Michael Moynihan: Creating the role of tree officer shows Cork's commitment to its individuality

Cork City Council's decision suggests a resolve to enhance the city's distinctive character, and may make it a better place to live
Michael Moynihan: Creating the role of tree officer shows Cork's commitment to its individuality

Dr Eoin Lettice leading a tour of UCC's tree collection. The plant scientist highlights immediate practical positives to Cork appointing a tree officer, as well also longer-term benefits of a commitment to urban trees.

Cork City Council wants to appoint a trees officer.

The official title is “executive parks & landscape officer (tree officer)”, but the last two words in the job description are all you saw. Admit it.

This is good news for two reasons. It allows me to tell my favourite tree story at some future date — which is good news for me at least — and it’s also good news for Cork.

If you don’t believe me, ask someone who knows about trees, such as University College Cork’s (UCC) Eoin Lettice.

A plant scientist's view

“I’m a plant scientist, a botanist by any other name, in UCC’s BEES [School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences],” Lettice says.

In the last few years, he and his colleagues have been working on the tree collection in UCC. Some of those trees are 150 years old and, as a result of that work in UCC, Lettice has become involved in projects in the South Parish and Carrigtwohill on urban trees in the community, “working with community partners on tree surveys and so on”.

(Sidebar: This is the kind of partnership or co-operation we should see between UCC and the city more often, but more on that another time.)

Lettice lists the benefits brought by trees — the human health element, the mental health element, biodiversity and ecological benefits, as well as the wider issue of the climate crisis.

Going beyond 'plant blindness'

Once you get people talking about trees, Lettice says, then you can start talking about climate change.

But what about an ignoramus like me, who can’t tell his Scots pine from his silver spruce? If it wasn’t for 'The Banks’, I wouldn’t even know there are elms along the Mardyke (or “el-ums”, as most of us pronounce the word).

“There’s an idea among plant scientists, though how widely it’s discussed is another thing, called ‘plant blindness’,” Lettice tells me.

“By that I mean plant scientists trying to figure out why it is that people ignore plants.

The idea of plant blindness is that plants form the background to communities and to society, but we ignore them to a certain degree. They’re just background colour for many of us.

“And that’s OK, too. It’s not like people have to know every single species of plant or tree they see. Because of what I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, I’ve been on a fair journey myself when it comes to getting to know the species of trees.

Taking trees for granted

“But there’s a tendency to take plants for granted unless we’re interested in gardening.

We can see them as colour rather than — in the case of trees, for instance — as homes for biodiversity in the area, as homes for insects and birds and other animals.

“That’s a crucial point. A lot of people don’t put two and two together when it comes to the tree’s function as a centre for biodiversity. There are some who do, and who can be quite vocal about it but, in a sense, what I’m trying to do with some of my teaching and the work with the trees in UCC is to get people to think differently about trees — to think about them as solutions to problems rather than as problems, or thinking, ‘God, that tree’s very big’ or ‘it’s blocking out my light’.

Leafy suburbs

"People can very easily come up with issues or problems when it comes to trees, so I’ve been trying to advocate for trees and to point out that these are wonderful giants, which are working to cool down the planet and to counteract some of the worst effects of climate change.”

There are other benefits that trees bring. More, ah, immediate benefits. 

Lettice points out that “there’s good evidence to suggest that houses sell for more when they’re close to mature trees”, which makes sense. After all, the expression “leafy suburbs” comes with a hinterland of meaning that we all understand — although it seems somehow to contradict our notion of the green agenda to enter an appeal to property values in a list of pro-tree arguments.

Tree-lined oases

“There’s also evidence supporting the idea that people shop and spend more in cities which are greener or more tree-lined than others,” Lettice adds, which brought us more or less to the point of the chat.

If that’s true, and if we want to spread the notion of Cork as a tree-lined oasis, is the appointment of a tree officer a good move?

“Absolutely. I and a lot of other people have been pushing for this, including a lot of local councillors and it’s well-timed.

“It should make the city council’s job easier, for one thing.

'You don't know what you've got til it's gone'

“I’ve been drawn into discussions about the council or a private landowner cutting down trees, when locals are up in arms, but can’t do anything about it. There can be miscommunication between property owners — including the council — and the public.

“It’s the old ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’ and, going back to the plant blindness I mentioned, while people might not know the species of tree in their area, when it’s gone they miss it.

“These are controversies which have popped up over and over, and [Irish Examiner journalist] Eoin English has been in touch with me about them often enough.

Why appointing a tree officer is a good move

“Appointing a tree officer is a very good move.”

Fair enough. But what will that officer do?

“He or she could and should develop a tree strategy, which is included in the job description.

That strategy should outline reasons why trees might need to be removed, the process by which that happens and how residents in the area can be informed of what’s happening.

“If it’s proposed to remove a tree, then the tree officer can get involved in that conversation and discuss whether or not it’s necessary.

“Trees don’t last forever, either. Sometimes they have to come down or they fall down or they have to be maintained.

'Council has a tough job'

“And, in fairness, the council has a tough job, because it has to maintain trees in the public space while also keeping an eye on trees in the private space.

“It has a lot to do, which is why a tree officer is such a good idea.

He or she will also hopefully promote more tree planting, because we need huge numbers of new trees around the city. 

"Getting the locations right, the species right, those are all challenges but, overall, this is a great idea. And great news.”

Agreed.

City's commitment to its own character

This is a good move and one that the council deserves credit for. It isolates an important element of the city’s heritage — that it’s not enough to acknowledge that heritage. There must be active work done to preserve it, which often seems to be a missing part of the equation

The trees in the city can be seen as a basic test of the city’s commitment to its own character and as a choice for its citizens.

Do you want your city to be a vague facsimile of other urban environments — homogenous and bland — or individual and distinctive, adhering to the highest standards?

Appointing a tree officer looks like the latter choice to me.

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