Westminster Avenue from Power Street to Highway 97 is a canopy of green with sturdy elms that burst into plumes of green. (Dianne Bersea photo)

Opinion: Look up to see Penticton’s urban forest, a valuable asset

The best street is Westminster Avenue where towering elms create a canopy of green

Trees have always been a big part of my life. I love the sweet spicy smell of Ponderosa pines on a hot Okanagan day.

I love stepping from the heat into the cool shadows of Penticton’s urban forest, an inspiring collection of cottonwoods, poplars, oaks, maples, elms, weeping willows and even sycamores.

Our urban forest is thanks to those who have shaped Penticton from meandering river and meadow flood plain to burgeoning city on the go. I’ve watched anxiously as Penticton grows, flexes, redesigns itself and responds to the needs of an increasing population. Sadly, our trees are often considered expendable.

In my daily walks, I’m mesmerized by the treed streets that are now leafed out and flowering. Walking into the treed spectacle of Moosejaw Street I can swing up Windsor to the curious anomaly of a tree sheltered boulevard…with a Sycamore at each end and at least one Ginkgo tree among the others.

But my favourite tree street is Westminster Avenue. These trees say ‘tree’ with enthusiasm! Sturdy dark trunks with magnificent spreading crowns burst into the sky like a fountain.

In the section from Power Street west to where it joins Highway 97, these elms often meet overhead, enveloping the avenue in soft green light. For early morning or late afternoon drivers, the low sun streams as through a stained glass window. Glorious!

Planted in the early 1950s, these towering American Elms (Ulmus Americana), were spindly saplings when Westminster Avenue became the Highway 97 access to downtown.

A fast growing and popular boulevard tree, elms have filled the streets of many a town west of their native east coast. In good conditions they can become truly ancient. The Westminster elms are in their late sixties now but could live another hundred years!

If they remain healthy, I hope they are retained as part of Penticton’s plan to redevelop the northwest corner of town, along with the maples and cottonwoods on Riverside Drive and the trees throughout that area.

In my search to learn more about Penticton’s urban forest, I appreciated a conversation with city parks supervisor Todd Whyte.

Todd introduced me to Penticton’s asset database that includes a growing catalogue of all the trees on city land. Bonus…this on-line database is available to the public at https://gis.penticton.ca/parcel-viewer/.

I’ve been pouring over it, identifying the trees that still mystify me.

Todd sees Penticton’s urban forest an ongoing identification and improvement project. “There’s great community benefit from our trees,” Todd tells me. “We need to appreciate their value.”

I’m pleased to hear that and thankful for our Tree Protection Bylaw to assure that city trees that need to be removed are replaced. Sadly, the trees taken down that break my tree-loving heart are most often for site preparation on private land. Yes, in many cases there are new trees planted but we’ll be waiting 20 to 40 years to see the likes of the ones they replace.

Please, may we have more tree centric planning with strategic retention of our foundational urban forest.

Dianne Bersea is a Penticton artist.