The opinions of tree professionals: perception and conflict

We hear a lot about how residents perceive trees in the research ‘community’, though less frequently do we read reports that assess the views held by industry professionals. This is strange because arborists, planners, landscape architects, and other professionals have a potentally massive impact upon the manner in which individual trees and landscapes containing trees are managed. Recognising the views held by such individuals is therefore very important, and could even facilitate introspection by those within the industry. Furthermore, are views even uniform across the industry, or do they vary across professions and spatial areas? Thankfully, such questions can begin to be answered as a result of this study, by assessing Australian industry professionals (principally arborists) and their perceptions of trees and the conflicts associated with their presence.

For the study, the authors interviewed a total of 52 professionals through advertising within the industry (and then via word of mouth across organisations), in the cities of Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, and Townsville. These cities were selected as they cover a wide geographical area, and are home to large yet varied tree populations in differing climatic regions of the country. The vast majority who responded and were subsequently interviewed identified themselves as arborists (arboriculturalists), though a few did respond by labelling themselves as landscape architects, horticulturalists, or environmental planners.

The interviews with the professionals had some sort of structure, though were ‘open’ enough to permit conversation away from a typical question and answer scenario. This, the authors recognised, allowed the interviewees to discuss matters they felt were important to them, and this had the benefit of ensuring interviews were fruitful in terms of the data collected. However, a general trend was present within the interviews, in the sense that details regarding how the professionals thought about and interacted with trees were obtained, as were thoughts on other ‘tree professions’, ‘non-tree professions’, legal frameworks, and residents. Alongside the interviews, a survey was sent out to residents across the same cities, of which 736 survey responses were obtained. This survey investigated how residents chose what trees to plant, and offered them to add any other comments they desired to their response (about anything tree-related, including industry professionals).

Once all interviews had been completed and surveys returned, they were analysed by the authors for trends. Before going on, it’s necessary to point out that the authors found five distinct ‘groups’ amongst the interview data, with public and private sector workers being very distinct from each other, though the city the individual was based within and their actual profession also were found to cause distinct difference in opinion in particular instances. Gender was not a driver behind varying opinions, nor was location (on the whole). Further results are detailed below.

How arborists view residents

Probably not surprisingly, a common trend amongst all interviewed professionals was their perception of residents hating trees (or some types of tree). However, the rationale behind such thoughts differed across the 52 individuals. Another general theme was that residents put too much weighting on the risks trees pose, thereby over-playing the ‘risk factor’.

Further themes amongst the data, though generally variable across the groups and held in particular abundance by arborists from Adelaide, Brisbane, and Hobart, was that older people viewed trees with less fondness, and that residents would readily scapegoat trees without evidence of the trees causing a problem. However, it was Melbourne arborists that felt trees were most actively removed because of the perception residents held about them causing fires (scapegoating). This may be as a result of the ‘Black Saturday’ fire some ten months prior, which scourged parts of Melbourne.

In this image, wildfire encroaches upon a residential property in Melbourne. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Other opinions aired by over 20% of the 52 individuals (indicating a sort of ‘theme’) included things such as residents needed to be educated about trees, immigrants don’t like ornamental trees, people dislike trees because of the mess they make, people on low incomes don’t like trees, but that most people actually still love trees. However, opinions that were very much varied between professionals interviewed (and were, at times, contradictory) included whether the affluent demand tree care, whether conflicts arise between neighbouring land owners with regards to trees, and whether ‘tree Nazis‘ are annoying. Therefore, whilst trends amongst the responses are evident, there is still a wide pool of thought held by individuals within the industry.

How residents perceive professionals

Curiously, residents surveyed made very little mention of arborists, but instead saw the management of trees as something simply done by the council (as a whole) or by the planners (part of the council). Only one respondent, who was an arborist himself, referred to arborists being part of the management of publicly-owned trees.

It was also found that residents saw local councils as an enemy to trees, and particularly by the so-called ‘tree Nazis’. One individual, for example, lamented over the council’s removal of healthy trees along a street. Other individuals commented that councils plant the wrong trees in the wrong places and then refuse to remove ones in a supposedly ‘wrong’ place, failing to educate the public about trees, not planting a young tree near to one set to be removed and instead doing the re-planting afterwards, and making grotesque forms from trees following aggressive pruning management (all whilst refusing to allow protected trees on private land to suffer a similar fate).

Residents were also critical of urban planners, saying that they failed to ensure tree plantings were incorporated into new developments, and should see trees more as ornaments that complement the landscape in place of something much the opposite.

How professionals perceive trees

Planners and other professionals who held a more strategic position (in place of actually being an arborist) were found to hold more ‘abstract’ views of trees. For intance, they saw trees as helping to reduce energy costs (associated with cooling in the summer). Their stance was also much less emotional than other professionals, in the sense that they formed their views on trees from more analytical (niche?) thought processes. However, planners were found to not consider street trees as important for biodiversity as much as other industry professionals did, though did see trees in other urban settings as important. Perhaps their isolation from working ‘with’ trees has led to such a perspective, because it cannot be argued that there is an abundance of data highlighting how critical street trees are for biodiversity.

As more of a collective however (totalling to 40% of all interviewees), professionals considered a mix of native and exotic tree species to be important, citing that pragmatism is key in the selection and management of the urban forest. Interestingly, this also translates over into residential (privately-owned) trees (albeit likely for different reasons), where residents were found to not discriminate for or against either native or exotic tree species. A mix of natives and exotics is therefore present across the six cities, outside of the publicly-owned realm.

A line of large and mature eucalypts in Canberra, Australia. Note the womnderful shading beneath. The linked source has some more great photos. Source: Treelogic.

However, a diversity of thought was evident with regards to the risk management of trees. Around 33% of professionals considered risk to be appropriately measured and managed, whilst 40% saw both local governments and residents as exaggerating the risk a tree poses (that could be classed as ‘risk averse’). 10% of the interviewed professionals also considered that such risk management lead to the loss of large trees, in spite of the fact larger trees are usually held in higher regard by residents, whilst 40% (mostly professionals working for local government) saw managing old trees as highly important but nonetheless challenging.

As touched upon earlier, there was also a trend held by professionals (particularly if they were based near to where natural wildfire and storm events occurred) that trees are unfairly scapegoated. 75% of professionals in Melbourne saw the removal of trees following on from wildfire as abhorrent and as a “gross over-reaction” to the situation. Similarly, Queensland professionals thought residents unfairly blamed trees following on from storms, and the public must be educated more about the ‘true’ risk of trees.

A large beech tree that fell following high winds. Source: Cazort.

Quite intiguingly, many professionals also saw engineers as people who hated trees, and developers as people who try to “corrupt” arborists. Not only this, but professionals saw electricity organisations as doing a bad job of maintaining trees beneath lines (and focussing too intently on just keeping their service operating without hindrance). Such thoughts probably exist the world over, within the industry! However, private arborists (not employed by councils) were found to be in a difficult situation, because their income depended upon work by developers (in part), and even though they felt they were placed in positions they did not necessarily like, turning down work for moral reasons was not always feasible. One canny individual did however suggest that developers will tend to employ arborists who are lenient to the developers, thus making their operations easier by getting trees removed more readily. Whether such arborists have so much of a dilemma about removing otherwise probably healthy trees is open to debate.

…so what?

On the whole, it is evident that there is a vast opinion pool amongst professionals within the industry, though common themes are pervasive across individuals found in all six cities. The fact that many professionals consider the risks associated with trees to be over-played is important, as it highlights a need for residents and other laymen to be informed of the real risk trees pose (and even local councils). Whether this would actually impact upon their fears is open to question, though there is no doubt that they should at least be presented with such information. Such an action may in fact help to reduce the evident gap between professionals and residents with regards to their view of trees. Professionals, throughout the survey, were identified to view trees more positively. Such a stance can only be because of the greater level of knowledge possessed, as there is absolutely no argument relating to the great benefits (and importance) of trees, particularly in the ecological and environmental senses.

Furthermore, there is a need for planners to recognise that residents do not hold them in high regard. Communication between such professionals and the residents would therefore be a good idea, in an attempt to at least construct the beginnings of a more harmonious relationship between the two groups. However, perhaps there is also need for developers and electricity companies to quell their pursuits, and foster a healthier partnership with professionals (particularly arborists) who consider them to be abusing their (perhaps inherently advantageous, thanks to the law and the flow of money) position.

Of course, many more conclusions can be drawn, though I’d be here all night discussing this one if I didn’t stop somwhere!

Source: Kirkpatrick, J., Davison, A., & Harwood, A. (2013) How tree professionals perceive trees and conflicts about trees in Australia’s urban forest. Landscape and Urban Planning. 119 (1). p124-130.

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The opinions of tree professionals: perception and conflict

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