Participants at a Monday rally display signs in support of a tree-protection law. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

A Climate Crisis Working Group to accelerate the city’s climate change mitigation efforts was just one environmental initiative broached at the City Council meeting Monday.

Organized by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and to be chaired by councillor Patty Nolan, the group will gather input from community advocates, expertise from local climate experts and best practices from peer cities to develop a “prioritized list of specific actions the city can and should take in the short term to have a measurable and meaningful impact” toward climate resilience.

“The need for greater urgency was made exceedingly clear” by a Net Zero Action Plan five-year review released in December, Siddiqui and Nolan wrote in a Thursday missive to the council, noting that citywide greenhouse gas emissions are unchanged since 2003 while the state and Harvard reduced overall emissions by 20 percent and 30 percent even as both grew. It says the city will have to accelerate emissions reductions twentyfold over the next 10 years to meet its goals, a “sobering assessment [that] means immediate action is needed.”

“We woke up a week ago and smelled smoke from the fires out west,” said Nolan on Monday, underscoring the need for swift climate action. “It is a hard lift.”

The group will convene up to six times over the next three months.

Rally participants gather Monday on the lawn in front of Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Daniel Wang)

Tree-protection discussion on pause

In addition to announcing the working group, Siddiqui and Nolan – with councillor Quinton Zondervan – introduced an order on protecting the city’s tree canopy. The order proposes treating trees as “essential infrastructure” even for municipal and affordable-housing projects, citing their ability to mitigate heat islands, improve air quality and bolster psychological well-being.

“If Cambridge is going to be in a position to fight the impending climate crisis, we must do everything we can to preserve our tree canopy,” the order reads, emphasizing the impending removal of nearly 100 trees at the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School site.

Though councillor Tim Toomey charter-righted the order until September, it received enthusiastic support from attendees at an afternoon rally in front of City Hall and from around a dozen residents during the remote meeting’s public comment period.

“I want to ask how a … city like Cambridge, so rich in intellectual firepower, apparently can take for granted the elimination of roughly 16 acres of trees a year – which has happened in the last 15 years or so – without attempting to mitigate the loss and sustain the city’s tree canopy?” said Linda Moussouris, of the Porter Square Neighborhood Association.

Social justice and science

Several residents pointed to issues of environmental justice, noting that less affluent areas of the city were losing their canopies faster than their better-resourced counterparts. “Low-income people are always taking the brunt of the collective irresponsibility to the planet,” Inman Square resident Sarah Boyer said. “If this was happening in West Cambridge, people would have stopped this from ever being debated.”

East Cambridge resident Heather Hoffman homed in on a similar point: “It has become very clear to me that one of the messages that we send to poor people, especially poor people of color, [is that] we don’t much care about them because they don’t get beautiful places to be. They get asphalt … And I think we owe them better.”

Tufts environmental researcher Jonathan Harris, meanwhile, emphasized that the damage of killing mature trees is not so easily reversed. “Many people believe that when mature trees are cut, the damage can be compensated for by replanting,” he said. “A project that removes a tree 18 inches in diameter and replaces it with a smaller tree 4 inches in diameter will result in significant ecological loss.”

Mid-Cambridge’s John Pitkin also corrected a common misconception – the idea that “trees are solitary beings.”

John Pitkin, in a tan baseball cap, listens Monday to a rally speaker before giving public comment to the City Council. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

“Trees communicate and share resources through the roots and air, and large trees nurture small ones,” he said. “This new scientific understanding means that our policy of replacing large trees with greater numbers of small trees is as misguided as the policy of replacing elementary school teachers with greater numbers of students with the hope they develop into teachers.”

A debate online in recent days over the value of protecting trees over building more housing wasn’t reflected in Monday’s public comment. Speaker Christopher Schmidt said the tradeoff at the Tobin and Vassal site was a worthy one, since it was for a stormwater runoff tank. “These are not things that we need to hold in competition. We really need to do all of these things to the best of our ability,” he said.

Electric bikes, Jerry’s Pond and lab buildings

Though the fate of the resolution on trees won’t be decided for another month, an order to throw the city’s support behind a state-level bill to regulate electric bicycles passed without comment at Monday’s meeting, as did an order to commit city resources toward revitalizing Jerry’s Pond, a polluted former swimming hole on land bought recently by the life science real estate giant IQHQ.

The last environmental initiative of the day to make it through was the call for a special permit process for development of labs and research facilities within 250 feet of low-density residential districts, which suffer from their “all-night light pollution,” sun blockage, noise, chemical odors and their other detrimental effects.

Current law allows the buildings in 22 of the city’s 34 base zoning districts without a buffer zone, councillor Dennis Carlone said of his order, which he expected to get discussion in the Ordinance Committee after Monday’s 9-0 vote.


This post was updated Aug. 3, 2021, to note that it was councillor Tim Toomey who charter-righted an order Monday, an act attributed to the wrong person, and to give Sarah Boyer’s neighborhood as Inman Square.

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