Sidewalk projects in older London neighbourhoods launch battles to save trees

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London is like a patchwork quilt when it comes to sidewalks.

Some streets have two, others just one and still others none at all.

In new subdivisions, and big box shopping areas where few shoppers are on foot, kilometres of pristine sidewalks line the road.

Now on quiet residential streets in older sections of the city, there’s another battle brewing that will create a bigger headache.

Trees are facing off against sidewalks.

Eight years worth of sidewalk projects sit on a waiting list at city hall. But they’re threatening foliage lining London streets, and that’s a price some residents aren’t willing to pay.

Yet others worry about getting around safely if sidewalks aren’t built.

“You can re-plant trees. If someone is struck by a vehicle and is injured or dies, that’s not something that you can fix,” said Jeff Preston, a disability advocate and professor of disability studies at King’s University College.

As Londoners age, more people will be using wheelchairs, walkers and scooters to get around, he noted. They’ll need safe, smooth paths to do so.

A lack of sidewalks is a common problem for North American cities, which largely stopped building them after the Second World War, London’s transportation planning boss said.

“It (the halt) was with the broader advent of the personal automobile and the love affair with it,” said Doug MacRae, manager of transportation planning and design. “There was a period through the 1960s, 1970s where sidewalks weren’t implemented.”

Communities like Byron and Oakridge were simply built without them.

Now sidewalks are back in vogue — for safety, mobility, and health reasons, among others — and their construction is creating problems in London.

The conflict between protecting the environment and building sidewalks came to a head recently, when politicians stepped in to save a line of trees on Trowbridge Avenue, off Springbank Drive.

Council agreed the “clear cut” needed to revamp the road and build a sidewalk would fundamentally change the character of the street and voted to axe it.

There is an exception in the London Plan that allows the city to forego sidewalks in the interest of saving mature trees or infrastructure.

But political debate at council exposed the tension between the need for safe, accessible streets and the desire to save Forest City trees. And the very same conflict may crop up around future sidewalk projects, city engineer Kelly Scherr told politicians at that meeting.

Usually the city undertakes six to eight sidewalk projects each year, and only a few draw concern, MacRae said. But this year the city is funneling $2 million — half of that from the federal government — into 18 projects.

There are two ways for a London community to get a sidewalk. Sometimes it’s a bonus, tacked onto road repairs or other work where it makes sense to install sidewalks at the same time.

Other neighbourhoods come up on an annual list, driven by citizen complaints about areas in need of sidewalks.

Even on those carefully selected streets — winning the lottery as far as the wait list goes — some residents are opposed, a previous report to council noted.

It’s clear the debate isn’t going away.

But for Preston, the answer is clear. “We should be putting human safety and need at the top,” he said. “When there are no sidewalks, you’re kind of stuck.”

The street that won:

Residents on Trowbridge Avenue claimed a recent victory when council voted to nix a sidewalk project on their dead-end street. Coun. Stephen Turner said it was a difficult decision to side with the trees — including half a dozen very established Norway maples — on that street because he’s a big supporter of the city’s sidewalk policy. But the sidewalk on Trowbridge would have posed a direct threat to 20 trees. Councillors decided the very character of the street was at stake. “It’s a lot easier to preserve a tree than to plant a tree,” Turner said. “It might be 50 years before we get the benefits of a full canopy (again).” But even though there’s an exception in the city’s sidewalk policy to account for protecting mature trees, he doesn’t want the Trowbridge intervention to set a precedent. “My big worry with all of this is . . . creating the opportunity for more challenges later. I don’t want that to happen.”

The street that’s still fighting:

It was news to Coun. Maureen Cassidy that city council could step in to slash sidewalks. “Our mandate is to have sidewalks everywhere,” she said. “It was a shock to me to hear the change in direction.” She’s frustrated because residents on Glengarry Avenue in her ward are just as adamantly opposed to a sidewalk project as those on Trowbridge. The city doesn’t think the Glengarry sidewalk will claim any trees, Cassidy said, but she’s not convinced. She told her constituents striking down a planned sidewalk was unlikely. Now she’s left wondering. “If the trees are worth saving on Trowbridge, they’re worth saving on Glengarry.”

Think of the kids:

There’s a reason sidewalks are a staple in the London Plan. Those concrete paths are a vital part of a “walkable” city, staff and politicians say. It goes far beyond a casual nightly stroll with the pup. Many kids need sidewalks to get to school safely. And because walking is a great way to sneak in exercise and get some fresh air before hitting the books, there’s a real push to send kids to school via their own two feet, said Sarah Thomson, president of the Thames Valley Council of Home and School Associations. “With distracted driving, it takes seconds for an accident to happen. When you have a sidewalk, you at least have a . . . buffer between the traffic and the children,” she said. It’s also a comfort for parents — especially those who can’t accompany their little ones from door to door — who worry about kids walking to school.

By the numbers

$364: Cost to build one metre of sidewalk

18: Sidewalk projects coming off the wait list in 2017

5.5: Kilometres covered in those 18 projects

8: Years of sidewalk projects on the waiting list

$550,000: London’s usual annual sidewalk budget

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