Tree Canopy Update & 10/15 Policy Order

Tree Canopy Update & 10/15 Policy Order

The Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force was formed earlier this year, as a result of advocacy by myself, Vice Mayor Devereux, and Green Cambridge, and has been charged with advising in the creation of a master plan for Cambridge’s urban forest. The group has been meeting for a few months now and recently held a public meeting to discuss their findings to date. One of their first tasks was to look at the existing state of our urban tree canopy. Preliminary results from the April 2018 LiDAR flyover show that Cambridge has experienced a shocking 18% relative canopy loss since 2009. This means that there is 18% less land area covered by tree canopy today than there was in 2009. Perhaps even more troubling is that the rate of loss actually increased in recent years, jumping from a 7% decline between 2009 and 2014 to an 11% decline between 2014 and 2018. In light of this disturbing information, I will be renewing my call for more immediate interventions by the administration while the task force continues to deliberate through next Spring.

Depicts the canopy change by land use type. All categories show a net loss, but Residential is by far the biggest: we lost 171 acres of residential canopy but replaced only 82 acres.

The preliminary report shows that there has been a net canopy loss across every single land use category, including public open space, though residential areas are by far responsible for the greatest overall loss (not surprising as this is the majority of our land area). We lost 171 acres of canopy on private residential land, but added just 82 acres of new canopy through growth and new plantings. That means we would have to nearly double our planting rate in order to simply break even. It is reasonable to conclude from the report that the choices we are making around development and construction, in particular on residential land, are a major driver of the astounding canopy loss we have seen. Clearly, any serious solution to this crisis will have to involve both the planting of new trees AND the mitigation of future loss. Unfortunately we already have baked into our plans significant additional canopy destruction, including at the 14-acre site of the Volpe Transportation building which will be redeveloped by MIT over the next decade or so, and at the former site of Abt Associates, where many large trees are slated to be cut down to make way for new housing. Our current Tree Protection Ordinance does not require that the canopy loss be mitigated, allowing developers instead to pay into a tree fund, which is slowly spent by the city and obviously has not managed to increase canopy coverage. Developers can avoid even that minimal level of compensation to the city by cutting down the trees on their property a year and a day before applying for their construction permits.

Heat Map of Canopy Loss in Central Square from 2014-2018

These protections currently in place for trees on private land in Cambridge are clearly very weak, but there is precedent around the country and indeed in our own backyard for a stronger ordinance. Austin, Texas protects any healthy tree within city limits that has reached 19 inches in diameter. Oakville, California does the same, but for any healthy tree greater than 5.9 inches in diameter. Here in Massachusetts, the city of Newton protects private trees greater than 8 inches in diameter in certain circumstances. All three cities have implemented a permitting process for property owners who insist on cutting down a healthy tree of significant diameter.

I proposed a similar requirement for a permit1 to cut down any tree over 8 inches in diameter last June through a policy order to amend the current ordinance. The Council voted 5-4 to give the proposed amendment a hearing in the Ordinance Committee. Unfortunately, that hearing has not happened yet while we continue to lose more trees everyday. If we are serious about stopping the bleeding, we cannot afford to wait until next Spring when the task force is expected to finish deliberating. That is why I’ve submitted another policy order this week calling again for a hearing on my amendment, as well as a hearing on the canopy issue in general.

Policy order submitted to the 10/15/18 regular meeting by Councillor Zondervan

I asked my constituents what they thought of this proposal in an informal poll earlier this year, and 164 Cambridge residents responded to the survey, with 62% saying they are in favor of requiring a permit for cutting down healthy, mature trees on private property. Nobody denies that trees are our urban allies: crucial in stormwater management as well as important protectors against the urban heat island effect and polluted air. Trees are beneficial to everybody, even when they are located on private land. Unfortunately, the report indicates what we all suspected: lower income residents tend to live in areas with less tree canopy coverage. This means that the most vulnerable residents of our city will be the most adversely impacted by canopy destruction. This is a fundamental issue of social justice that must be addressed, and that means planting more trees in those areas. Trees are not just for rich people, and indeed we should be grateful for all the trees that property owners plant and protect, because they benefit all of us. The city has a heavily underused “back of sidewalk” program to plant trees on private property at public expense. We need to find better ways to utilize this program to achieve a more equitable distribution of trees on private land in our city.

Going forward we need to seriously consider how to develop our city and grow our canopy at the same time. Fortunately there are plenty of existing parking lots and low rise buildings that could be converted into both housing AND green space, creating further opportunities for canopy expansion. There are also new building techniques that allow for trees to be more directly integrated into the building, and not just on the roof. As climate change worsens we will need our tree canopy more than ever. Please join us in protecting and growing this valuable resource.

How to make your voice heard: If this issue is important to you one way or another, please write the council and let us know what you think! You can email all nine councillors at once: <>. Please also include the City Manager’s office: <> and the clerk (so it is entered into the official record) <>. You can also submit written comments to the Clerk’s Office at City Hall during regular business hours. As always, if you’d like to reach me specifically you can email me at: <> or call my office: (617) 349-9479. I look forward to hearing from you!


  1. The permit would be issued without a hearing and wouldn’t necessarily require a fee; emergency situations would be exempted. The point is not to get in the way of a homeowner needing to remove a dead or diseased tree, but rather to alert the city to large scale tree removal in the hope it can be avoided or reduced in extent.



Update on Adult-Use Cannabis (Zoning & Equity)

Update on Adult-Use Cannabis (Zoning & Equity)

In a pair of hearings last week, the council made progress towards allowing adult-use cannabis businesses to open in Cambridge. Tuesday’s Ordinance Committee hearing looked at zoning language proposed by city staff, and Wednesday’s hearing of the Economic Development Committee honed in on the equity component, which is so critical to get right before we open up the floodgates and allow this new industry to take hold in Cambridge.

Click to enlarge. Retail stores will only be allowed in business districts. Production and manufacturing will only be allowed in the IB-2 district (outlined in Orange). The green rings signify medical cannabis stores which have already received their permits.

At the suggestion of the Mayor, the Ordinance Committee voted on a series of amendments to provide policy direction for the staff on what we would like to see in the final zoning. The current draft of the ordinance allows recreational sales in all retail districts throughout the city, but limits cultivation and manufacturing to the industrial district. This is an important distinction because cultivation and manufacturing can cause exceptionally unpleasant odors which we want to keep away from denser neighborhoods. Most products will be required to arrive at the retail store pre-packaged, which will significantly cut down on odors in those neighborhoods. Staff had originally proposed a 5,000 square foot limit on production facilities, but my motion to increase that number was approved in committee 6-1 after it was pointed out by several practitioners during public comment that a 5,000 square foot limit would severely limit the financial viability of their operation.

Depicts theoretically possible locations where adult-use cannabis businesses could be permitted under a 500 foot buffer (top) or a 300 foot buffer (bottom). Only a few additional sites become allowable when the buffer is lowered (the purple circles on the bottom map represent additional opportunities). In reality, these circles represent an idealized scenario which doesn’t take into account some of the major constraints (eg storefront availability and a landlord’s willingness to rent to a cannabis business) so there will certainly not be a store at every circle on the map.

The proposed zoning includes an 1,800 foot buffer between retail stores, which we’re using to ensure access for disadvantaged businesses to the most desirable real estate locations. Applicants who meet certain equity criteria (details to be determined, more below) would be exempt from the buffer and allowed within 1,800 feet of an existing establishment. Staff had initially proposed allowing two stores within 1,800 feet of each other in large squares like Kendall and Harvard, but I made a motion to strike that provision because it undermines the intent of allowing additional stores only for equity applicants. We also voted 7-0 to expand the criteria for who qualifies as an equity applicant. The state regulations include distinct definitions for “economic empowerment” applicants and “social equity” applicants, and state law separately has definitions for disadvantaged businesses, such as women and minority owned enterprises. We basically directed the staff to combine all these categories as much as possible into Cambridge’s definition of who will be considered an equity applicant, in order to cast the widest possible net as we address the injustices of the war on drugs through cannabis business regulations.

The state law sets a maximum 500 foot buffer around K-12 schools, playgrounds, rec centers, and other public youth facilities, but allows local regulation to reduce this buffer. The planning board, in their review of the draft ordinance language, had suggested that this particular buffer should be lowered to 300 feet. I voted with the majority, 5-2, to accept their recommendation and lower this buffer because I don’t think an additional 200 feet is going to make any difference in terms of underage access or exposure1. These stores will be very discreet and no consumption will be allowed on the premises. While a 300 foot buffer does not yield many additional opportunities for retail locations, siting adult use retail stores will already be difficult enough given the constraints of the real estate market in Cambridge, so every little bit of of additional wiggle room helps.

From 2001-2010, Blacks were much more likely to be arrested over cannabis than Whites across the country. 88% of arrests were for simple possession (ACLU, The War on Marijuana in Black and White).

The equity conversation continued the following day in a hearing chaired by Councillor Siddiqui. An ACLU study found that there were over 8 million cannabis arrests in the US from 2001-2010, 88% of which were for simple possession, and on average black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white people, even though both used the drug at similar rates. Councillor Siddiqui and I have worked together from very early on to do everything we can to ensure the industry develops as equitably as possible and does not sideline the very people who have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

The state law requires that each establishment sign a host-community agreement, giving the city another opportunity to achieve our equity goals, separately from the zoning provisions described above. I strongly support the state cannabis commission’s recommendation that every other host community agreement signed by the city be with an equity applicant (see earlier discussion regarding the definitional challenge of equity applicant). Alternating in this way instead of simply establishing a quota for equity businesses makes sense to me, because an initial quota can be watered down over time through acquisition of equity applicants by non-equity businesses, and restricting such acquisitions would be very hard to do. To ensure that equity applicants continue to meet the requirements of the designation, we should consider an annually renewable license. Otherwise, a business could present as a qualified equity applicant to get a signed host community agreement and zoning approval (including a possible exemption to locate within 1,800 feet of other adult-use businesses), and then over time transform into a non-equity applicant, without any leverage by the city to enforce its equity goals.

While it may feel like establishing municipal cannabis regulation is taking a long time, it is important to make sure we get this right. If we don’t, we risk the industry being dominated by big money applicants, leaving smaller, less generously funded equity applicants sidelined and unable to participate in the market. In the long term, we will benefit from this careful consideration of how to balance our equity goals with a timely introduction of adult-use cannabis businesses in our city. I look forward to reviewing the next version of the zoning ordinance and continuing to make progress on the structure of host community agreements as well as how we will achieve our equity goals. I also plan to organize a separate hearing on the non-business aspects of cannabis legalization, because it’s important to remember that most people who have been negatively impacted by prohibition will never themselves go into the cannabis business.

Is this topic important to you? Let us know what you think by emailing the entire Council: <>, the City Manager: <>, the City Clerk (if you want your comments on the official record) <>, or just me <>. You can also call my office at 617-349-9479 or submit written comment to the Clerk’s office at City Hall during regular business hours.


  1. As a parent I fully understand the concerns around underage access to cannabis products. Unfortunately, under current circumstances, underage youth have shockingly easy access to these products. The most effective way to reduce such access is to undercut the illegitimate street market with properly regulated, licensed businesses, not by overly restricting such businesses based on proximity to playgrounds and schools.