Tree guy Tony tees off on poor innocent students on the mean streets of Toronto

October 15, 2018

Screen shot 2018-10-15 at 10.00.36 AMOn a sidewalk just east of downtown Toronto, a large clump of students stood huddled around a young street tree on a sidewalk, shivering against the October wind. If you looked closely at the students you could see they formed two distinct groups, one on each side of the tree: one group wore windbreakers and jeans and Bluntstones or hiking boots; in the other group one could spot wool designer coats and a tall guy with a poney tail. A big guy in an untucked shirt and a longshoreman’s cap stood yelling at them.

“The trees were brought here at 100 or 110 centimetres diameter,” thundered the man. “They developed for the conditions in the nursery where they were initially planted. This is a problem. It’s the rush to the ribbon-cutting. And then they all die.”

Tony Lucey is supervisor of commercial trees for the forestry department at the City of Toronto. He said he “oversees all hard-surface infrastructure in the city.” City rules require builders to design spots for new trees in front of new buildings in Toronto, plant the trees, and provide initial care.

Tony is a rough and tumble kind of a guy. He learned forestry the hard way: he began climbing trees as an arborist at age 17. He never attended higher education. After learning the ropes at Davey Tree, he worked at the City of North York and then the City of Toronto.

Dr. Sandy Smith, a professor of forestry at U of T, was taking her masters students from the University of Toronto out for a field trip sponsored by the City of Toronto. Half the students were studying landscape architecture, and the other half were in forestry.Tony asked the students to meet him at near Cherry and Front streets, and the students arrived in a big white intercity bus chartered for the day.

Tony was disgusted. Not with the students, per se, but with the choices that designers make on drafting tables and computer screens, about how to build a tree pit and which tree to plant in it. The drawings look pretty, but on the ground, he said, the trees were stressed and struggling. The fancy, pretty, high-concept tree pits made trees difficult to maintain, and when they (almost inevitably) died, very expensive and complicated to replace.

This neighbourhood had been developed for the athletes’ village for the Pan Am Games in 2015 at great government expense; after the games builders were transforming this into a residential neighbourhood.

“This is form over function,” Tony growled, pointing to a tree that rose out of a square hole. “The tree is planted 30 centimetres below grade. Why? This was all done on a drawing. It looks good on paper. I am not going to name any names, but these streetscape designs come from some of the biggest, most famous and well-paid architectural firms in the world.

“Why are we planting trees four metres apart? It’s not helping our canopy cover goals. The designers say, ‘It reminds us when we were in Paris.’ Whatever. I don’t care about your trip to Paris. I want to see good infrastructure.”

Screen shot 2018-10-15 at 10.00.51 AMThe group walked on, and it seemed that the landscape architecture students were feeling that they, in particular, were the subject of Tony’s wrath. They were probably right. These landscape architects are still in school, but Tony’s point was that schools teach them to draw pretty pictures with perfectly symmetrical trees and never bother to learn how a tree grows nor to what are optimal growing conditions for a street tree. And nobody, apparently, has ever bothered to ask Tony for his opinion before they planted the trees. Today Tony had his chance, and he decided to unleash 30-odd years of bitterness at poor street-tree decisions on these unsuspecting, innocent whelps. Tony led the crowd onwards.

“They planted a tulip tree in the highest risk target area,” he said. “ It’s a target tree. They planted catalpa by the streetcar line extension. Catalpa seeds are falling into the streetcar tracks.

“Somebody thought it would be nice to have pavers around that tree. We are arborists. We do not know how to pull up pavers. It has costs. We are probably going to pull out the tree, cap those assets and abandon them. We will throw away $10,000 of taxpayers’ money, per tree.”

Then he stopped and smiled.

“If you wanted a cotton candy story, you got the wrong guy,” he said.

The students just shivered in silence, stunned, and perhaps a little sad.

Tony pointed to an island between two streetcar tracks. In the island grew trees, with brick paving stones between the tree pits.

“Why do we need to have pavers on an island?” he asked. “We can have open earth. You know that little circle you make on a drawing? You gotta understand that trees are crooked. They grow differently. You guys are the future. When you get jobs, remember that daft Irishman down on Cherry Street.”

The students thanked Tony and fled to the safety and warmth of their bus. But if Tony could save one dollar, or convince one planner to put the right tree at the right size in a nice big pit of yummy soil where it could grow to maturity, maybe then not so many of us would dream of Paris.