Why Aussie city’s decision to cut down trees is a 'good idea'

Young Planner of the Year and TEDx Speaker Samuel Austin explains why Sydney's plane trees need to go – and it's got nothing to do with hay fever.

Hay fever suffers, your prayers have been answered!

Those giant pollen-covered trees – you know the ones that fill our streets and stormwater drains with brown thistles – are on the chopping block.

Now some of you might be thinking this sounds like a terrible idea. We’re entering a climate crisis, and we need trees to help prevent it getting worse.

Left - Samuel Austin pointing at a plane tree. Right - a row of plane trees.
Samuel Austin (left) believes replacing Sydeny's plane trees is a great idea. Source: Supplied

But let me tell you why the City of Sydney's decision to remove its London Plane Trees is actually a really good idea – and no, it's not just because I, like many Aussies, hate all the pollen they produce.

Surely we shouldn't be chopping down any trees?

You're right, trees are incredibly important, especially in our dense urban cities. In fact, governments across the globe have begun recognising just how many benefits street trees can bring to a city.

Trees of course provide habitat and food for local wildlife and can improve the biodiversity of an area. They can also help prevent and reduce local flooding, as they suck up and store rainwater in their root systems and trunks.

An arrow points to pollen dropped by plane trees.
Plane trees drop large amounts of pollen. Source: Samuel Austin

But in the wake of the climate crisis, there is one crucial benefit that urban trees bring — mitigating something called the urban heat island (UHI) effect.

UHI is a phenomenon where cities and urban spaces become much hotter than surrounding, less urbanised areas. This is because buildings and hard surfaces absorb heat and radiate it back out into the immediate atmosphere.

Research has found that areas of Sydney; and in particular Western Sydney, will get up to 10 degrees hotter during the summer months as a direct result of the Urban Heat Island effect.

However, street trees were found to have a noticeable cooling effect of up to 6 degrees. This is because their leaves shade pavements and other hard surfaces, while also absorbing the sun's radiation. You can learn more about this in the video below.

So then, why are we cutting the London Plane Tree down?

There's a terrifying prediction about our cities future. Sydney, and many other Australian cities are going to get so hot that these trees may not survive future summers.

A study of two Melbourne streets revealed that during a heatwave, London Plane Trees can lose up to 50 per cent of their leaves and canopy.

Remember those cooling benefits that trees bring from their shade? Well, they won’t be shading much with all their leaves missing.

So not only are they dumping their pollen everywhere, but soon they might not even be able to exist in our cities.

Why you don't need to panic

But before you start to panic, know that our governments have a plan.

The City of Sydney has released their Urban Forest Strategy. It wants to increase the overall green cover (including bushes, grasses, etc) of the inner city to 40 per cent, and achieve a minimum tree canopy cover of 27 per cent by 2050, compared to 19.8 per cent in 2022.

Two images showing diverse native and exotic trees in Sydney.
The plan is to replace the plane tree monoculture with a mix of tree species. Source: Samuel Austin

A big component of this strategy is to replace those pollen-covered London Plane Trees with a mix of native and exotic trees.

Trees that are heat-tolerant and drought-resistant.

Trees that will survive those hot, hot days.

The aim is to make Sydney as resilient and heat-ready as possible.

So breathe easy – know that the sustainability of the city is in good hands.

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