Tree protection polling insights
Prepared for the Seattle City Council by the Northwest Progressive Institute team
May 3rd, 2023
Councilmembers, NPI thanks you for your work with Mayor Bruce Harrell to improve climate resilience and strengthen protections for Seattle’s trees. Keeping the Emerald City emerald is an important and laudable objective, but we won’t reach it unless we provide meaningful legal protections to protect more of our existing tree canopy. As you know, a mature tree takes a lifetime to grow. Merely requiring new trees to be planted somewhere else when a mature tree is cut down does not provide a 1:1 replacement.
We need actionable strategies for tree retention – and for those strategies to be successful, we need to ensure trees are viewed by the law as community amenities rather than obstacles to development. That is why the work you’re currently doing to update Seattle’s tree protection ordinance is so important.
Trees and more housing go hand in hand. Research keeps demonstrating that access to nature and the outdoors is good for our mental and emotional health. Our built environment can’t just be concrete, asphalt, steel, and glass. And as our PNW summers become hotter, it’s going to be particularly important that new Seattle residents have access to shade. Urban forests are not a luxury – they are a necessity.
This memo will walk you through the data that demonstrates that what we’ve just said in the preceding three paragraphs are the strongly held beliefs of an overwhelming majority of Seattleites. Across three different surveys conducted in the past eighteen months, we have repeatedly found massively robust majorities for almost every single tree protection idea that we asked about.
On many issues that we research, we see a sharp divide among the public. But here, we see widespread agreement that spans the ideological and political spectrum. Washington is the Evergreen State and Seattle is the Emerald City. We are national leaders in environmental protection. We have a strong conservation ethic. Here, we believe the trees are the view. It’s very important that our policies reflect these values.
Two-thirds of Seattle voters are already concerned about tree and canopy loss
In our most recent survey of the Seattle electorate, conducted in January 2023, in advance of the February 2023 special election, we asked a representative sample of
QUESTION: How concerned are you about tree and canopy loss in your neighborhood and the city as housing density increases to meet Seattle’s growing population?
40% Very concerned
29% Somewhat concerned
18% Not too concerned
12% Not concerned at all
1% Not sure
68% Total Concerned
31% Total Not Concerned
Breakdown by council district for this question:
|Not too concerned||18%||14%||27%||20%||21%||24%||15%||13%|
|Not concerned at all||12%||7%||11%||10%||12%||8%||11%||32%|
|Total Not Concerned||31%||21%||37%||30%||33%||32%%||26%||44%|
Of those who said they were concerned, we asked this follow-up question:
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: You stated you are concerned about losing trees in your neighborhood and the city. How important is having trees and nature in determining where you live in Seattle?
77% Very important
20% Somewhat important
2% Not too important
0% Not important at all
98% Total Important
2% Total Not Important
Seattle voters are not at all opposed to building more housing. But they want to see new apartments, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and the like built without destroying what’s left of our urban forests.
Trees are important to increasing climate resiliency, Seattle voters say
In a subsequent question in our January 2023 poll of the Seattle special election electorate, we asked respondents to tell us about the role of trees in the city. Nearly all respondents agreed that trees are important to everything from reducing noise to providing visual beauty. What was particularly interesting was that 72% said trees were very important to increasing climate resiliency. The intensity we saw there was only exceeded by providing habitat for birds and wildlife (80% say trees are very important for that.)
QUESTION & ANSWERS: Please indicate how important you think trees are to each of the following:
|Very||Smwt||Not Too||At All|
|Increasing climate resiliency||72%||21%||6%||2%||92%||8%|
|Reducing air pollution||71%||22%||6%||1%||93%||7%|
|Reducing stormwater runoff||65%||28%||6%||1%||93%||7%|
|Habitat for birds and wildlife||80%||16%||3%||1%||95%||5%|
|Reducing heat island impacts||72%||20%||7%||1%||92%||8%|
|Mental and physical health||67%||26%||5%||2%||93%||7%|
|More pleasant to walk and bike||65%||26%||7%||2%||91%||9%|
Across the lake, voters in Bellevue likewise see tree protection as key to building a livable city, along with more housing
In August of 2022, the Northwest Progressive Institute commissioned – in partnership with the Housing Development Consortium, Sightline, Complete Streets Bellevue, and Eastside For All – a poll of Bellevue city residents that focused on housing. In that survey, Change Research asked 475 Bellevue residents what attributes should be prioritized in the city’s future housing.
Sufficient tree canopy was the second-highest ranked attribute overall, after cost/affordability.
QUESTION & ANSWERS:: Which of the following attributes should be prioritized in Bellevue’s future housing? Select the three that are most important to you.
|1||2||3||Not Ranked||Total Ranked||Avg. Rank|
|Cost / affordability: Bellevue needs homes that low and middle income families can afford to rent or purchase – and that nonprofit developers can afford to build||32%||9%||9%||50||50||1.6|
|Sufficient tree canopy: Bellevue needs homes that are built responsibly, with mature trees left standing in order to ensure that neighborhoods remain connected to the natural environment||13%||9||14%||64||36||2.0|
|Walkability and density: Bellevue needs homes that are within walking distance of common destinations like grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, restaurants, and churches||9%||13||12%||65||35||2.1|
|Range of sizes: Bellevue needs homes in a range of sizes, including homes that provide more space than a studio apartment but less space than a millennium mansion||10%||14||10%||66||34||2.0|
|Proximity to transit: Bellevue needs homes that are well served by buses and trains so that residents aren’t forced to buy or lease a car to get around||7%||15||11%||67||33||2.1|
|Low environmental impact: Bellevue needs homes that are built with high levels of insulation, sustainably-sourced materials, energy efficient appliances, and heat pumps||9%||9||7%||76||24||1.9|
|Multi-generational dwellings: Bellevue needs homes that can comfortably support more than a single family, or multiple generations of a family||7%||8||10%||76||24||2.1|
|Local developers: Bellevue needs homes that are built by locally based developers who have a stake in the city’s future and take the time to obtain and utilize community input||4%||7||8%||81||19||2.2|
|Home office space: Bellevue needs homes that allow residents to work remotely from a dedicated home office, as opposed to a shared space like a living or dining room||4%||5%||6%||85||15||2.1|
Tree retention as a strategy for increasing the availability of affordable housing
Additionally, in response to a separate question, the survey found that 64% of Bellevue residents support relaxing restrictions like building height limits for projects that preserve existing mature trees on the property rather than cutting them down. 29% were opposed and 7% were not sure.
QUESTION & ANSWERS: The Bellevue City Council is considering a number of ideas to increase the availability of affordable housing throughout the city’s mostly residential neighborhoods. Please indicate whether you support or oppose each of the following policies.
|Relax restrictions like building height limits for projects that preserve existing mature trees on the property rather than cutting them down||32%||31%||11%||18%||7%||64%||29%||35%|
Voters across the state feel similarly
In NPI’s most recent statewide survey, conducted in March of 2023, our other frequent pollster Public Policy Polling asked the following question of 874 likely 2024 Washington general election voters:
QUESTION: The Legislature is considering several bills to address Washington’s housing crisis, including legislation that would make it easier for developers to build missing middle housing like duplexes or low-rise apartments. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose including tree protection requirements in these housing bills to maximize the retention of existing mature trees on parcels being redeveloped and ensure that new trees get planted in low canopy areas to improve climate resiliency and environmental equity?
49% Strongly support
17% Somewhat support
9% Somewhat oppose
14% Strongly oppose
10% Not sure
66% Total support
23% Total oppose
That’s close to 3-to-1 support vs. opposition.
In the King County subsample, the numbers were:
55% Strongly support
18% Somewhat support
7% Somewhat oppose
10% Strongly oppose
10% Not sure
Aggregated toplines for King County: :
73% Total support
17% Total opposition
The need for updated tree protections in Seattle
In our July 2021 poll of the Seattle electorate, Change Research asked 617 respondents (likely Top Two voters) if they wanted to see Seattle’s tree protection ordinance strengthened, specifically to bolster tree equity. 82% said they strongly or somewhat agreed that the ordinance should be strengthened.
QUESTION: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Seattle’s tree protection ordinance should be strengthened to include increasing tree planting in low income and previously redlined neighborhoods with insufficient tree canopy to reduce heat island impacts and counter climate damage?
57% Strongly agree that Seattle’s tree protection ordinance should be strengthened
25% Somewhat agree that Seattle’s tree protection ordinance should be strengthened
4% Somewhat disagree that Seattle’s tree protection ordinance should be strengthened
7% Strongly disagree that Seattle’s tree protection ordinance should be strengthened
7% Not sure
82% Total agree
11% Total disagree
Ideas for protecting trees
In that same survey, we asked about this set of ideas for protecting trees:
QUESTION & ANSWERS: Please indicate your support or opposition for each of the following potential ideas for updating Seattle’s tree protection ordinance.
|Increasing protections for significant and exceptional (large) trees||52%||25%||6%||7%||9%||78%||13%||65%|
|Adding replacement requirements for significant and exceptional tree removal||47%||29%||6%||7%||11%||76%||13%||63%|
|Creating a city tree planting and preservation fund||47%||30%||7%||8%||8%||77%||14%||63%|
|Requiring tree care providers (arborists) to meet minimum certification and training and register with the city||41%||34%||7%||6%||11%||75%||14%||61%|
|Creating a permitting process for removal of significant trees (trees greater than six inches in diameter at four and a half feet high)||31%||26%||14%||14%||15%||57%||28%||30%|
Seattle has already enacted legislation requiring tree care providers to meet minimum certification and training and register with the city. Kudos on that!
In our July 2021 survey, we next asked:
QUESTION: Cities like Austin, Texas require developers to maximize the retention of existing trees throughout the planning, development, and construction process, while Seattle allows building lots to be cleared of trees during development. Do you support or oppose requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees throughout the planning, development, and construction process?
58% Strongly support requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees
23% Somewhat support requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees
7% Somewhat oppose requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees
6% Strongly oppose requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees
6% Not sure
81% Total Support
14% Total Oppose
We can see from the answers to this question that a very large majority of Seattle voters favor requiring Seattle developers to maximize the retention of existing trees as part of their projects. Again, this just shows that Seattleites view trees as community amenities rather than obstacles to development.
More ideas for protecting trees
In our autumn 2021 general election survey – which anticipated the victories of Mayor Bruce Harrell, City Attorney Ann Davison, and Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Sara Nelson – we asked likely general election voters about another set of tree protection ideas. As before, we found plenty of support.
The following questions were asked of 617 respondents in October of 2021 by Change Research:
QUESTION: Portland, Oregon requires developers to provide a comprehensive Tree Survey and Tree Plan at the beginning of the building development process. Developers enter the Tree Survey information into a spreadsheet, which facilitates data collection on tree loss and replacement. Supporters say Seattle could follow suit to ensure the city maintains a healthy tree canopy, while opponents say it would be yet another regulation that would slow down development. Do you support or oppose requiring developers in the City of Seattle to complete a Tree Survey and Tree Plan prior to construction permits being approved?
50% Strongly support
24% Somewhat support
9% Somewhat oppose
9% Strongly oppose
8% Not sure
18% Total Oppose
We then asked:
QUESTION: Oversight of trees in Seattle is currently overseen by nine city departments. Do you support or oppose creating a new Seattle Department of Environment and Climate that would include a consolidated urban forestry division?
44% Strongly support
28% Somewhat support
6% Somewhat oppose
12% Strongly oppose
10% Not sure
72% Total Support
18% Total Oppose
Finally, we asked:
QUESTION & ANSWERS: Please indicate your support or opposition for each of the following ideas for updating Seattle’s tree protection ordinance.
|Give priority to planting native and climate resilient trees||66%||23%||3%||3%||5%||89%||6%||83%|
|Charge developers replacement fees for trees that they remove and don’t replant, with the amount of the fee corresponding to the size of the removed tree to make up for lost canopy||56%||22%||7%||8%||8%||77%||15%||62%|
|Increase building setbacks to allow larger, street-facing trees to be planted||38%||29%||10%||10%||14%||67%||20%||47%|
|Reduce the number of significant, non-exceptional trees that can be removed by private property owners from three (3) per year to two (2) in three years||29%||26%||14%||14%||17%||55%||28%||27%|
|Lower the upper limit for exceptional tree protection from thirty (30) inches in tree diameter to twenty-four (24) inches in diameter||29%||21%||12%||13%||25%||50%||25%||25%|
Across all of our public opinion research on tree protection, we have never found less than a majority supportive of any of the ideas and strategies we have asked about for retaining trees and facilitating the planting of new trees. There’s broad, deep, and enthusiastic support for making the Emerald City a national leader in both tree protection and smart density. For this aspiration to be realized, we need an updated tree protection ordinance with teeth in it. The trees cannot speak for themselves, to paraphrase from The Lorax, so it’s critically important that the law speak for the trees. Please use this lens when considering and voting on the amendments that have been submitted to the draft ordinance.
Thank you for your service to the people of the City of Seattle.