Valuing our urban trees – part I

At last, some good news: city trees have been given the same habitat and biodiversity value as their country cousins.
Or have they?


Since writing this blog, we have now responded to Defra’s Small Sites Metric (SSM) Consultation. It develops further our critique of the way that urban tree habitats are being undervalued. Perhaps urban trees are now the poor country cousin?

It is available here – Bristol Tree Forum response to the Small Sites Metric consultation

Our second blog dealing with Urban Tree habitat condition assessment is available here – Valuing our urban trees – part II.

Our third blog dealing with habitat selection is available here – Valuing our urban trees – part III.

The important contribution that urban trees (native and non-native) make to our cities has finally been recognised by Natural England, with their publication of Biodiversity Metric 3.0 (BNG 3.0) on 7 July. It states that:

Trees in urban areas can, under the right conditions, provide a large range of habitat opportunities, supporting lichens, bryophytes, invertebrates and birds. Tree planting in urban areas has for over two hundred years also introduced non-native species into towns and cities. In the context of biodiversity, native species are the preferred option. However, non-native tree species can contribute positively to biodiversity richness particularly in relation to providing a seasonal food source for nectar feeders and other invertebrates as well as supporting vertebrates that feed on species that are hosted by non-native trees. Examples are early and late flowering species of Prunus and aphids on varieties of Acer providing food for species higher up the food chain.

Trees in urban areas provide opportunistic sites for biodiversity to colonise and re-colonise, increasing connectivity and contributing to biodiversity critical mass between already established patches or sites. This is especially true where transport corridors are populated with mixed native species.

What’s an urban tree?

The new BNG 3.0 habitat category, urban tree, includes individual trees, lines of street trees and blocks of trees growing within the urban setting.

BM3.0 Guide – TABLE 7-1: Urban tree definitions

The previous urban tree habitat categories, woodland, orchard and street tree, which appeared in the beta test version of Biodiversity Metric 2.0 (BNG 2.0) have been discarded.

The urban tree habitat calculation has been set to ‘medium’ distinctiveness and ‘low’ difficulty for both habitat creation and enhancement. Urban trees are categorised into small, medium or large. Their condition may also be assessed as poor, moderate or good.

The problem with BNG 3.0

The three size bands set out in the table below are useful when creating new habitats or enhancing existing ones (for example, nursery-raised standards ready for planting have a stem diameter of around 30 cm and so are Medium). However, these bands are not useful for assessing the baseline habitat of existing urban trees.

This is the size table used in BNG 3.0:

BM3.0 Guide – TABLE 7-2: Urban tree size by girth and their area equivalent

NB: the second column of this table is wrongly labelled. It should read Girth (circumference) at Breast Height, not Diameter.

The RPA formula used is simple: RPA radius = 12 x DBH (Stem Diameter is also known as DBH – Diameter at Breast Height). This value is then used to calculate the RPA using the formula DBH = PI * RPAr^2.

Every application to develop land where trees will be affected should produce a BS:5837-compliant survey, called an Arboricultural Impact Assessment (AIA). This will report the stem diameters of all the trees growing on and around the site. The AIA also reports several other tree features including species, height, cardinal point canopy radii, condition, life stage and the BS:5837 category – a measure of the quality of the tree.

However, the BNG 3.0 table above provides no logical way of establishing whether a given surveyed tree with a stem diameter of, say, 15 cm or 40 cm – halfway between categories – is Small, Medium, or Large.

It would be better if the table gave ranges – say Small up to 10 cm, Medium 10-50 cm and Large 50 cm or more – but this has not been done. Also, doing this would distort the habitat calculation with all Small trees set to their upper range and all Large trees set to their lower range.

Our solution

Why use the table at all? It would be far simpler to calculate a tree’s baseline habitat area just by using the calculated RPA provided in the AIA. It would be better still to use its actual measured canopy area, which will have been reported in the AIA and thus be readily available.

In our view, RPA does not reflect the habitat value of a tree. All it does is use a formulaic approach to solving the problem of finding an acceptable way to protect trees. It bears little relationship to the habitat or biodiversity value of a tree.  It would be far better to calculate a tree’s canopy cover (TCC), the standard method of working out the value of a tree. Every AIA reports the canopy radii of the four cardinal compass points of each tree surveyed. These can be averaged and used to calculate TCC.

The Bristol One City Plan adopted TCC as the measure of tree planting success when it set the target to double TCC by 2046. TCC is a standard measure used by the various i-Tree tools and Forest Research uses it in its UK Ward Canopy Cover Map which used i-Tree Canopy. We used it to calculate the TCC of the city’s wards in our 2018 Bristol Tree Canopy Cover Survey and we are using it to update the new city-wide survey for 2021.

We made these observations when Natural England was consulting on its beta test version, but these seem to have been overlooked. We hope they now take note.

Some further thoughts

The introduction of the three new urban tree poor/moderate/good condition criteria, set out in detail in the BNG 3.0 Technical Supplement, will require all AIA surveys to include this data. Perhaps BS:5837 should be updated to require this to be recorded in the AIA.

Where tree surveys identify mixed urban tree conditions, the person undertaking the BNG 3.0 calculation will need to record more than one urban tree baseline habitat to capture this information.

BNG 2.0, which was only published as a beta test to allow for wider public consultation, is still being used by Bristol’s Local Planning Authority (LPA) for pending applications but needs to be abandoned. Pending applications which require a biodiversity net gain report should be required to recast their calculations using BNG 3.0 rather than still relying on BM2.0. This is particularly true for the Council’s own, direct applications such as the one pending for the Baltic Wharf Caravan Park.

Our initial analysis shows a significant net gain deficit when BNG 2.0 is used instead of BNG 3.0. This is especially true for urban street trees, which are significantly undervalued under BM2.0. Furthermore, the LPA is currently allowing applications which propose a zero net gain outcome, even though the Environment Bill (currently being considered in Parliament) will require a net gain of 10% above the baseline valuation.

Given that the Council has declared climate and ecological emergencies and aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, it is surprising that developers continue to be allowed to present biodiversity net gain proposals that either undervalue biodiversity or offer no net gain whatsoever.


We welcome the publication of BNG 3.0, but its flaws need to be corrected.

As Natural England recognises in its recent blog – Biodiversity Metric 3.0 – a milestone moment for biodiversity net gain:

Publishing Biodiversity Metric 3.0 was a landmark moment for biodiversity net gain, it will become the metric used to calculate and evidence whether a project has achieved the biodiversity net gain requirements set out in the Environment Bill. Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is:

an approach to development, and/or land management, that leaves nature in a measurably better state than beforehand‘ …

Biodiversity Metric 3.0 ensures that:

all habitats, from street trees to woodlands, green roofs to grasslands are recorded, scored and valued for their importance for wildlife. At the same time, it provides an evidence-based, transparent, consistent and easy to use way of ensuring that nature is considered within the design of developments and in land management practice, leaving nature in a better place than it was before, benefitting wildlife, people and places.

Bristol City Council’s declaration of climate and ecological emergencies and its commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 means that it needs now to ensure that the latest, most accurate biodiversity net gain calculations are part of all pending and future planning applications.

Bristol’s Tree Canopy

“Bristol ranks as the 5th greyest city in England”

This statement was made in a recent article in Wales Online,  the Express, and elsewhere. The article, with a by-line of Neil Shaw, seems to be based on a press release by OVO Energy who are promoting a petition to create a legally binding target to plant 30,000 ha of new woodland each year to 2050.  The article reported tree cover in a number of countries and cities around the UK based on data supplied by the aerial survey and GIS company BlueSky.  Amongst the results is :

Bristol, known for its green credentials, ranks as the 5th greyest city in England at 8% – and only 1 tree per person. 

This is very different from the estimate produced by our own tools which estimate tree canopy cover (TCC) in 2020 at around 17.5%. Thankfully, as the following analysis discovers, Bristol can hold its head as a green city.

i-Tree Canopy 

Our estimate is based on a desktop survey using a methodology called i-Tree Canopy.   The methodology is pretty simple:  take any boundary, randomly place a number of points within the boundary, examine each point in Google Maps and decide if the point lies within a tree canopy or not; the ratio of canopy points to the total number of points is the TCC, Uncertainty arises from the nature of the random sampling and interpretation of the image, particularly to distinguish a tree from hedges and low ground cover.

Our version of this approach is integrated with the Trees of Bristol website so that it can used to estimate TCC for any area in our database with a known boundary.  In particular, we have used this tool to estimate TCC for all wards in Bristol which are mapped here.  These values have joined the many hundreds of estimates across the UK  to form the GB Ward Canopy Map  organised by Forest Research.  With this pedigree, we have been advocating this approach for use in Bristol as the means to assess progress towards Bristol’s ambitious goal of doubling tree canopy by 2046.  Aggregating the samples across all 32 wards, we estimated that Bristol had 17.9% TCC in 2018 and by 2020 it was  17.5%. (This change from 2018 to 2020 is not statistically significant)

National Tree Map

The estimates in the press article were based on the National Tree Map, a commercial product from Bluesky.  This uses a combination of their own imagery and LIDAR data.  Complex analysis of the LIDAR data, using the difference in return time from ground and canopy reflections enables an estimate of the canopy above 3m high.   

Discussion with Bluesky revealed a probable cause of the discrepancy for Bristol.  Any comparison between estimates needs to be based on the same boundary definition using imagery from the same time period. For the i-Tree Canopy approach we have used the City of Bristol boundary which has an area of about 11,000 hectares (110 sq km) . In contrast, it turns out that  the data provided to OVO energy by Bluesky was based on the Unitary Authority Boundary.  For Bristol this is a rather odd area, taking in a swath of the Bristol Channel down as far as the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm.  This is because historically, the boundary of the Port of Bristol is included.


The area within this boundary is 23,500 hectares.  Since Bristol can hardly be criticised for failing to plant trees in the Bristol Channel, this dramatically distorts the estimate.  Adjusting for this difference in definition, I arrived at a figure of 17%, within the statistical bounds of the i-Tree canopy estimate.

The National Tree map was also used back in 2014 as reported in the Daily Mail.  The accompanying map similarly shows a very low value for tree canopy in Bristol so I suspect that the same boundary was used there too.



After discussion with BlueSky, I supplied four boundaries for assessment using the NTM methodology for comparison with the i-Tree approach: the Bristol City Boundary and three wards chosen to have low, medium and high levels of canopy. These are the results:


NTM uses a strict height of 3 metres when assessing canopy whereas using i-Tree canopy, the distinction between tree canopy and lower greenery including hedges is assessed visually, so a slight upward bias might be expected and has also been observed in Forest Research data.  On the whole though, this comparison shows very strong agreement between the two methodologies. 

The bad news

The gross error in Bristol’s tree canopy percentage actually made it easy to see that something was amiss.  One must assume that similar issues will have occurred in the case of other cities whose boundaries are subject to debate.  Indeed, the Unitary authority boundary for Portsmouth, which with only 4% cover is reported to the be worst in the UK, includes the expanse of Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours.  According to the Portsmouth Council website, land is about two-thirds of the area of the authority so a better figure would be 6%, still low.

Problems with boundary definitions plague this data.  Bristol City is only the core of the conurbation with large parts of what we think of as Bristol in South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset.  Comparison with the figure given for Leeds, also 17%, is not possible since the City of Leeds boundary includes all the surrounding towns and countryside.

It is clear that unitary authority boundaries are not directly suitable for urban canopy evaluation.

The need for full data publication

In addition to the 2014 report and the recent publicity by Ovo Energy, another survey by Bluesky was publicised late last year on the BBC but no figure for Bristol is mentioned.  These press articles give only selective figures rather than the full data across England. I searched for published reports containing the full data, which I expected to include the base area, canopy area as well as the computed percentage and rankings.  I found nothing.  This makes it impossible to correct other derived data, such as the ranking of Bristol as the “5th greyest in England”.

I would hope that in future, companies like Bluesky and Ovo Energy will see that making full data openly available in support of extracts and assertions would reduce mis-interpretations, provide a public good and better promote their company.

Journalists too have a responsibility here, not only to critically assess press releases but to request and link to the supporting data. Neither happened in this case.

The good news

This exercise has turned out to be good news for both the National Tree Map methodology and our own work with i-Tree Canopy. The results are very similar and differences are rather consistent and explainable.  Our implementation of i-Tree Canopy is free to use by citizen-scientists with known error bounds and can be quickly applied to any chosen boundary.  With the inclusion of historical imagery from Google Earth, it can also be used to compare canopy over time.  

This exercise has also confirms the doubts we held about the figure from an i-Tree Eco survey carried out in 2018.  This survey used volunteers to ground-survey 200 random plots in Bristol. The survey arrived at a figure of 12% with wide error bounds but much less than the i-Tree Canopy value.  All methods have some uncertainty but we can be pretty confident that Bristol’s Tree Canopy in 2020  is in the region of 17 – 18%.

The National Tree Map is primarily intended as a means to locate and measure the canopy of individual trees in an area.  The canopy estimate is only a by-product and agrees well with the i-Tree canopy approach.  For its primary purpose, NTM appears to provide a very much more economic solution than on the ground surveying.  Indeed it would be very interesting to compare this map for Bristol with the mapping of individual trees in Trees of Bristol.

Forest Research is at the forefront of research into the UK Urban Tree canopy and their 2017 paper on the Canopy Cover of Englands Towns and Cities remains the most authoritative UK -wide survey. We look forward to an update to this excellent work.

Chris Wallace

First published in The Wallace Line on 11 May 2021

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