Corp Comm Connects

Kitchener maps its urban forest

People can zoom in on individual trees on their street
April 11, 2017
Catherine Thompson

The hundreds of thousands of trees in the City of Kitchener are an asset, just like the sewer pipes and the street lights.

They provide enormous benefits, including protecting the water supply, improving air quality, reducing noise, cooling the air and, of course, creating a more beautiful city, said David Schmitt, who is heading the city's urban forest project.

But unlike roads and water pipes, people have strong emotional connections to the city's trees, he said. At community tree plantings, families will often mark a tree they've planted, with a circle of stones or in some other way, so that they can come back and visit the tree later and see how it's doing.

Trees are long-term assets that don't yield maximum benefits until 40 years or more after they're planted. So it's not enough to simply plant trees and hope for the best. The city must nurture its trees to ensure they survive, thrive and reach their full growth.

People often assume that trees, being natural, can thrive without human intervention, Schmitt said. But cities aren't natural environments, and urban trees need more care and attention.

Kitchener is working on a strategy to better manage the urban forest. Starting at the end of April, the city will seek public input on the strategy. Teams will be out at public events, as well as at parks and trails over the summer and fall. The aim is to increase understanding about the value of the city's trees, and hear from people about what the tree strategy should include, Schmitt said.

The city has posted a couple of maps on its website at to help encourage that conversation. One map allows people to explore the trees in their own neighbourhood, or in any part of the city, allowing a viewer to click on one of the thousands of trees on city land, and find out what species it is and how big it is.

In June, the map will go interactive, and people will be able to pin specific trees on the map and share stories about a favourite tree or spot.

There's also a map of the city's tree canopy that was developed using high-resolution LIDAR, a technology similar to radar that uses laser pulses. The city paid a lab at the University of Vermont $12,000 to map out Kitchener's tree cover in such detail that individual trees as small as two metres high could be identified.

The new map reveals that the tree canopy covers about 26 per cent of Kitchener. That's more than Brampton, Vaughan or York Region, but less than Toronto, Aurora or Oakville.

"The presence of the forest is pretty significant across the city," Schmitt said.

But the map also makes it clear that the canopy varies widely across the city. The most heavily treed parts of the city are in older, downtown neighbourhoods and in the south of the city, where there are more natural areas. The most recently developed areas in the west of the city have the fewest trees with just 16 to 20 per cent tree cover.

The map could help pinpoint where it makes most sense to concentrate tree planting efforts, and will also be a resource to see how the city's forest does over time. Schmitt warns that the forest cover will likely shrink a bit as the toll of emerald ash borer, the invasive beetle that has devastated ash trees, plays out.

Because just 44 per cent of Kitchener's trees are on city property, a key part of the city's tree strategy is to work with private landowners on how best to manage the urban forest.

With so many trees in private hands, Kitchener can't maintain the urban forest on its own. "The city can only do so much. That's why the community has to be involved and engaged," Schmitt said.