Stumped by tree felling

The only mahogany tree left standing in Jalan 17/13 has aggressive roots deemed unsuitable for urban neighbourhoods.

THE sight of mature trees being cut down without notice is a bone of contention for many Klang Valley residents.

Upon seeing stumps where once tall trees stood, residents are quick to blame the local authorities.

Some accuse them of not maintaining trees regularly, opting instead for the easy way out when problems arise.

With the world getting hotter by an average of 1.1 degree Celsius each decade, city dwellers say tall trees are vital to absorb carbon dioxide, provide shade and lower the surface and air temperature.

Root of the problem

Anyone taking a drive around Section 17 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor will be greeted by the ugly sight of tree stumps, particularly along Jalan 17/1, 17/2, 17/13 and 17/21.

Section 17 resident Tracy Toh said residents in the neighbourhood valued the trees and were upset when they were cut down.

“We realised that there has been no regular maintenance of trees here for many years,” said Toh, who started a Tree Protection Committee in September 2020 after the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) felled about 26 trees along Jalan Professor Diraja Ungku Aziz (formerly Jalan Universiti) in July that year.

She claimed that whenever the committee wanted to object to trees being cut down, MBPJ’s Complaints Department (Aduan) would refer the matter to the city council’s Landscape Department.

On April 15, 2021, she said about 15 trees in Section 17 toppled during a storm, and it took several calls before MBPJ removed them.

“The city council often cuts the trees and leaves logs on the road for weeks until complaints are made to the local councillor in charge,” she said.

On Oct 19, 2021, Toh and another resident, Eugene Ong stood for hours under an old mahogany tree with a 275cm circumference in Jalan 17/13 to save it from being felled.

They managed to save that tree but other trees along the road stretch were cut down later, she added.

“We are not opposed to trees being cut down if they pose a danger to people, but MBPJ should maintain them and enforce a Tree Preservation Order as the local authority,” she added.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172), is a Tree Preservation Order to protect big and mature trees from being cut or damaged if the girth of the trunk exceeds 0.8m.

“Where I live, it’s pleasant and cool at night because of the trees around us,” said Ong.

“MBPJ should engage with residents before cutting down trees.”

Zone 10 (Section 16 and 17) councillor Medaline Chang She-Yun told StarMetro that most of the trees in Section 17 were cut down on request by residents whose houses were adjacent to them.

She said many trees were said to be damaging house compounds, drains and walls.

“Affected residents expressed worry that the trees could fall on their houses.

“I understand the anger and frustration, but MBPJ does not chop down trees randomly,” she said, adding that tree replanting efforts had taken place along Jalan Harapan and Jalan Professor Diraja Ungku Aziz.

In April 2021, some residents in Taman Seputeh, Kuala Lumpur, were infuriated when several 40-year-old hardwood trees were felled in a playground.

A resident, who only wanted to be known as Rezza S, said Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) when asked about the matter told them that the trees were “dead”.

“From what we saw, they were strong, healthy trees.

“If it was just a branch that needed pruning, why chop the whole tree down?” he asked.

Extensive property damage

In 2019, Raymond Cheah’s property along Jalan 17/1, especially his compound and exterior drain, was affected by aggressive roots from two angsana trees.

Both trees were chopped down in the middle of last year.

“I could not even open my automatic gate because the roots had pushed up the tarmac.

“One of the roots had spread under the drain and up to our compound, creating a bulge. I requested for the trees to be felled because they were too tall and would have fallen onto our building,” said Cheah.He observed that tree cutting contractors appointed by the city council did not do a good job of pruning the branches.

He said the workers only trimmed the side branches and let the top grow, adding that if the tree was top heavy, it could topple during a storm.

The roots from the felled angsana trees, said Cheah, were still coiled inside the drain outside his property.

“I had to remove the root that encroached into my compound and repave the surface on my own.

“The drain outside is still damaged from the roots. The roots have not been cleared even after I made a report to MBPJ’s Landscape Department,” he said, adding that MBPJ considered the matter as resolved but it was not.

When asked about the felling of trees in Section 17, Petaling Jaya mayor Mohamad Azhan Md Amir said an investigation would have been carried out prior to any action taken by the city council.

“Even if some residents complain of a tree being unsafe and MBPJ finds no danger, an arborist is still consulted first.

“Residents should know that experts are consulted on the matter,” said Mohamad Azhan, adding that the MBPJ Landscape Department staff were trained to gauge if a tree was unsafe.

He added that while MBPJ does not have an arborist on its payroll, one was hired when needed.

“This matter has been discussed during committee meetings. For now, MBPJ uses the services of an external arborist.

“The important thing is that there is transfer of knowledge between the arborist and the Landscape Department,” he said.

Mohamad Azhan said public safety was top priority and that MBPJ had replanted old trees that needed to be felled.

Wrong trees planted

Evidence suggests that certain species of introduced trees were not suitable for dense urban areas, said arborist and landscape architect Hashim Gombri.

He said the angsana or sena tree were native to South-East Asia and were mostly found in coastal areas and riverbanks.

The angsana can grow up to 40m tall and 2m in diameter and its dome-shaped crown is dense and wide-spreading.

“When these trees are planted close together in limited spaces, a change will occur within the crown structures. They will morph into more cylindrical shapes and become taller.

“We can see these trees planted along city roads,” he said.

Hashim said it was imperative for local council Landscape Department officers to have adequate knowledge of tree defects.

“Trees like mahogany and tecoma were planted on roadsides when neighbourhoods like Section 17 were being developed.

“As these neighbourhoods became denser, the soil condition and climate change have significantly reduced the stability of these big trees.

“What we discovered when examining uprooted trees was that they were mostly non-native and had disintegrated roots.

“Felling is the only option to minimise danger,” he said.

Hashim is also the consultant behind the Best Management Practice Guide on Tree Conservation and Green Infrastructure Management for the Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia that was published in September 2021.

He cited an example of trees being felled for road widening projects and how this would destabilise existing trees.

“When an area is being developed, a good part of the earth would have to be dug, and replaced with subgrade gravel where premix is added.

“This will disturb the roots of existing trees and make them unstable,” he said, adding that the roots system and canopy of the tree have to be stable to maintain the load of its structure (see chart).

“If the tree is planted next to a drain, the possibility of it falling over and hurting someone is highly likely,” he stressed.

Hashim said it was crucial that local councils provide sufficient allocation for green spaces in the city where trees could grow safely.

“I can understand why people get upset when a tree is cut down, but the tree needs to be removed to protect people from harm,” he said.

He said there should be ample green spaces, a minimum of 2m-wide, at any new development for trees to grow.

“Only the right native species should be planted at suitable spaces as this will affect the tree’s health and stability.

“Introduced species of trees mostly have an exposed, aggressive root system and should be avoided at all cost,” he said.

Hashim added that the well-being of trees should be safeguarded by stakeholders like the Public Works Department, Drainage and Irrigation Department as well as contractors during any site work to minimise and prevent damage.

Tree protection and preservation, he said, should be implemented before and during a development project to prevent potential tree failure.

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