Maintaining tree canopy: an interview with Sybil Rowe

By Savannah Chanel

Imagine an enormous verdurous forest with grand rustling trees, ferns blanketing the ground, and the resonant twittering of birds—to some it is a place of solace, one that contains so much life.

However, there may be others who see a place of potential for some prosaic new development—which may involve inestimable destruction that they would prefer not to think about—allowing their avarice to consume them.

That’s not to say development in and of itself is a terrible thing, but too often it coincides with environmental concerns being overlooked or deliberately ignored.

South Surrey has recently seen a rapid increase in new development and not everyone is enchanted with a developer-driven model of city planning.

Voices of dissent are reflecting a growing public desire to retain green space and tree canopy, for reasons that are as much to do with quality of life as ecological concerns.

Sybil Rowe is a Surrey environmental activist and member of the Grandview Heights Stewardship Association. With her vast knowledge and eloquence, she provides informative and engrossing responses when discussing why maintaining a sufficient tree canopy is important to our cities.

Rowe believes the health benefits of a city’s tree canopy cannot be overstated.

“The colour green, in itself, has been proven to be soothing and healing,” she says. “Studies done on patients in hospitals have shown that windows looking out on to green space and trees lead to a quicker convalescence and fewer requests for pain medication.”
“At no other time in history has man been so cut off from nature, i.e. plants and animals,” Rowe adds.

She contends that the result of this disconnect is a marked rise in sickness, stress, and depression.

“People, whether they know it or not, love trees. Consider the effect of the beauty and splendour of trees on our spirits.”
But retaining trees is more than an emotional need, she says.


“The heat factor is of immense importance. UBC has maps showing the “hot spots” in Vancouver where there has been significant loss of trees. The temperature is several degrees cooler in well-treed districts overall, not just under the tree itself.

“The head arborist in the City of Surrey was sent a few years back to Atlanta GA, to study their massive re-forestation project. The first strong tree cutting bylaws in the US had been enacted. This was brought about by horrendous heat, the result of stripping the city of its trees – in other words, doing just what we are doing now here in Surrey.

“Of course, pollution control and carbon dioxide absorption are just as important for a city as anywhere else.”
Mankind has always lived in harmony with plants and animals, she asserts. While this is now touted as ‘biodiversity,‘ it exists in every old fashioned back yard, Rowe says.
“It does not exist in high density housing developments where clear-cuts have taken place. The trees in the yard and the birds, owls and other “critters,” lend themselves consciously or unconsciously to the happiness and well being of the dwellers of the house.”

Rowe believes development is a major contributor to loss of tree canopy.

“Thoughtless planning, often referred to as ‘armchair planning’, ruins the canopy.” Rowe explains.

“This means that the planner has looked at a map in his office and proceeded to work, without going out on to the land and seeing just what he is about to destroy.”


Rowe says the most frustrating thing about development is the way street trees are lost due to decreased set backs of houses, widened roads, bicycle lanes, curbs, sidewalks and services.

“The land the developer does not fill with houses, the engineer takes up with the above mentioned features. When both are finished, there is simply no room left for trees.”

Rowe believes the underlying factor of this is greed.

“A few people will get very rich, and the rest of the people will live in the hot, cramped quarters left behind when the developer departs,” she says.

Rowe states it will be extremely difficult to reverse the loss of tree canopy, due to the amount of money involved. “It’s a huge force to fight.”

Surrey’s current Neighbourhood Concept Plan system, says Rowe, while appearing to enshrine a public consensus on development of a specific area, actually opens a window for developers in which subsequent amendments can be made and approved by council – frequently without any further public input.

In response, she says, groups of well organized, determined people are needed.

They have to “visit city hall, go to chambers on Monday, visit the Planning and Parks Dept., Engineering, etc. and basically say, “Hello there, we are still here, and we are not going away.””

To achieve a more environmentally-friendly city, Rowe suggests there should be stricter penalties on the cutting down of trees.

“Our pittance of a penalty, dealt out to developers for cutting down significant trees, should be tripled,” she says. “Even if the penalty is not a sufficient deterrent to the developer, it would at least give the Parks Department more money to buy green space for parks.”

“Secondly, I feel that every development should have a mandatory small green park, treed, within its area for the dwellers.”

“This would make up, in small measure, for the missing back yards.”

“Ideally, high density has no place in magnificently treed areas like Grandview Heights, but should be kept within the city proper and along heavy traffic routes.”

Rowe believes education of residents is of vital importance.

“One way – the only way, I think – that will work, is education of residents before it is too late, and building groups of “guardians” to go to city council and remind them that they are not “potentates” but paid servants of the people and as such, must listen to the needs and desires of the “little” guys, not just the rich developers.”

“The people have got to “push back” before it is too late.” Rowe adds.

“Other enemies of the trees and environment, are lethargy, complacency, and intense preoccupation with the daunting task of just earning a living and making enough money to pay the bills, then coming home to take care of the house and feed the family. I cannot remember a time when everyone was so busy and had such jam-packed schedules. In the mean time, the world is falling apart around them.

“However, the spirit of saving the land can be very catchy, whenever even a small, dedicated group “hangs on” and refuses to get discouraged.”


As a young person who has lived in the community for several years, it has been greatly dismaying to this writer to watch significant development take place with frightening rapidity and a maddening disregard to the surrounding vegetation.

Such expansion took an entire forest down near my house, and, among a plethora of upsetting repercussions, it has also changed the vicinity into something quite dreary.

To be sure, there are a few young trees per block—but the majority of these trees, once spring is over, are skeletal, sombre beings.

In addition, I recently observed (with horror) a large tree cut down right beside my house. I can’t say what for, but the tree appeared healthy so I can only surmise it must have been interfering with a foundation or a pipe or something like that.

This incident certainly seems to confirm the suspicion that little to no thought is applied when it comes to the planting of trees. It’s been a few months now and there has been no replacement to speak of. According to the City of Surrey website, when you remove a tree in Surrey, “you are typically required to plant a replacement tree.”

It’s frustrating to simply stand by and watch events such as this take place.

In truth, I’m a novice when it comes to environmental activism. The extent of my involvement has been responding to environmental tragedies by simmering in feelings of sadness, helplessness, and anger.

Like Rowe, I too believe that educating and encouraging the population is of great importance if we are to try and reverse the damage that has been done.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and are presented here by the GHSA to encourage healthy debate. The GHSA Blog exists as a resource to enable members concerned with the environmental and community stewardship of Grandview Heights to voice perspectives. When directors of the Association contribute to the blog, they do so as private citizens, not as officers representing the Association. The GHSA reserves the right to edit, condense or reject any contribution.