Almost ten years of media reporting on being ‘beyond tree preservation’

Reading through old Herald articles has been very educational.

The recent charette was held to discuss the future of the fig trees in Laman Street; unfortunately this was mostly lost in the process because attendees were distracted, deliberately, by talk about things that either don’t matter or will never happen.

There was the initial guff about how surprised our Sydney landscape architect consultants were that there is some beauty in Newcastle – how embarrassing that they felt they had to share this surprise with the attendees. There were the sad (because they won’t happen) creative ideas about expensive things like public outdoor artworks, sculpture gardens, more trees in Civic Park, a cinema, a monorail, outdoor electronic installations, a playground, a stage for performances outdoors, etc etc. And then there were the comments like ‘the war memorial obstructs the view’ and ‘we need to move the memorial grove so it’s near the Vietnam memorial (and so homeless people and iv drug users don’t use it) and the ridiculously controversial like ‘let’s close the rail line’ (that idea was basically council-driven, although as the gentleman running the show pointed out to me I was only at each table once…).

The fig trees that council allege are unsafe were barely discussed at all except for some  bizarre comments about how the radial lines that are called roots in the radar report are mineral reflections (!), and more scaremongering stuff about how even though a tree may look healthy it probably isn’t. (I wonder whey there is such a thing as Visual Tree Assessment for predicting tree risk if you can’t tell by looking?) This ill-health goes for huge trees at the rear of Civic Park  as well as the trees in Laman Street – the arborist told the group that because council in the ’70s piled dirt up too high against the roots of a row of figs in the park ( that predate the Laman Street ones) that they have root rot.

This is a picture of the trees he was talking about. To the untrained eye they look like magnificent trees. To the expert, independent or not (see an early rave about independent experts), they are presumably Death Traps.

It remains a mystery to me why council officers have waged a campaign by stealth to convince Newcastle that we need to be rid of these trees. To try to solve the mystery I looked for old articles and I reproduce their titles and the most interesting sections here.I found the Herald articles  at Fairfax News Store and the ABC article on their website.

I assume it’s a worldwide trend. It’s obvious one needs a succession planning policy for mature trees, but to take them out prematurely is an expensive and destructive policy, especially when we consider that councils are under-funded, supplying services that other levels of government should be offering, and when we should be trying as hard as possible to make up for our role in climate change, being the largest coal-exporting port in the world. And even if you’re a climate-change denier, and don’t want to consider the CO2 they sequester,the amenity that these trees provide is enormous.

One of the scariest comments is Mr Hewett saying that the Moreton Bay figs in Islington which are 120 years old and are simply stunning are reaching the end of their lives. At the charette   he was obviously picking his battles because he assured the group that there is nothing wrong with them. Read in the first article the scary stuff that says you have to take trees down when they still look healthy and while you replace trees this may not be in the same place.(Does it count if you put a replacement tree in an entirely different suburb?)

Articles from The Herald and the ABC since 2002

  • pushing the prematurely-remove-veteran-tree line
  • and Laman St

From ‘A tree falls in silence’ 23 7 2002 J Corbett

And so with its new-found fervour Newcastle City Council has just announced what it calls an audit of the city’s 350 biggest trees.

When I expressed my concern that this so-called audit was setting the scene for the removal of more fig trees, Mr Hewett said he did not want to be alarmist but the removal of others was a possibility.

It’s all about safety and public liability, he says.

Aah, safety and public liability, what wonderful words for bureaucrats!

The word safety is often used now to suppress dissent because it allows no time. Actions in the name of public safety are not negotiable and not to be delayed for the sake of public debate!

And public liability is the best excuse since the ’89 Newcastle earthquake


From ‘Civic Tree Crisis Looms’  5 8 2002 by Mike Scanlon

MOVING underground services such as power and water lines away from expanding tree roots in Newcastle’s Civic Park will cost about $3.5million.

The figure emerged during Newcastle City Council’s recent survey of the park’s mature fig trees and the growing problem of spreading roots.

The council made a safety audit of 350 of its largest urban trees a top priority after an 80-year-old fig tree at the corner of King and Auckland streets in Civic Park was chopped down…

Council group manager city services and presentation Janice Walsh said council then began investigating the cost of moving all services away from park tree roots.

`But after consulting the matter with all service providers, we found that the relocation figure was about $3.5million,’ Ms Walsh said.

`And even then, we don’t know where we could put the relocated services.’

From ‘560 Trees Under Close Scrutiny’ 11 9 2002 by Mike Scanlon

NEWCASTLE council staff have targeted 560 trees to assess potential dangers from decay and public hazard.

Council arborist Phil Hewett told Newcastle councillors last night that trees, like people, grew old and died.

He said the council had mapped 54,000 street trees on a city database but it was the 560 trees in various locations that would be closely scrutinised.

Mr Hewett said the council’s tree hazard assessment had strict criteria and examining the 560 trees would require $130,000 to complete.

He said the hazard assessment of the big, old trees would take several months. …

He said lopping tree tops encouraged their rapid growth.                                                       

Such trees sometimes became decayed, but unknown to the casual visitor.                                        

It was some of these trees that posed a potential public risk, he said….

Mr Hewett’s presentation was marked by a number of Mayfield residents waving placards with titles such as `Don’t Stump Newcastle’, `Shame, shame, shame’, `Save the trees’ and `Shade from trees, not Becton’ (a development at Honeysuckle).

After the briefing, Mayfield resident Raye Hitchcock said the residents were still angry about the removal of 21 large fig trees on Club Phoenix land at Mayfield.

She said another 25 trees were scheduled to be removed and people were unhappy there had been no general public consultation.

Ms Hitchcock said she lived seven houses away from Club Phoenix and had no idea the trees were to be removed.

She said that while Club Phoenix said it had consulted 20 residents on the boundary of its property, it had not done so with anyone else.

During the briefing, Mr Hewett said the Phoenix trees were on private property and would be replaced by smaller tree species

From ‘681 Trees in Urban Forest Plan’ 3 3 2003  by Mike Scanlon

The urban forest strategy was partly unveiled by the council last week when it was revealed the city had a potential problem with its ageing trees. …

Mr Hewett warned that the avenue of majestic, 120-year-old fig trees in Islington Park were “nearing the end of their time”.


From ‘Axe For Number of Trees’ 26 2 2003 by Mike Scanlon

Mr Hewett said council had to accept that there would now be a turnover of large, decaying trees.

From ‘Gone in One Fell Swoop’ 26 5 2004 by Neil Keene

Newcastle City Council arborist Phil Hewett and independent specialist Judy Fakes have recommended the removal of at least 15 mature hills figs on Tyrrell Street.

At a council briefing last night, Mr Hewett said hills figs marked as problem trees in Civic Park and on Tyrrell Street were tested to gauge their health and stability.

Assessment confirmed that there was no safe option other than to completely remove some of the figs.

“With the record of failure in Tyrrell Street with these particular trees, we are on notice as an organisation to address the problem,” Mr Hewett said.

“The next storm could be tonight, the next storm could be in three months … I have no doubt there is a degree of urgency with this.”

Citing the collapse of a huge fig on a day-care centre at the bottom of Tyrrell Street in January, a tree fall last month in Civic Park and a similar recent fall on Industrial Drive, he suggested that it was only a matter of time before someone was seriously injured or killed if nothing was done.

He said many of the trees, which were planted between 60 and 75 years ago, appeared healthy to the untrained eye.

But rather than forming a “plate” of roots as they would in a natural setting, many of the figs had sent out long, straight roots, possibly along underground service trenches.

The tree farthest from the camera, measured the tree-hugger's way (with your hand-span), is 450mm diameter

City Trees Coming to End of Life Span’  24 1 2009 by Matthew Kelly

THEY have been synonymous with Newcastle’s streets and parks for more than a century, but time is quickly running out for hundreds of the city’s trees.

Old age, the ravages of the urban environment and disease mean that most of the city’s ageing trees will disappear over the next 20 years.

“As a community we need to accept that these trees are coming to the end of their life span,” city arborist Philip Hewett said.

“It’s very rare for trees to die in an urban situation, we actually have to take them down when they still look healthy and green.” …

“If we take trees down, we are committed to putting trees back but not always in the same place because yesterday’s trees may well have been a mistake in location or species,” Mr Hewett said.

New Figs Not Recommended’ 4 2 2009 by Ian Kirkwood

NEWCASTLE had large numbers of mature Hill’s figs in the city that were likely to fail in the coming 15 years, city arborist Phil Hewett told last night’s Newcastle City Council meeting.

Mr Hewett addressed the councillors in response to a recent resolution calling for the council to replace two figs in Laman Street, Newcastle, that were destroyed during the June 2007 storm.

He said it cost about $40,000 to replace each mature Hill’s fig and the likely bill for tree replacement and related repair of roads and footpaths could run as high as $10 million.

Mr Hewett said he could not support replanting Hill’s figs in the vacant spaces because the new trees were unlikely to succeed and the surrounding trees were showing signs of stress or failure.

The neighbouring trees were starting to spread into the newly available air-space but the best plan was to remove them and replant with “the best tree” available.

This might not necessarily be a Hill’s fig, which did not grow naturally in this area and came from Queensland.

Mr Hewett said people tended to believe that trees were “riskier than the statistics would suggest” but the problems with the Newcastle trees were not a case of him “over-estimating the risk”.

He said people in the suburbs tended to be less enamoured of their street trees than their inner-city counterparts, and the council generally received few objections to removing big figs from outer areas.

Newcastle council had 1150 Hill’s figs in its care.

Councillors voted to receive Mr Hewett’s report.


From ‘Fig Tree Fracas’     by Anthony Scully, ABC

“What the consulting arborist has said in his report is that there are five trees out of 14 that will need to be – or are recommended to be – replaced in the next five years,” Cr Osborne said…”And the other ones are in the next category, which is up to 15 years away.”…

In a press release announcing the change of venue for the Laman Street Art Bazaar, the council’s director of city assets Steve Edmonds said advice received late last month ‘showed hosting an event in this area would be an unacceptable risk for both council and the community’.

“The ratio for acceptable risk is 1:10,000, the risk in Laman Street is 1:78,” he said [WRONG]…

Two weeks ago the council issued a press release in response to ‘some panic in the community, that the figs are being removed’.

The ‘panic’ came from the presence of contractors using ‘ground penetrating radar to get a picture of what the root systems look like along the street’…

But Cr Scott Sharpe says that the community will have an opportunity to be involved in the design of how Laman Street, between now and March 2010.

“It’s actually going to be dealing with the community as well, so that they can make comment as to what they think would be a suitable replacement avenue to have there,” he said.                                                           Home








One Response to “Almost ten years of media reporting on being ‘beyond tree preservation’”

  1. Read excerpts from 8 years of doom and gloom about trees « Save Our Figs and other trees in Newcastle Says:

    […] the page ‘Almost ten years of reporting on ‘being beyond tree preservation’ for a […]

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