One of the more pernicious false choices you hear in debates about trees and redevelopment in Portland is the idea that we must choose between trees and their public health benefits and the urgent need for affordable housing (see “Eight myths about Portland’s new tree code"). Some say preserving more large trees and space for new trees will significantly and unacceptably increase housing costs. This misplaced blame ignores the real and significant impacts of land speculation and failed or inadequate housing policies amid rising inequality on affordability. It also distracts from the real opportunities to preserve trees and affordability: smaller, more affordable dwellings amid a healthy urban forest and walkable neighborhoods.
Portland’s ongoing Residential Infill Project (RIP) is a case in point. RIP will help make single-family zones more affordable and inclusive by allowing smaller and less expensive units within smaller building envelopes. Because RIP proposes to shrink the size of new homes and maintain existing limits on maximum lot coverage, it presents no threat to trees or their root zones.
Thankfully, RIP will allow a greater diversity of families to live in well-treed neighborhoods without increasing development pressures on trees.
Still, city planners are missing opportunities to help preserve more trees with more inclusive redevelopment. With some minor additions, the city can take the RIP from tree-neutral to tree-positive.
FURTHER READING: RIP is good – and could be better (commentary)
First, city planners should increase flexibility by allowing adjustments in lot-line setbacks and/or waivers of off-street parking requirements in exchange for real tree preservation, as already recommended by the Title 11 (tree code) Oversight Advisory Committee. Both parking requirements and rigid setbacks often force tree removal where they shouldn’t. Second, as already recommended by the Urban Forestry Commission, the RIP should allow bonus units (within lot coverage and massing limits) in exchange for preservation of large healthy trees the same way it already proposes to allow bonus units for old home preservation or permanently affordable housing. This will give developers an extra incentive to preserve large healthy trees.
The city should eventually do more, including requiring site review to ensure preservation of the largest, healthiest trees where feasible (attend an Urban Tree Advocacy Workshop hosted by Save the Giants on Nov. 4). Nevertheless, RIP is a significant opportunity to preserve trees and create more affordable and inclusive neighborhoods. Both are possible and vital to preserving Portland for everyone.
A life-long Portland resident, Jim Labbe was Audubon Society of Portland’s urban conservationist from 2002 to 2016 and was on the citywide Tree Project Advisory Committee, which developed the city’s new tree code, from 2008 to 2010. In 2015, he also served on the Oversight Advisory Committee that reviewed the first year of the new tree code’s implementation.