The heavy rains in the summer of 2008 made it easy to forget that 2007 was Toronto's driest summer ever recorded. While people can seek shade and water indoors, streetside trees — the maples, ashes, and oaks confined to a tiny square of soil within a sea of concrete sidewalk — cannot. These trees, which would naturally grow within the protection of a lush forest canopy, are left to bake on our streets. Many simply dry out and die, and then are replaced, only to have their stand-ins die as well.
With the holler of his cheeky Tarzan cell-phone ring, in swings Bob Kemp to try and do what others cannot: keep the trees alive. Kemp, Streetscape Coordinator for the St. Lawrence Business Improvement Area (BIA), is responsible for the upkeep of the public spaces outside of stores and restaurants surrounding Front Street, St. Lawrence Market, and the Flatiron Building.
According to Kemp, it is his job to "make sure the fountains are clean, make sure the banners are flying right, make sure the flowers are nice, and make sure the neighbourhood is nice for our visitors and residents." Kemp is of slight build but has a large, outgoing personality that makes him well known in this neighbourhood — where he has lived, worked, played, and, by his own admission, occasionally "annoyed people" for over 11 years.
In the summer of 2007, after weeks without rain, Kemp noticed that the City-owned trees in his area were not doing well; their leaves were dry and falling off. Not prepared to sit by and watch them die, he and a buddy conducted an emergency inventory of 425 trees in the area and the surrounding community. What he found was upsetting: 70 of the trees were dead and many more were barely alive. Kemp and a friend asked business owners to help with watering, getting permission to run hoses through stores and fill buckets in restaurant sinks. Their efforts saved a few trees, but dragging wet hoses and buckets through stores was testing the patience of owners and was simply not an effective or efficient way to do the job.
Not to be discouraged, Kemp came up with another idea. Why not buy a golf cart, like the ones the BIA rents for community events, and pull a water tank behind it? He did some research and located a cart and a 175-litre tank, but needed money. With his inventory and photos of dying trees under his arm, Kemp met with his boss, St. Lawrence BIA Executive Director Al Smith, and pitched the water cart idea. Smith liked it and, in turn, pitched it to the BIA's board of directors. The BIA then enlisted the help of Smartliving St. Lawrence, a local non-profit organization, as well as members of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association. With this backing, the BIA applied for and received a $5,000 grant from Citizen's Bank, which is planning to open a branch in the neighbourhood this fall.
Given the official go-ahead, Kemp set his plan into action. He bought the golf cart and tank and had a welder he knows construct a small trailer. A battery-powered electric pump inside the green metal trailer box silently pushes the water up from the tank, into a hose, and out through the watering wand — a long metal pipe with a showerhead on the end.
Next, Kemp needed to find someone to actually drive the cart and do the watering. He looked where many others might not. Kemp has a long history of helping men "who are down" find work. Before long, Kemp found someone who was interested and put him to work watering the trees 18 hours per week.
Each tree gets about 20 litres of water. Once the tank is empty, after about 10 trees, it is refilled at taps along the route, kindly provided by businesses, which get their own flowers watered as payment. The man watering the trees has become a bit of a local hero, and people often approach him to say how much they appreciate the work he is doing.
The program is an example of a small locally based solution to one of the city's big problems and a testament to what can be accomplished if we care enough to try.
"I live here, I am proud of what I do," explains Kemp. "And I really feel that if I am going to leave this to my daughters and grandchildren, I want to know I have left something good. It is a nice feeling to know what I have done. And I'm not bragging. I just do it." If they could, the trees would thank him.