Street Trees: Not In My Front Yard


Street_trees2You’re looking at a newly-upgraded sidewalk just one block over from my house.  These houses face south, as does my house.  And on this block, as on my block, there are no driveways, the homes having been built in the pre-car era.  Everyone has a narrow front yard, often unfenced, and probably a small and oddly-shaped backyard.  That’s just how this neighborhood works.

When the sidewalks get upgraded, the street trees go in.  A great many civic-minded folk around here think that street trees are a wonderful idea, and think fondly of grand old cities with grand old trees that meet in the middle of the street.  I think those things are grand, too, but the sight of them just a block from my house (are they getting closer?  am I next?) fills me with dread.

Why?  Simple.  South-facing sunlight is hard to come by generally; it’s especially important in fogbound Eureka, where we shiver in our sweaters all summer long. Street trees are wonderful in cities that need shade; that’s not exactly a problem here. My south-facing front yard is the only place that gets full sun.  Having sun hit the front of the house, unimpeded by trees, keeps it warm.

Also:  old sewer lines.  Tree roots.  Homeowner pays.  ‘Nuff said.

And:  overhead power lines.  You see all those power lines?  The trees will grow right up into that nasty tangle of wires, and when the wind whips up off the Pacific in the winter, the last thing you want is a tree anywhere within spitting distance of a power line.

And:  sidewalk pop-upage.  There’s evidence of tree roots busting up pavement all over town.  Messes up wheelchair access, causes people to trip, and looks awful.  Our cash-strapped city can barely keep up with the potholes as it is.  Oh, but wait.  The city doesn’t have to repair those sidewalks, does it?  I forgot; technically, sidewalk maintenance is the homeowner’s responsibility.

Finally:  the tree itself.  I’m not sure what these are, but just behind me they’ve planted big ol’ magnolias in the sidewalk.  My parents have the same species in front of their house, and it’s a chore to keep it trimmed, deal with its messy droppings, and find anything at all that will grow underneath it. As a gardener, I just hate the idea of having a big, demanding plant stuck right in front of my house and placed under my care.

So I dread the day when our well-meaning city workers show up to do some work on our street that involves re-doing the sidewalk.  I’m going to have to go demand that when tree-planting day arrives, they skip my house. I’ll be the Grinch That Hates Street Trees, and people will hate me for hating the trees. Isn’t civic life wonderful?  For now, I hope my crumbling old sidewalk is allowed to crumble a while longer.


  1. I actually need shade (living on a bright, noisy, corner of one of those grand old tree-lined streets–designed by Olmstead actually) and requested a tree from the town, offering to pay for it too. The town told me they wouldn’t put one in unless a tree had existed there previously (which I thought was strange because everyone had a tree but me on my street). They also told me that technically, I couldn’t plant any flowers in the hellstrip because it was town property. Which begs the question, why do I have to mow the darned thing?

    Later from a neighbor, I found out that the town had removed not one, but two dying trees from in front of my house (before we had bought the house), and I needed to request to have them put back in!

    Ah, the efficiency of local government…

  2. I agree with the rights of the homeowner havuing the say over whether trees should be in front of your home or not.

    Especially when you cannot use the city’s right away into your yard for anything.

    The (LEAF me alone) TROLL

  3. Street trees are a funny question. My neighbor just had an old one taken down on our property line. Now, the houses really look naked. The power lines really look obnoxious. And my semi-shady garden is broiling and needs to be moved.

    But, as a would-be farmer, my basic bent is anti-tree. Now that the honking maple is gone, I have a spot for a another peach tree and three dwarf cherries. I’m not much of an aristocrat, I suppose. I’ll sacrifice a gracious streetscape for something delicious any day.

  4. All very good points Amy. But.

    The right species of small tree might be a nice addition without any of the negatives. You can have your new sidewalk and sunlight too without being the neighborhood tree hater. Look for the best tree species now for your climate and zone before the city comes. Pester them enough before they get to your street about how excited you are to have this species? of well researched tree on your street and you might get it.

  5. They look like Raywood Ash (Fraxinus raywoodii). Very popular because of their very fast growth. The problem is the root system will be way to big for the sidewalk, so lifting will occur. Like so many fast growing trees they are slightly messy. Not really a good sidewalk tree.

  6. Do you have a city arborist office? Maybe speaking with them sooner, rather than later (as Christopher C NC hints at) will be helpful. Here in Seattle, our city arborists try to work with community on these issues, and they have pretty strict rules about how, what kind, where and so forth the trees can go. Maybe you could work with your city to build models like these (if you don’t already have them in place). Sure might help you get a small tree that won’t block much sun, heave sidewalks, weave themselves in power lines, or hunt down sewer lines. I too have a west-side parking strip and had to work with the city to get inappropriate trees removed (planted without permits by prior owners of our house) and replace them with more appropriate slow growing, small trees.

    More info on the Seattle program, to get you going, at

    Good luck!

  7. Bummed out about the city picking your new street tree for you ?
    Then get involved. Join the street tree committee, attend the design review meetings , make your voice heard through the local media and educate the public to correct street tree choices for each site specific location.
    Provide the Design and Review Board, or whomever is making your decision for you, with an appropriate tree list.
    A small tree such as Cercis occidentalis Forest Pansy makes a great small street tree.
    There are many others to choose from.
    Chances are the person in your township who is choosing the trees is choosing from an outdated list that was compiled in the early 20th century.
    No one is going to think outside the box unless they are prompted to.

  8. Amy, I think you raise many good points, all of which are about the unthinking acceptance of an idea – Trees Are Good. Of course they are, but as some of the commenters have suggested, it depends on the tree, and as you have pointed out – on the site. If you get in touch with your town arborist or Department of Public Works I hope they’ll be responsive and thoughtful as they plant more trees. I hope they won’t be in front of your house.

  9. For those streets and parking lots that do need some shade, our Urban Horticulture Institute (UHI) here at Cornell has some solutions to some of the shortcomings you point out, Amy.

    As I think Michelle pointed out above, there are many great trees that can be planted under overhead utility lines and top out before they reach them. Here’s a list of some suitable for the Northeast that top out under 30′:

    To help solve the heaving sidewalk problem, UHI director Nina Bassuk developed Cornell Structural Soil — a special mix that is strong enough to support pavement but still porous enough to promote healthy root growth without heaving. She and her grad students have been coupling Cornell Structural Soil with porous asphalt as a solution for reducing runoff from parking lots while growing trees to help keep our increasingly paved urban environments cooler.

    You can read more about the UHI and it’s outreach publications (including bareroot planting practices and deciduous woody groundcovers) here:

  10. One more small point from a not-professional gardener — recently in my area ash borer beetles have been discovered, and many of the ash trees are infested and will probably die eventually because the local communities say they can’t afford the cost of treating them. So — try to hold out for something other than an ash tree, if you have to have a tree where you don’t really want it.

  11. Amy-
    I’m weighing in on the behalf of street trees, as I see not many people have taken this position so far.
    I hope you will reconsider your position on having a street tree. The value of a street trees is immeasurable. California where you live and Florida, where I reside have suffered greatly from urban deforestation. As a landscape designer I advocate planting street trees to my clients. A payback, if you will, for living in paradise.
    My mother was a tree activist when it was barely on the radar. Forty years ago, confronted by a similar dilemma, she made fast friends with the city’s arborist. Buffalo NY was in the midst of an environmental catastrophe, near total tree devastation, wrought by Dutch Elm disease. My mom started out being concerned with getting another street tree that would bite the dust. She ended up being a board member for The Buffalo Master Plan Reforestation Project. When I visit my hometown, I revel in the sight of the mature trees, a legacy my mom left for Buffalo.
    Commonweeder and Craig from Cornell offer some really good advice. Being part of the process, helping guide your city to make appropriate tree choices is something you can claim as a legacy.
    Yes, a fine example of community organizing (which has gotten a bump rap as of late.)

    I agree trees are not always planted in appropriate places. Some examples:
    1. The town where I live, Tarpon Springs, FL planted Laurel Oaks as street tress on our historical commercial strip. Unfortunately, they are short lived. This was used as an example of why the town slated the trees for removal and replacement. Residents revolted, the trees remain and are so far are thriving.
    2. Homeowners can also plant regrettable choices. I live down wind from a Sycamore tree. Being a tree hugger at heart, I feel out of balance resenting a tree. It has nasty habit of shedding it’s large crunchy leaves in August when most deciduous trees shake off their leaves here in January. I tell myself, it isn’t the tree’s fault that it was planted to far south and I try not to growl when I attempt to rake up uncooperative leaves.

    Today, NPR had a story on trees planted by municipalities.
    A different problem than the one stated in Amy’s entry.
    “Across America, communities intent on beautifying their roadways often plant trees. But in some places, those trees have encountered a powerful foe: the billboard industry.”

  12. I agree that you should try to work with the local government to get appropriate trees planted. When that doesn’t work I suggest going out in the dark of night and replacing the offending tree with something more acceptable. My guess is no one offical will notice.

  13. Everyone’s already made good points, Amy, so I’ve little to add other than to direct you to a site that might prove useful, Even though I’m farther north than you, I’ve used it often. It’s one of the few sources I’ve found that addresses many of the problems you mention, such as root damage and height under power lines. Along with other sources, this should give you the ammo you need to suggest a better alternative than Raywood ash (I think Trey id’ed it spot on and he’s right, it’s not a good street tree choice.)

    As for replacing a tree under cover of darkness (Ninja tree planters – ha), I’d be careful. A friend removed a street tree that had grown too large for its site, planning to replant another more suitable for the space that fall. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite do it by the book (even though she had verbal permission, she failed to get the permit in time) and she got into big trouble (they called the next day!). The city gave her a choice: pay a huge fine (and I mean huge) or buy a 4″ caliper tree and plant it now. It was mid-July, not a good time to plant such a large tree in such a site. It immediately defoliated but it has come back and it doing well several years later. But what a hassle.

  14. I am shocked at the (way too small small!) size of the street tree bed! Call your local elected official and suggest longer open tree beds for roots – – lots easier than screaming for wider.

    My favorite two street trees I advocated for when I lived in Manhattan are a Dawn Redwood (a deciduous evergreen)and lots of Zelkova Serratas (still happy just east of West 44th and 10th Avenue)!

  15. Not to pick nits, Barbara, but Dawn Redwood and bald cypress trees are deciduous conifers. If a tree is evergreen, it’s not deciduous.

    Street trees and other trees sequester carbon and soak up stormwater and that’s more than you can say about a bare sidewalk.

  16. We have some of the messiest street trees you can grow in Los Angeles, the jacaranda. We curse them for one reason or another 11 months a year, except in July, when they are fully leafed out and in a one-month glorious stasis before they start doing something really annoying again. But I think the big picture is important where trees are concerned. As Ginny points out, the carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange is loads more with trees than with the smallish stuff I grow. This fact alone is going to be increasingly important. Yeseterday I saw a chipmunk eating the jacaranda nuts. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen chipmunks in LA in my lifetime. However, in a leafier city than Los Angeles, such as Eureka may be, it’s probably not irresponsible to pass on a street tree when there’s ample green belts.

  17. How dare them! and within spittin distance of Amy Stewart’s house. Do they not know who you are? You fired-up Texas girl…I say you head down to the city hall -call some people- shake things up a bit!
    Really though, I have to agree with you. I LOVE trees, heck, there’s nothing more magnificent than a grand ‘ol magnolia. BUT to put a large tree in the sidewalk in Eureka, the land of cherished south-facing sun, and within spittin distance of Amy Stewart’s front yard….I cannot imagine. You need to make some calls girl! I’m ready to do it for you!

  18. Having had a tree wreck a sewer line, i feel your pain, but I really like street trees nonetheless. In addition with helping with the rain runoff & thus streams and fish and all that, they give you a better feeling when walking the sidewalk than bare cement. You’ve got a bit of protection from cars and the trees are a treat for the senses. You could petition for a small tree. That’s such a small opening in the sidewalk that i cannot see how any big tree would work in it. Portland has a Friends of Trees group with a listing of good street trees – you can search based on width of the dirt the tree will have, includng as narrow as 2.5 feet. See

  19. Ginny said that Jacarandas are the messiest trees around….I just planted one because I love their purple/blue flowers, but am now concerned about the mess. Is it just the flowers falling that cause the mess? And can they ruin your car, as it is planted near our driveway?

  20. I live in Eureka too and I mostly agree with you Amy, mostly because who wants extra shade around here? But when my parents first came to visit they remarked on the dreary feeling of the city with no trees. It does feel weird sometimes.

    I think if they were putting in fruit trees I wouldn’t mind. Yeah, it would get messy if you didn’t stay on top of the fruit when it fell (or before it fell) but in general, edible trees all around town would be nice, and useful. And the flowers are generally pretty in the spring too.

  21. One thing I recommend to Portland area folks if there is not way out of getting a street tree, and they have a decent reason for not having one, is to get the smallest or narrowest well-performing variety that is allowed.

    Or requesting to add an alternative.

    Trees do produce oxygen, but it’s also indisputable that much of a city’s air will be replaced daily due to wind, except for a few stagnant days.


    MDV / Beaverton

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