Cambridge City Council Launch a New Pilot Project to Protect & Grow the City’s Tree Population

By Joshua Dowding, Ciéra Cree & Gabs Bennington – On the 13th March, The Ruskin Journal was invited to the Guildhall, Market Square, to conduct an interview with Dr. Matthew Ling of Cambridge City Council…

By Joshua Dowding, Ciéra Cree & Gabs Bennington

On the 13th March, The Ruskin Journal was invited to the Guildhall, Market Square, to conduct an interview with Dr. Matthew Ling of Cambridge City Council regarding the launch of the Cambridge Canopy Project – a local initiative to protect and grow the city’s existing tree canopy cover. As Project Leader, Dr. Ling had been eager to share some of the details of the project with us, and we have transcribed some of the interview that followed for the convenience of our readers.

The Cambridge Canopy Project

This project is part of a larger ‘umbrella’ initiative called Nature-Smart Cities which includes other institutions such as Imperial College London and Southend-On-Sea Borough Council. The initiative will fund a number of pilot studies to ‘deploy green infrastructure solutions in an effort to help fight climate change’ – the Cambridge Canopy Project will be one such pilot. The initiative operates in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, as well as England, with another pilot project based in Southend-on-Sea, in addition to Cambridge.

The Council estimates that there are more than 300,000 trees, whether they’re on public or private land, throughout Cambridge, which equates to about 17% tree canopy cover by land area – whereas the average cover for cities in the UK sits at around 8%. Despite being ‘quite well-treed already’, the aim of this project is to uplift that coverage to 19% by 2050. To achieve this uplift, the Council told us that a total of 16,000 new trees will need to be planted throughout the city. Of these, 2,000 will be planted on Council-owned land and 1,500 will be given away through existing schemes, which leaves 12,500 trees that the Council want to ‘encourage the public’ to plant on their own private land.

‘There’s a real benefit to having areas of shade to help reduce the heat island effect in cities. For instance, having tree-lined streets with permanently shaded pavement, it could be 20 degrees cooler than it would be if it were not shaded […] That’s without thinking of [the] trees themselves physically and how they reduce air temperature just through transpiration.’ – Dr. Ling

The trees that the Council intend to plant will be more robust than those that would be planted in more rural areas, we were told. Standing at around 2 to 3 metres tall (on average) and measuring at around 6 to 8cm in diameter, Dr. Ling explained that these young trees would need to be able to withstand a life that could see them being used as make-shift bike stands, goalposts, sun shelters, targets for vandalism, and other risks to the tree’s well-being.

However, there will be limitations to where the Council can plant their 2,000 trees. Cambridge has a lot of private land that ‘can’t be touched’ by the Council itself, and even in the ‘public realm’, there have been a significant number of areas labelled as ‘unplantable’ such as near roads, pavements, brooks and rivers. Although some locations have been identified as potential candidates, Dr. Ling explained that ‘this will include some planting in the city’s parks and green open spaces’. But, as clarified, the project will focus on planting in areas that will not require lengthy public consultations or complex decisions.

‘We have [the] funding to do [this]. With purchasing a tree, the manpower to plant it, some materials like tree stakes and [tree] ties, and hydration bags, it’s coming out at around £150 per tree […] but we obviously can’t plant 100,000 [trees] just like that’ – Dr. Ling

After the 2,000 trees have been planted, the focus will then shift on to the maintenance of those trees, helping them grow, and protecting the existing tree canopy cover. However, looking beyond the Nature-Smart Cities initiative, Dr. Ling told us that the Cambridge Canopy Project will have ‘its own ambitions’ going forward; he hopes that the project will later become its ‘own entity’ and evolve beyond the lifetime of the initiative itself. Despite being part of a wider European initiative, Dr. Ling stated that the aim of the project will be to ‘deliver things on the ground that influence, impact, and benefit the city itself’, in-keeping with the remit of the City Council.

 ‘At the moment, this is so on-trend. It feels like the right moment for this project.’ – Dr. Ling


Expanding Existing Schemes

For twenty-five years, Cambridge City Council has been running a scheme called ‘Free Trees for Babies’ which gives residents having a child the opportunity to apply online and take home a tree to plant in their own gardens. Over the course of that period, ‘thousands’ of trees have been given out to Cambridge residents’, which, coupled with the ongoing planting in the public realm, has helped the Council grow the city’s urban forest at a modest rate over-time.

With an estimated 44,000 private gardens throughout the city, Dr. Ling notes that if the residents of the city could each plant one tree in their gardens, it would result in more than a ‘10% increase in the overall tree population, straight off’. The Journal noted that the Council had gathered this information with the help of an aerial photographic survey of the city.

‘Everyone’s trees are part of the whole process’ – Dr. Ling

With the introduction of the Cambridge Canopy Project, the Council hopes to up the number of trees they can offer through this existing scheme, with an aim to give away as many as ‘500 trees per-year, over a three-year period’ – totalling 1,500 trees. That’s on top of the 2,000 trees that the Council aims to plant themselves throughout the project by 2022.

The Impact of COVID-19

As is the case for everyone presently, Cambridge City Council has had to re-evaluate how it will approach some aspects of the project going forward, since a significant part of the project would have involved a degree of public outreach and awareness-raising. Many of these processes are now on hold for the time being. Nonetheless, interested members of the public can still get involved with the project in a number of different ways: the Council are currently running a survey to ‘gather insights into residents’ perceptions of trees’, the Council are also asking for help to map the locations of trees on privately-owned land, ‘especially Ash trees, and they would encourage all residents to help water their newly planted trees. These activities can be carried out during your daily exercise time out of the house whilst also observing social distancing guidance, of course.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has also forced the Council to postpone its i-Tree Eco study which would have involved students from the university helping to survey their local areas. However, as Dr. Ling explained to the Journal, in collaboration with Treeconomics Ltd, Forest Research, and Anglia Ruskin University, the Council will now employ a ‘novel approach’ to ‘engage untrained citizens’ from more than 130 households across the city to conduct the field surveys from the safety of their own homes. The Journal has been told that both university students and staff can still get involved in some aspects of this, and there will also be future opportunities to contribute to the project as well. Victoria Tait of the Global Sustainability Institute is coordinating this effort, so please contact her to express your interest in this work.

‘It’ll be a huge challenge, but it’s where we’re hoping to go.’ – Dr. Ling

Final Thoughts

It was a privilege to be able to interview a member of the City Council regarding this interesting environmental project. We hope that, despite the ongoing pandemic, the project will continue to move forward and see success in the long-term. We would like to thank Dr. Matthew Ling for his time – and his patience! – and we look forward to covering the Cambridge Canopy Project again in the near future.

Images: Devin Kleu on Unsplash

One thought on “Cambridge City Council Launch a New Pilot Project to Protect & Grow the City’s Tree Population”

  1. Well done, I was hoping you would arrange the interview. This is a project we are going to actively participate in.



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