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Joanna Dean and Will Knight with a cross-section of a 154-year-old bur oak, cut to permit denser development despite protests from area residents.
Joanna Dean and Will Knight with a cross-section of a 154-year-old bur oak, cut to permit denser development despite protests from area residents.

Ottawa exhibit considers the "Urban Forest"

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One city's relationship with trees is explored in a new museum exhibit in Ottawa.

Six moments in the history of an urban forest is the brainchild of Carleton University history professor Joanna Dean and graduate student Will Knight.

Present-day Ottawa began as rough riverside lumber shanties in the early 1800s. It grew to become the nation's capital, with various trends in tree clearing and tree planting along the way. More recently, the area has faced damage from natural disaster and invasive pests, like the emerald ash borer, which threatens perhaps 30% of Ottawa's existing tree population.

Although the display considers urban forestry from an Ottawa perspective, the challenge of combining trees with cities is universal. Lucy Martin spoke with co-curators, Joanna Dean and Will Knight on opening day at the Bytown Museum, beside the treed slopes of Parliament Hill.

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The Bytown Museum occupies Ottawa's oldest stone building, built in 1827. The now-neglected "Lover's Walk" is on the left, just below Parliament Hill.

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Joanna Dean explained the genesis of the exhibit prior to her opening-day talk.

This exhibit grows out of about ten years research I've been doing into the history of Ottawa's urban forest. Part of that came out of the Ice Storm, when we lost so many trees. And we thought we were going to lose more than we really did. And there was an enormous push in Ottawa, and elsewhere, to replant the trees that had been damaged by the storm. And that's when I realized how important trees were to people, how much people cared about trees, and also some of the problems that trees have, in an urban environment. And began to realize that there was a history there, that most people who are interested in urban forestry just aren't aware of. And I suppose my hope is that by knowing the history, we'll do a better job of managing the forest in the future.”

Lucy Martin: “We're looking at another 'Dutch Elm,' in the potential loss of all the city's ash trees.”

Joanna Dean: “Exactly. Speaking as a historian, it's another turn of the wheel. It's nothing new that we have over-planted one species of tree, and nothing new that an organism has come from overseas, because we plant so many of one species in, in tough situations, often, they're very vulnerable.”

Lucy Martin: “Leading into this, I was reading the average city tree lives seven years.”

Joanna Dean: “Yes, that's the number I used to be told by Craig Huff, who was the city forester, a number of years ago. The thing is, it depends where the tree is. Inner-city streets, the trees are struggling. You know, there's no dirt for them to grow in, the air is polluted with exhaust and there's not enough water, it's all being rushed off down storm sewers. It's not surprising. And trees are vulnerable in those early years. It's the first three years when the tree is going to make it or break it. The number is important, I think we need to know that, but we also have trees in the city right now that are a hundred, or the tree I've got a section (of) over here was 154 years old. Trees can live in the city and they can live well if we treat them properly. The trees that had got a foothold and got up to a good size, they hang on. They take a long time to die. And I think we've been very good about protecting heritage architecture. But, you know, our trees live longer than many of our buildings. So we're out there protecting a building that was built in 1890, well, there's trees that were planted in 1890 as well. And I think they are just as much part of our heritage as those buildings are. And perhaps just as important even more important to save.

At the post-talk reception, co-curator Will Knight spoke about his involvement with the project.

“I think the most surprising thing was sort of the coda to the show, which is about 'Lover's Walk.' And that's in a separate room from the main exhibition. Because it is about managing slopes, managing forests, but also managing people. Because there was a sense that this walk had become also a place of, ah, 'moral hazard,' if you like. You know, it was, became a site to cruise and that was a problem for the police.”

Lucy Martin: “I was a little bit surprised to learn that Ottawa, at one time, was basically barren. Clear-cut and unattractive, and you don't think of that now.”

Will Knight: “No, it's a green, it's a green city. I mean, if you were in Ottawa in 1856, I'm sure you wouldn't have seen a lot of trees, in terms of like, clearing by settlers and logging. You know, you come, when you fly into Ottawa, it's quite impressive, to see all the trees. And I think that's one of the take-aways, really, of the exhibit. Is that, we don't think about an urban forestry. I think even the just the phrase 'urban forest', it's a bit of a mind bomb, right? That will make people think. And the extent, the numbers and species of trees across Ottawa is really quite surprising. So, I'm hopeful that people will come and think about trees and start to look around and see actually, not just a city, but a forest that's part of the city as well.”

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