It’s a hard life out there for city trees


Tree2by Susan
Yesterday’s post had Michele pondering whether trees even belong in cities, the very question raised in this Washington Post article published the same day.  Here are some highlights, if you can call them that.

  • What readers here already know – that trees "ease stress, fight cancer, lower crime, build civility, store water, bolster real estate prices," etc.  Not to mention fight global warming.
  • Across the U.S., 36 cities have lost a quarter of their tree canopy since 1972.
  • Surveys of tree canopy reveal that "poor people don’t have plants."  The thinnest canopy cover is always found in the poorest neighborhoods.

Turns out there’s a whole slew of reasons for that bit of environmental injustice and the article starts with the reality that it takes "intense community outreach to get neighbors to agree to plant and care for new trees."  True enough.  Even in my reasonably affluent little town, people take their free Earth Day trees home and water them exactly once.  But in poor urban neighborhoods there’s more:  "The soil is extremely dry, nutrient, poor, compacted. "  You dig and it’s "like concrete."  Often people don’t even have water hoses.  Trees are sprayed with gang graffiti.  Street lamps can fry trees grown under them.   And here’s a problem that our friends at Plant Amnesty can confirm, in neighborhoods of all levels of affluence: "Municipal trimmers, which can leave trees with severe, lethal haircuts."  No wonder the average life span of a street tree is only seven years – because of the early death of so many of them.

And nobody wants trees, anyway. "Businesses don’t like trees (when foliage blocks signage).
Bureaucrats don’t like trees (because they’re a hassle).  And despite
what they say now, politicians have not been tree huggers."

Man, that’s depressing.  Looking up from my computer screen to the stately white oaks outside my window, I’ve gotta wonder how long we’ll have them around.

Photo credit via Flickr.


  1. Big trees do belong in cities. One of the wonders of Canadian prairie cities is that they are oasis on a largely treeless landscape and made so by the avenues of trees, mainly Manitoba maples, along all the streets in the older part of the city. Not only are these tree-lined streets beautiful but they make walking tolerable in long hot summer days, lowering the street temperature, and they probably make driving more tolerable too as they form a shady tunnel over the road. Our grandparents certainly knew how to make cities pleasant and civilized.
    Of course officials don’t like trees, they are still stuck in a Modernist mindset, make everything as stark, industrialized and barren as can be – that way citizens are easily controlled and the least money is spent. It doesn’t work.
    Gardeners should be replacing big trees and lobbying their local councils to plant replacement trees long before older trees need to be taken down.

  2. An aerial photo of my (rather small) city looks like a forest, especially the older neighborhoods where the streets are lined with trees. We’ve had trees down town, and trees removed from downtown — tastes change and unfortunately some city planners treat trees like living room furniture — but most parts of town have trees.

    I suppose if you’ve never grown up around trees, you might have a mindset like, “Ohmigawd, that tree dropped a LEAF on my nice, clean lawn!” Last time I was in Chicago we drove through some nice older neighborhoods, and for block after block I saw hardly a tree anywhere shading any of the houses. In the heart of the city were a few trees and some beautiful planters, but the suburbs that we passed through were lovely but treeless. I wondered why. You’d think a little shade would be welcome in the summer.

  3. Modernists were huge fans of urban forests and parks. Its one of the reasons that Le Corbusier was such a fan of tall towers– so that the MAJORITY of the urban land could be given over to gardens and sports fields.

    Modernists were also huge supporters of the flat roof. Why? So that it could be used as a garden instead of wasted space.

    I WISH local councils had a modernist mindset!

    Instead, I think its simply a bottom line issue. Trees cost money to maintain. Planting, trimming, occasional removal, and so on.

  4. I live in a poor part of Berkeley (yes, we have poor neighborhoods in Berkeley) and it’s absolutely true that there are fewer street trees here. There’s less green space in general. The City Council turns a deaf ear to this part of town when it comes to quality of life issues.

    In addition to graphitti and bad tree care, I occasionally see trees that have been deliberately vandalized. It’s sad. Unfortunately, there is a large segment of society here who seems intent on shitting where they live. Sometimes literally.

    Another peeve I have about street trees is the conservative choices that are made. This city is full of sycamores and liquidambars, neither of which seem very pretty to me. Honestly, I’d like to see more fruit and nut trees planted. I know everyone shies away from them with the idea that they’re messy, but there are a lot of poor and hungry people around. In our area there are not only people who “glean” in public areas, but there are at least two organizations which will harvest trees for you, give you what you’d like, then take the rest to the poor, sick and elderly.

    One bright spot is that even the poor side of town is beginning to be heard when it comes to traffic calming. So we are getting small areas of green space in the center of traffic circles. The good thing is that the immediate neighbors have some choice about what will be planted there. The bad thing is that they are not given any landscaping advice from the city. So people could well make choices they end up regretting. I haven’t seen too many people select a tree for the traffic circle although there is room for it. In a tonier neighborhood a mile or so from here, they selected a really nice oak for the center. Yes, it will probably take more upkeep than a tree with a strong upright form, but a good native oak just says “California”. And they’re beautiful as can be.

    I don’t think we should give up on street trees or trees in public areas. Not at all! A couple of the lecturers we had in Master Gardener training made it clear to me that the problem is the bureaucrats. University of California @ Berkeley doesn’t even consult its own faculty when it comes to choosing and siting trees. As a consequence, a third of the slides used in a class on diagnoses plant diseases and illness are examples from campus!

  5. Yesterday I planted the (tiny, spindly) free trees I received from the Arbor Day Foundation. I have vowed that, if they survive and flourish, I will be “guerilla planting” them in one of the treeless (and yes, poor) neighborhoods nearby, and maybe some in Boston where I work. A flowering crab apple or hawthorn in spring lifts the mood, not to mention giving much-needed shade to concrete-heavy neighborhoods that get hot in summer.

    I was also looking at the huge maples lining the side street of the corner we live on yesterday, and realized I have always felt more at home, more happy, in living situations where mature trees surrounded me.

  6. Trees are vital to cities. Heat island effect studies show that trees help tremendously in mitigating heat island effect.”Heat Island” is a condition where areas with large swaths of impermeable surfaces (roads and roofs) increase in temperature by as much as ten degrees, increasing the need for AC and higher energy use.

    Studies show that if street trees are to do well, the soil needs to be replaced with a mix of 40% aggregate, and topsoil mixed together to allow water movement. This mix needs to extend for several feet on either side of each tree to work. If you have ever planted a street tree, the soil under the concrete and the asphalt is incredibly compacted from all the weight, and water has no place to go.

    The truth is, cities are what does not belong. Trees (and greenroofs) are a way to use plants to cool cities, and the energy savings from planting trees and greenroofs makes them a worthwhile investment. The Germans figured this out thirty years ago.

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