Bristol’s tree canopy by 2046 means getting every Bristol resident to plant three new trees each. That would see another 1,316 hectares of new trees with around 53 hectares of new trees planted each year for the next 25 years.

It is also a way of tackling the gaps that are being caused by fungal ash disease.

There is a considerable amount of council land that could be planted, but next steps will be to pick which sites are suitable.

Mark Ashdown, chair of the Bristol Tree forum, thinks changes are embedded across all the council’s activities:

"Ensuring that planners and developers always think ‘tree’, making sure that enough land is set aside for tree planting, protecting existing trees and ensuring that adequate funding is made available."

Planting and managing trees in urban areas often causes feelings to run high. There can be issues with trees blocking light, being blamed for house movement/subsidence and even increasing hay-fever suffering.

Similarly, parks and developers may remove much loved trees causing upset. In just the month of June a petition calling for Emergency Tree Protection Orders for all Bristol city trees after five mature Norway maple trees were felled by a development company on Lower Ashley Road was supported by 2,900 signatures.

Cllr Craig says: "We recognise the environmental and health benefits that trees bring to the city and a new tree strategy would be clearer about the way we manage the city’s street trees so we need to offer reassurance to residents and communities that we will do this in a sensible way.

"The council has a duty to ensure that our trees are not putting anyone’s health and safety at risk and the new strategy would help to ensure that they are properly inspected and improve their management and maintenance."

What’s without doubt is that in Bristol it looks as if the next generation are going to have plenty of opportunities to get involved.

"We are going to continue with the One Tree Per Child initiative in primary and secondary schools," says Cllr Craig, referring to the scheme which has already seen 57,000 trees planted in primary schools over the past four years. There’s now a budget of £90,000 over the next two years.

Cllr Craig has been happy to get her boots muddy too. "I’ve planted about 30-40 trees for new canopy cover next to south Bristol crematorium on the A4. It was great fun. I think the Parks staff thought I’d be airy fairy and do one tree and the photo opp. But I got going and they were extremely impressed. It felt really great too as my brother is buried in the cemetery next door so now when I go and visit his grave, I can also pop down and see my efforts."

Any advice?

Bristol was one of the first cities to sign up to the Climate Emergency, but the determination to make the city’s parks and green spaces fit for future changes seems to come as much from letting Bristolians get more involved in their management, rather than passively waiting for the council to do it.

Talking on the phone from her home in a tree lined street, Cllr Craig is adamant that becoming a councillor helps make a difference.

"I call myself an accidental. I was always on the outside but as you get older, and my kids have grown up, I thought let’s take a punt.

"And if you’ve got an administration like the one we’ve got, with a mayor and distributed leadership then you can get on and get things done.

"I’ve got into politics at a watershed moment because we had elected our first mayor of African Caribbean descent in a city known for slavery.

"Challenges still remain but people feel as if they are more invested in Bristol because someone who looks like them fights for them," she says.

As for the councillors it really wasn’t a battle.

"The sums didn’t add up: we had to find alternative ways of doing things. Lot of councillors were already in touch with Friends of Park Forums and with people already making their voice known…

"There is always going to be some push back from a few voices. It would be better if they could give us alternatives. Our mayor has always made it clear that we need to get stuff done, we need people to offer solutions.

"We are all on the same side even if we may have different ways of doing things.”

More info

One City Plan & Approach