Plans to cut down a handful of trees at the Akerk have been postponed, but across the city of Groningen, hundreds of trees are coming down, many to make way for construction projects. The Bomenridders – The Tree Knights – are concerned that the municipality is too eager to give trees the chop, even though creating more green space in Groningen is a central tenet of the new GroenLinks-led coalition.
The Bomenridder’s most recent project has been the Akerkhof. As of this week, there are 11 trees in the small square in front of the AKerk, and in an effort to create a sunny spot in the city centre for people to take a breather, the municipality is planning to cut down five of them.
“There was a lot of resistance to that plan and people were not happy with it, considering its historical and cultural role, but also because it’s one of that only little plantsoen areas, little park areas, left in the centre with large scale trees”, says Kristin McGee, an American associate professor at the Faculty of Arts and spokesperson for group.
The Tree Knights
The Bomenridders – the Tree Knights – started as a foundation in 2016, and regularly objects to plans from the municipality to cut down trees in the city. Over the past year, much of their effort has been focused on the southern ring road, where hundreds of trees have been chopped down or relocated elsewhere.
After their initial objections to the Akerk plans were deemed unfounded last year, an injunction hearing was held on Monday to revisit the issue. There were 150 letters of objection submitted for the hearing and the Tree Knights group requested an injunction to delay work at the site, which was scheduled to begin on Thursday. Even though McGee was doubtful that the plans would be postponed, on Wednesday morning, the judge ruled that the permit to cut down the trees should be suspended and that the felling would be at least temporarily delayed.
|How does a municipal permit work?
Municipal council spokesperson Hans Coenraads says that if the municipality decides to grant a permit to carry out works of any kind, including felling trees, then there is a six-week period for interested parties to file objections to those plans. A committee considers those objections, determines whether or not they were founded and advises the municipality on how to proceed. After that, there is still the possibility to appeal the case, which can either be an expedited process (in the case of the Akerk grounds) or a longer process. A judge may then consider granting an injunction to postpone carrying out the permit.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dagblad van het Noorden reported the non-coalition parties in the municipal council – Party for the Animals, CDA, 100% Groningen and Stad en Ommeland (City and Country) – submitted a motion to call off cutting down the Akerk trees altogether and to come up with an alternative plan. But the coalition parties – GroenLinks, the Labour Party (PvdA), D66 and ChristenUnie – voted against the motion, along with the VVD and Student en Stad parties.
— CDA Groningen (gem) (@CDAGroningen) February 27, 2019
Hans Coenraads, a spokesperson for the executive municipal council, says that the current plans involve chopping down five of the smallest trees on the grounds. Coenraads says that the reason the municipality, which has a leasehold on the grounds through next year, wanted to chop the trees down was to create more space for the older remaining trees to grow and permit more sunlight to reach the ground, which would help the grass to flourish. Six young trees will be planted on the nearby Brugstraat and Astraat to compensate for the trees lost.
One-to-one not enough
McGee says that a one-to-one replanting approach is not enough to compensate for the lost mass of the older trees that have been chopped down. “The younger trees only have about 10 percent value in terms of pollution removal compared to mature trees.” She says that if the newly planted trees were given time to grow, they may eventually achieve some degree of ecological balance, but many trees are not allowed to become “historic”.
When the municipality considers whether or not to grant a permit to cut down a tree, Coenraads says that each tree is evaluated on a case by case basis. “We consider the condition of the tree, how old it is, what sort of prognosis it has for the future, what the situation is underground. All of that is taken into consideration.” But the Tree Knights fear that aggressive pruning, topping and capping ultimately makes many trees weaker rather than stronger, and when they become sick, that makes the decision to cut them down easier to justify.
|What is biomass?
Coenraads says that it is up to the individual contractors who chop down the trees what happens with the wood, and that the municipality itself does not have any arrangements for trees felled on their property to be turned into biomass.
Biomass is widely believed to be a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels because it is organic material. Other forms of biomass include used cooking oil, corn, livestock waste and compost. However, it is not an undisputed clean alternative. In 2017, 772 scientists signed a letter pointing out that burning wood emits “far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced”, and “100% of Europe’s annual harvest of wood would be needed to supply just one third of the expanded renewable energy directive.”
GroenLinks and green space
The recently instated GroenLinks coalition in the city of Groningen is advocating for an additional one million euros to secure more green spaces throughout the municipality and planting trees on the Grote Markt. Coenraads says that the specifics of the coalition’s plans are still being worked out. While the Tree Knights applaud the coalition’s espoused desire to increase greenery in the city, McGee says that the fact that GroenLinks supports biomass as an alternative fuel source more or less cancels out any good that local efforts may do.
Even though the Akerk trees will remain standing for now, the Tree Knights are still concerned about what they see as the city’s willingness to cut down its trees. Coenraads says that it is difficult to confirm exactly how many trees there are in the municipality because only a limited number are on municipal property: a 2018 report stated that there was a net gain of 400 trees on municipal grounds over the past four years, but on private property, 4,300 permits were granted to cut down trees, and only 2,700 trees were planted.
Photo source: Gerard Stolk/Flickr