This is the fourth edition in a series of essays by journalist Bradley Perrett on long-term planning ideas to provide for a better future for the people of the Greater Newcastle and Hunter Region.
Newcastle needs to cut down almost all of the Norfolk Island pines on its harbour and ocean shores.
There's no doubt that it eventually will, otherwise people will hardly see water except when standing under what will eventually be enormously tall trees with overlapping branches. The sooner the unpleasant job of removal is done, the less painful it will be.
The first reaction of most people reading this article will be that we simply cannot cut down these magnificent conifers. Every time I think about the subject, I briefly have the same feeling. But it really must be done, because the trees are destroying one of our greatest assets, water views.
This is most obviously a problem for people living or working in high-rise buildings, of which Newcastle will have many more as the decades roll on.
But the problem for those people is also a problem for everyone else. Newcastle will prosper if it is an attractive city to live in, especially if it offers excellent, affordable water views to a large fraction of its residents. Businesses and jobs move to cities that offer great lifestyles.
If you wanted to wreck that opportunity, you probably couldn't do better than to plant dense shoreline rows of trees that look great, grow slowly to spectacular heights and become loved civic features that future generations would hate to remove.
That's exactly what the City of Newcastle has done and is continuing to do: along Foreshore Park at first, more than 30 years ago, and more recently at Fletcher Park. There are also closely-spaced groups of Norfolk Island pines near shorelines at Stockton and Bar Beach.
Wanton planning of tall trees must be suppressing inner-city development already, because potential apartment buyers can easily conclude that sooner or later they won't see water; they'll see foliage.
The council has no plan for managing the problem; it doesn't even prune except for tree health and public safety.
This series of articles is about long-term planning of Greater Newcastle, so readers may wonder why I am writing about trees that we already have. In fact, our Norfolk Island pines are just about the most predictably long-term planning subject that we can discuss, because they will last well beyond a century. There's one on Norfolk Island that is supposed to have been there when Captain James Cook discovered the island (and its trees) in 1774.
Norfolk Island pines grow to at least 50 metres, which is about the height of a 16-storey building. Of course they get wider as they go up.
At the northern end of Stockton, we can see what happens. At that location, trees of this species were planted 12 metres apart. Now mature, but far from fully developed, they are growing into each other, their branches overlapping.
Along the southern side of the harbour, the council has planted Norfolk Island pines just eight metres apart. This means that, unless they are removed, Newcastle will ultimately have a 50m-high hedge along its harbour shoreline.
Just imagine that for a moment.
Apart from isolating ourselves from the water, we'll be a national, maybe international, laughing stock.
Imagine, too, the scene from a future cruise ship entering the port. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Newcastle. You can't see it, but it's behind that green wall over there."
We should remove just about all the waterside Norfolk Island pines that are less than 40 years old and any older ones that are in particularly view-damaging locations. Those that are most historic, notably the wonderful group in King Edward Park, must be kept.
Thinning out the lines of trees by removing, say, one in two won't be enough, because they grow so wide. Even if we cut down three in four, at least half of the view will still be lost when looking at right angles through the row. If the line of sight is not perpendicular, the obstruction will be denser.
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Maybe one in 10 of the tall waterside trees could be kept, and even then we should take out more if important views were blocked.
The value of trees in cities is beyond doubt. They're not just pretty and they don't just make us feel good; research shows that they even improve our health. In particular, I'm sure we must have lots of trees to adorn our shorelines.
But they don't have to be Norfolk Island pines.
The council should choose a new waterside tree species, necessarily one that can put up with wind and salt. Unlike the current species, it should be indigenous.
And it should not grow higher than about 10 metres. The new trees really must be fairly low, because every metre of height obstructs tens or even hundreds of metres of depth of view. (It depends on where the viewer is.)
We should not procrastinate about changing our crazy waterside tree policy. Solving the problem will only become more unpleasant as it grows before our eyes: the bigger the tree, the less happy we will be about cutting it down.
As soon as the council chooses a new species, its arborists should begin planting it between the Norfolk Island pines. We need to keep close spacing for the new trees, so we can have lots of green by the water.
When the new trees are big enough, the old ones should be cut down. The wood could be used for furniture or construction, sparing some forest trees from felling.
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Depending on how much light the new trees need, heavy pruning of old trees may be needed immediately.
Pruning and felling will be especially unpleasant for the city's arborists. These people have generally done a great job over many decades in creating what's called an urban forest. Yet here I am calling for destruction of some of their work. Again, I can see no alternative.
The council has also planted figs in places next to the harbour. This is another mistake, because they can grow above 20metres. They should be removed, too.
Norfolk Island pines have also been planted in unwelcome locations just a little inland - along Hannell Street and Honeysuckle Drive, for example, and again at close intervals. Unless they, too, are removed, they will block harbour views, at least until about the year 2200.
Notice that I've written this article entirely from the point of view of people, not the trees. That's because we're not discussing the natural environment here.
A city is not nature; it's a place that people make. Its plants are there by our choice. We choose to plant them; we can also choose to remove them. Sometimes painfully.
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