Many of us remember the children’s book, The Giving Tree. The sadder than expected tale is about selflessness, but its backdrop centres around a young boy discovering all the ways a tree can be useful.

Theresa O’NeillTheresa O’Neill, who is graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning in Fall of 2021, knows the story well, but unlike the little boy in the book, never takes trees for granted.

O’Neill, the first in her family to graduate from a post-secondary institution, has dedicated her time to understanding the vital role our leafy friends play in our health and well-being. This work has been pivotal in ensuring that we do not lose too many of our urban trees for the sake of money, inconvenience and even sexism.

“There are male and female trees. Female trees tend to be the ones that bear fruit or pods or shed seeds. Male trees produce pollen,” says O’Neill. “Because female trees are considered messy or a nuisance to grounds-keepers or clog sewers, cities don’t typically plant them. Instead, we get mostly male trees. This phenomenon is known as botanical sexism. So, if you’ve noticed your allergies are getting worse, this is a possible reason.”

O’Neill didn’t come up with the term botanical sexism, but ensuring that more strategy and consideration of future needs for tree planting efforts make up a number of the 12 recommendations in a nationally-applicable Practice Guide created by her and colleagues — all Planning graduate students, to help guide municipalities towards more sustainable tree management.

The report is called Guiding Urban Forestry Policy into the Next Decade: A Private Tree Protection & Management Practice Guide, and it focuses primarily on trees located on private property. While largely outside the direct control of city governments, trees on private land still play a vital role in our health, the fight against climate change and the health of our ecosystem.  

“Trees soak up extra rainwater which mitigates flooding when extreme weather overloads our sewer infrastructure,” says O’Neill. “With days getting hotter due to climate change, trees provide shade. They help improve the microclimate of spaces and, that leads different benefits. For example, trees make the sidewalk more pleasant to walk along, which encourages people to walk because they're not going to be afraid of being scorched on their walk.”

the guide's cover The guide was originally created for PLAN 721 through a partnership with the Community, Recreation and Culture Services department at the City of St. Catharines, Ontario. The project was later made applicable for a national audience and was accepted to the Canadian Institute of Planners 2020 and the Ontario Professional Planners Institute 2020 conferences. There has been a lot of support and excitement from municipalities about this work as many are keen to better inform policy as it relates to trees on private land.

O’Neill is about more than just trees. The Barrie, Ontario-raised graduate started her academic journey as an undergraduate Political Science student at Western.

“I got really interested in municipal level politics,” she says. From there she was introduced to the work of acclaimed urbanists like Jane Jacobs and realized that planning cities was actually a career path. “What attracted to me to planning was that — unlike typical political roles, you're a bit more behind the scenes, and in a noticeable way get to impact people's lives. All of which is a huge responsibility!”

Other than trees, O’Neill is interested in the relatively new concept of flexible streets — city streets designed without curbs and with adaptive features like bollards to perform more functions than just being a roadway for cars. 

“Barrie has a flex street and every weekend this past summer they closed Dunlop Street to cars and put out patio space,” she says. “I've also seen them used as the Jurassic Park in the City of London where fans of the Toronto Raptors can gather on Dundas Place and watch the game on a big screen.”

Most recently, O’Neill accepted a job with one of Canada’s largest urban planning consulting firms, Dillon Consulting Limited. She works as a land development planner and assists with urban planning policy work.

“There's something extra sweet for me to graduate knowing wow, I’m not only the first in my family to go to post-secondary, but to get an advanced degree like a masters from the University of Waterloo is just so special.”