Story by Martha Baskin

The content in this blog post was originally released on Monday, March 28, 2022, as a radio broadcast segment on KBCS. Story and interviews by Seattle Audubon’s Conservation Committee member Martha Baskin, with text modified by Elizabeth Cameron. A recording of the original radio segment is linked below.

In a Dense Landscape, Can Trees and Housing Coexist?

by Martha Baskin


In the face of rapid residential development, Seattle’s urban trees are in the crosshairs. 60% of the city’s urban canopy is on residential lots. Tree advocates say housing and trees can co-exist, but have yet to convince the city’s Department of Construction and Inspection, who recently issued a new draft tree protection code. As in previous drafts, maximizing a lot’s development potential outweighs protecting existing trees on site.

Why does it matter? Trees are the lungs of our planet. We and other species rely on them. They reduce storm runoff and flooding. And during extreme weather, they’re climate warriors, cooling local neighborhoods and filtering polluted air.

This story examines support for increased canopy coverage and urban tree protections in the City of Seattle, and the decisions that determine it.

Juvenile Merlin | Daniel Ellison

Speaking for the Trees

Rich Ellison looked up at a 30-foot-high Cedar tree across from a row of townhomes under construction in NE Seattle. “It’s got a healthy canopy and it’s definitely going to be tremendous wildlife habitat. It’s in the planting strip so it’s likely protected from any future incursions of development. But everything is at risk here in the city,” he says. A member of the advocacy group, TreePac, and a biologist, Ellison has been pushing city leaders to adopt a tree code that protects existing trees during construction for years.

Before the townhomes were built, the lot had trees and dense vegetation, says Ellison, but all were cut down by the developer. City code allows builders to cut down any tree that interferes with maximizing a lots development potential.

A new draft tree code was issued by the Department of Construction and Inspection (DCI) late last month and may go before the city council this spring. Over the years, advocates like Ellison have had some success in stopping exceptional and significant trees from being cleared on lots not undergoing development. Exceptional and significant trees are defined by virtue of their size, species, age, and cultural or historical importance. But none are protected if a developer is unwilling to work around them.

“Right now we’re trying to get the city council and the new mayor, who has said he doesn’t want to see Seattle become barren, birdless, and treeless — that he will put a change on this approach by DCI and get them to listen more to the urban forestry commission,” Ellison explains.

Tree Removal / David Moerhing

Seattle Tree Protection History

Seattle’s City Council created the Urban Forestry Commission to advise the Mayor and City Council on how best to protect and conserve trees back in 2009, when interim tree regulations were adopted. The task of drafting a new code was given to the Department of Construction and Inspection (DCI), but to date no draft has been approved. In the intervening years, residential tree protection has faced fierce headwinds from rapid development and the need for housing and zoning changes.

In 2019, the City Council up zoned all single-family zoning to multi-family. Sarajane Siegfriedt with Seattle Fair Growth, says by her estimate the zoning change reduced single zoning from 35,000 acres to 32,000 acres. “Clearly what’s permitted is going to shrink the tree canopy that’s heavily located in single family areas.”

Tree advocates have been accused of being against density, but say density and trees can co-exist if mandated in construction codes. They’ve also been accused of being against affordable housing. But Siegfriedt points out that low-income or affordable housing requires being subsidized with federal, state, or city dollars. “So, what we’re building is a lot of expensive housing. Nothing affordable. The only affordable housing, then, is subsidized.”

Great Horned Owls | Cooper Rexalena

A Clear Disconnect

In another neighborhood of rapid market rate development, urban planner and member of the Urban Forestry Commission David Moehring talks of efforts to encourage developers to look at alternative designs in order to save existing trees. The efforts don’t always gain traction with the Department of Construction and Inspection (DCI), but if neighbors are worried that new development will impact their own tree and critical root zone, they can appeal the decision and push for a new design. At least they could… before the latest draft tree code eliminated most appeals.

Moehring walked behind new townhouses toward one of two trees that were protected. “What you’ll see now is they built the four rowhouses along the street which is the intent of the code anyway — they shoved it back so the existing trees in front could be maintained… the same number of dwellings, but the two trees remained.”

But such outcomes are rare. A grove of trees next to another set of townhomes was demolished. Moehring asked DCI to consider alternative designs drawn up by an architect. “Basically, the city allowed them to proceed. Instead of looking at alternatives they just went through and cleared out everything.” Moehring and others say there’s a disconnect between policies that allow developers to clear cut a site in order to maximize a lots development potential and the city’s stated goal of balancing tree protections while supporting growth and density.

For its part, DCI said via email that it “considered” this goal in its draft tree code and will continue to partner with the Urban Forestry Commission. DCI also noted that trees 12” in diameter would need to be replaced.

House Sparrow | Christina Black

Moving Forward

While advocates agree it’s important to plant new trees, protecting existing mature trees is critical. Mature trees are climate warriors and essential infrastructure, much like water, electrical grids, and sewers. Trees capture carbon and filter air. Their canopies buffers against extreme heat and cool neighborhoods and their roots reduce floods — things which new trees take decades to do. And of course, they provide habitat for birds — whose songs give joy in dark times.

The Master Builders Association filed an appeal challenging the draft tree proposal. Until the appeal is resolved, the City Council can’t act on the draft. In the interim, Councilmembers Petersen and Strauss are sponsoring an initial tree protections bill* requiring public registration before removing trees, and legislation to increase transparency and accountability with tree service providers.

*Note: On Tuesday, March 29th, City Council unanimously adopted the bill requiring tree service providers to register with the City.

Seattle Audubon Lot / Claire Catania

An Anna's Hummingbird hovers amidst falling snow.

House Finches | Robert Ho

Take Action for Trees!

Join Seattle Audubon in urging Seattle city leaders to improve urban forest protections today.