When Greens go NIMBY over Street Trees


sweetgumballFlickrliberalmind1012UPDATE:  See site details and photo below.
First, I love my neighbors – most of the time and as a group.  And as a group you could hardly find a more environmentally concerned bunch – until it comes to planting trees in front of their homes.  (So okay, technically it's NIMFYism or maybe NIMROWism for "Not in my right-of-way".)

The Arborist's Plan
Of course part of the job of the city arborist is to reforestation, so toward that goal he's targeting streets that are bare of street trees, including my own, and planting 'em up.  On the side of the street with power lines he'll be planting 18 'Thunderchild' crabapples, which grow to 15-20' tall and wide in 20 years, then die (they're short-lived).  Their fruit is the size of cherries.  Now for the controversial part: 14 sweet gum trees will be planted on the side of the street with no power lines.  They'll eventually be really, really tall (80+ feet).
The Reaction
That news led to a spirited discussion on our Yahoo group, including:
  • "While I like trees as much as the next person, I don't think more trees is always better."
  • Objections to shade trees altogether ("We have SO little sun!")
  • "Sweetgums drop the spiky balls that are lethal to bare feet"
  • Concerns that with more trees, cars won't see kids playing.

Turns out there are plenty of unconflicted treehuggers on the street, but they're expressing their tree enthusiasm in person, not stirring the pot on the old listserv.  Smart neighbors.

The greater good at stake here includes a slew of benefits, starting with the cooling effect that trees have on our homes.  And the land to be planted on is city-owned (the right-of-way).  Nonetheless, the city is allowing people to opt out and decline to have trees planted in front of their homes.

A ConfessionIMG_5886

As surprised as I was by the number of anti-tree emails, I've gotta say I'd feel pretty conflicted myself if monumental trees were slated for MY right-of-way.  (It's true – we have SO little sun!)  But because my right-of-way is already full to bursting with plants, including two small trees, I'm exempt.  Whew.

Should Homeowners be allowed to Opt Out?

The scuttlebutt is that while homeowners now have the option to decline new trees, the city may soon eliminate that option.  It's public land, after all, and trees benefit us all (though gardeners, admittedly less so).  But readers, what do YOU think?  When your Environmentalist Self battles your Gardener Self and your Personal Freedom Self, who wins?

More about the Site

Here's a photo of the right-of-way that includes my own, filled with perennials and Yoshino cherries.  It's only 43 inches wide, and on the other side – with power lines and scheduled to get crabapples – it's only 41 inches.  The houses average 25-30 feet from the sidewalk and the back yards are blessed with many mature trees.  So shady back yards are common in this heavily treed old neighborhood.

Sweetgum photo credit.  


  1. Seems rather than saying “Sweet gums or nothing” they should give people a choice of several trees. Planting a monoculture of just one species is always a bad idea (as the emerald ash borer is teaching ash-lined streets here in Michigan) and different people want different things — I’d compromise, letting the people who don’t want lots more shade get small trees, and the rest get those gorgeous sweet gums.

  2. I’m inclined to let the homeowners modify the greenspace around them as they like. What benefits does the city say these trees will provide? I can’t think of any benefits that are universal…

  3. Sweet Gums? Liquidamber? What about those spiny seed balls that drop? That is a nuisance. Liquidamber sales are hard to make anymore since people do complain about the seed balls. Seems like a weird choice.

    Sacramento has lots of huge trees that shade the streets and make life bearable during the hot summer. Yet, if you asked anyone now if planting those same trees was a good idea you would get people who would complain about the leaf drop, sidewalks lifting, etc.

    Just like the people with the solar panels who sued the neighbors over their tall redwoods that we’re shading the panels, there are so many conflicting needs and wants.

    Don’t have an answer for you but it makes me glad I live in the country where the neighbors are far enough away we can plant any tree we want.

  4. Hmm. I have a large tree lawn that I hated to waste water on, so I covered it with mulch (I know, I know – it could be garden space :-)). I wouldn’t have done that, though, if I didn’t have two very nice, climate-appropriate Serviceberries already there when I bought the place. I love those tree – so do the Robins come berry time.

    FWIW, my city is one that allows some say in what trees get planted on tree lawns.

  5. I’d take sweet gums over those stupid Norway maples — the gumballs are easily swept up and the autumn foliage is the most beautiful of any tree I know.

    That said, I agree monoculture is bad and loss of sun is not really great either. I’m less concerned about the cars-won’t-see-kids problem — I grew up on a tree-lined street and both cars and kids were quite capable of watching out for each other. Giving homeowners a choice of trees, or a “plant one yourself” option, seems the best compromise — the homeowners get something that fits their needs, the street gets trees.

  6. I’m not a fan of sweetgums myself. They are invading my property at an alarming rate. Not only do they sucker and drop seeds everywhere, the roots are very close to the surface and are impossible to dig around. They also tend to rot from the top down.

    Surely there has to be a better tree?

  7. How wide is that curb strip that you are planting the crabs in? You say they get 20′ wide? This is going to require much maintenance on the part of the city to keep the limbs from encroaching on sidewalks and the streets.

  8. Well do the people who live on the sweetgum side of the street face S, N, E, or W. How wide is the street? What are the setbacks? How tall are the homes? Are there many trees in the back yards?

    Its true, gardeners prefer sun, but I’ve seen some wonderful shade gardens. But if the trees will be really close to the houses, it tends to cause problems. That said, today’s owners won’t see those problems for many years.

    Neighborhoods in NYC with a significant number of mature street trees have long histories of economic stability. Trees come to signify prosperity, and those with the resources to manage the damage (sidewalk uplift, difficult lawn or landscape issues, gutter cleaning, etc, etc) seem to tolerate the side effects of having stately, mature trees.

    Of course, there are trees with more open habits that may not be native, like Ginkgo (male). In my mind, however, its really that streets were not designed to accommodate trees or much in the way of planting. I’d rather see a strip of woods in between the back yards of houses or deeper front yards to accommodate medium sized trees. Cramming them in a three foot section between sidewalk and street just doesn’t feel right to anyone who cares for plants, trees included.

    Cars and kids playing? Can we keep the kids out of it for once? Its the cars, not the trees or kids.

    Here’s an idea- get your street to commit to a one lane pavement (you have driveways, right?) No street parking. An 8 foot wide street can accommodate delivery trucks and single cars. It will slow cars down, saving kids everyone professes to care so much about, and give more room for trees away from the house, leaving some more sun. Good luck!

  9. We have a lot of sweet gums on our property. Not only do they drop those horrid gumballs and send up endless suckers from their shallow surface roots, their leaves are resinous and stain pavement, decking, and anything else that’s under them.

    On the other hand, the gumballs are useful for long-lasting wreath material–they never rot. They also have good fall color, even down here in Florida. And of course, a stand of any type of tree cools the area and provides habitat. Plus turf grass does not do well under sweet gums, so maybe these trees will reduce the endless acres of lawn.

  10. After reading through this, I have to say that gumballs sound like an odd choice. And I agree heartily with those who oppose monocultures.

    My city (Bozeman, Montana) offers homeowners a choice of ten or fifteen recommended species for boulevards; the city will put in any of these for a nominal fee (about $99, I think) which also covers removing a diseased tree if there is one. If someone wants a tree not on the list, then they’re on their own as far as planting costs go.


  11. Our city Arborist seems to love Sycamores, which of all the trees you can grow in sidewalk margins in Northern California seems to be a strange choice. Every July and August they all come down with powdery mildew and start defoliating … it is a moldy mess and I have to wonder if it adds to the cases of asthma. Luckily the sidewalk margin in front of my house is too small to permit one of those disgusting trees and I was able to plant something smaller, evergreen and more appropriate to be under power-lines. My across the street neighbor planted Bambusa oldhami (Giant Timber Bamboo) which looks really amazing as a street tree, all though it has already filled the cut in the concrete and has started to “ooze” over the sidewalk… I wonder when the city will notice….

  12. I’m for the some-citizen-choice option. Living as I do in the midst of a neighborhood full of mature ponderosa pine trees (which shade my garden), I would be way unhappy if the city decided to plant trees on the sunny side of my lot. I would really appreciate having a choice, and would opt for something native (though probably not 150 feet tall).

    20 years ago or so, when I took the Master Gardener training through OSU Extension, the lecturer on trees and tree care made a great observation about appropriate tree-planting choices for urban homeowners. He cautioned against planting ‘forest giants’ in one’s yard, and I thought that single piece of advice was one worth broadcasting to all homeowners. Those wee little live Christmas trees we are all urged to purchase as a ‘green’ option, when planted in one’s garden, grow into gargantuan darkness-casting monsters within a couple of decades, shading not only the original planters’yards, but all their hapless neighbors’ yards as well.

    I would like to believe that city arborists/tree choosers would consider all of these factors when drawing up a list of allowable trees for streetside planting, but somehow I imagine most of them are still inhabiting the mythical world of the ‘typical’ 19th Century American Midwest Small Town neighborhood.

    Yeah, let’s do the tree-planted median with cut-outs in front of houses, and the single-direction lanes.

  13. I’d be on the pro side of the tree *if* there were far wiser choices.

    My street is lined with trees. They were planted 50 years ago when the homes were built.
    Just around the corner is a street with no street trees and it looks barren.
    The property values are at least 10 thousand dollars less due to the aesthetics of the look of the neigbhorhood, yet the homes and the lot sizes are exactly the same.

  14. technical point: a median strip is not public land.

    its private land within a public right of way. typically, when you buy a city lot, your ownership rights go all the way to the center of the street. if you can convince the city to vacate their right of way, you get all of that back.

  15. Thumbs up for trees, thumbs down for stupid sweetgums. I have 23 in my yard and they are without a doubt, the most unholy of all trees.

  16. Beautiful fall color notwithstanding, sweet gum is a terrible choice for that tiny little strip, for various reasons mostly already mentioned. Giving homeowners an option from a short selected list of trees is a great idea, as well as letting “avid gardener” homeowners opt out of having a tree at all. What is needed is a city willing to work with homeowners and a selection of trees which is appropriate for the location.

  17. Good luck getting the city to vacate their right of way, HA! The city will do exactly what they want unless you sue them, and sometimes threatening to bring the tv cameras out to embarress them works, too. But I have to agree that even with a Arborist on board to oversee the choices made for street trees (like in my town), the city planters make some really bad choices. Personnally, I like lawn grass in the hell strip so youcross the strre or can get out of your car without damaging someone’s garden or hurting yourself tripping over inappropriately placed landscape boulders, landscape timbers, etc. Gardening in the hell strip is really a dumb idea, IMO… Patrick

  18. The strip of land is only 41 inches wide and the city wants to plant trees that are notorious for large, persistent surface roots that tear up sidewalks? Really? I completely agree that residents need a better choice of tree and preferably am variety of choices. Maybe approaching the arborist with some documentation about the destructive nature of sweet gum roots would be a good place to start!

  19. Hi George – I guess ‘ownership’ will depend on where you live. Here, it’s exactly the opposite of what you describe. The city most definitely owns from the centre of the road to a certain # of feet – which in my inner city neighbourhood means about 2/3 of our front yards are owned by the city.

    And I ditto the remark about property values – houses on a tree lined street here command a LOT more than hot barren streets. Here, the city will plant for free from a list of about 20 trees.

  20. I applaud the city for their tree planting efforts, but it seems like their plan could be a little better. I dislike the idea of a monoculture on either side of the street because of potential disease problems down the road. Emerald Ash Borer should be teaching us that we need to worry about potential pests beyond what’s already here.

    I love sweet gums and their spiky balls, but I will confess to never having lived with one. I am concerned, though, with the tree’s mature spread of 40 to 60 feet. Does the plan allow enough room for proper development of the mature crown? And what about those houses that are set back only 25 feet?

    What about a fast growing, columnar tree like a Lombardy poplar? OK – get up off the floor, I was just kidding!

    I hope that the arborist is willing to revisit the plan and consider a mix of tree species and some smaller sizes.

  21. One minor point, in general there is no more inefficient/expensive/annoying way to do something than to have the ‘gummint’ do it.

    And, since it has been pointed out that median strips are not technically public land, I would probably be a nimby in this case, because of my feelings about property rights. To paraphrase:

    “you can have my median strip when you pry it from my cold, dead . . .” well, you know.

    Or, to express my thought in haiku (or maybe low-ku):

    Looks like a tree, but
    really a ‘program’; money
    is fertilizer

  22. I don’t think the city really thought this out. There are much better urban trees than sweet gum, for one and secondly, a variety of trees would be a much better option. With variety, you can then give the homeowners choice. Even though this is area is not private property, the homeowner will have to do a fair amount of work to help maintain these trees, whether anyone thinks they will or not.

  23. Scott does this mean you payed for and installed by your self the sidewalk, paved road, gutters, storm sewer, septic sewer, street lights, street signs and speed bumps in order to be sure it was done cheap and done right?

  24. Here, perhaps due to our semi-arid climate, Liquidambar trees form aggressive surface roots that sucker, and that also eventually buckle sidewalks.

  25. It’s nice folks get a say. To a point. Maybe 80′ sweetgums aren’t the way to go, maybe a 40′ maple. It needs to live more than 20 years. Forest for the trees.

  26. I appreciate both sides of the debate here. More tree canopy = good for lowering summer heat, provides better air quality, helps with stormwater runoff in addition to adding beauty. Monoculture is risky, though, and not letting people choose their own trees seems like a bad call. In Seattle, the arborist’s office provides lists of recommended small and large trees, as well as prohibited trees (most evergreens and fruit trees), for the parking strip. There is also a program where neighbors can band together and request a set of trees for their street, although they all have to be the same type. I saw a bunch of crabapples go in near me this fall and already some are looking pretty dead. When the city plants, residents sometimes expect the city to also nurture the trees, which may or may not happen. I am a big fan of gardening in the parking strip but would not like it if I was forced to accept someone else’s choice of plantings! I look forward to updates on this story.

  27. I like the last question, since I think it is a really interesting one: When my environmentalist self battles my gardener self and my personal freedom self…hmmmm.

    I think, in all honesty, this is the hierarchy:

    Gardener/Environmentalist (these are truly neck and neck)
    Personal freedom curmudgeon

    Ideally, of course, I make them all play together in harmony, but who am I kidding?

  28. Street trees give so many benefits, that I have little sympathy for the homeowners. The heat-island effect, storm-water infiltration, carbon sequestration, less fossil fuels to cool homes in the winter, decreased stress on municipal power plants… all serious issues that cities have to deal with and which street trees give amazing cost-benefit returns. Hard to see the opposition as anything other than ignorance.
    And streets trees make neighborhoods nicer, and the best effect is when the trees are all the same species.

  29. No one has mentioned the leaf issue. I am on my city’s shade tree commission and you would not believe the number of calls we get from people asking us to take down a curb tree because they do not want to rake leaves. And these are not all eldery. I am with the poster who said bigger front yards and let the home owner plant trees. Especially since in many new developments the water, sewer, and electric lines are in the curb strip so when they need repaired the city does not have to rip up street pavement.

    It is very difficult to establish large shade trees in this day. The ones that are large now grew to maturity before the age of the auto, and did not have to contend with passing trucks etc ripping off their young branches. Now they are so big their canapy is way above the street. New trees get thrashed.

  30. I agree here, with Tibs. Here in NYC we have the million trees program. We got a bunch plopped in last December. About 10-15 percent didn’t make it. No one knew they were coming. And it appeared no one took ownership of them. Now we have stumps where “someone” came and cut the dead or struggling down. If an owner plants his her own, they will watch out for it. The big “however” is that some owners will make terrible tree choices.

    Living together is never easy, but we can all agree that the right size tree in an urban context is a blessing that requires some work on the part of the collective whole (the city) and the individual (rake, water the young tree). And let us see new developments in cities that make smart infrastructure choices that enable shade and utility.

  31. Street trees are a sticky wicket. In Portland we have a fairly liberal street tree policy. Unfortunately, the list of trees is heavily weighted towards summer rainfall species. City planners and landscape architects would LOVE to make Portland look like Detroit or Boston and choose these Zone 5 drought intolerant varieties over more appropriate selections.

  32. Found this thread via Greenwalks. Would like to share one of our posts, Street Trees: Think Outside the Wires at http://localecologist.blogspot.com/2009/11/street-trees-lets-think-outside-wires.html.

    Also, I think it’s appropriate for the city to plant trees in the public right of way and I think this can be accomplished successfully with more choices.

    As others have suggested, one option might be for the city to expand the palette of trees, for both sides of the street.

    Perhaps it would be helpful if the city and the neighborhood prepared an illustrated book of tree options for the street similar to the “Illustrated guide to the street tree planting program” developed by the City of Berkeley.

  33. DC has a plan and they are implementing it to replace a tree canopy that was ruined by government cutbacks and institutional neglect years ago. It is a big step forward and the plan now includes using the small trees as Susan describes under power lines which was not the old way. Butchered sick trees line the streets in my NE neighborhood where all the power lines are still above ground but even those are better than none at all. I think shade gardening is delightful good fun and an adventure I found out personally in another home and really missed my shade plants when I moved here.
    The Sweet Gum has beautiful autumn colors and the seed balls are great for decorating wreaths. They have very interesting bark too but they are sort of a swamp tree and like lots of water to thrive. I wonder if anyone has seen them planted as curb trees anywhere else in DC or other cities? I only know of a few along Rhode Island Avenue in NE near the metro which all look stunted and sickly. Are they really a good tree for Urban forests? It would be interesting to hear why the city tree people like this tree.

  34. The history of arboriculture is full of just extraordinary mistakes, from the practice of cutting branches off flush with the trunk to the widespread planting of disastrously weak-structred Bradford pears in cities across the country. I love street trees — I even made my living working in urban forestry for a while — but the idea of planting a Liquidambar styraciflua(Sweet Gum) in a narrow landscape strip is on a par with other misguided ideas bad arboricultuists have saddled us with over the years.

    Urban forestry should do the best possible job of choosing a variety of trees that fit their situations as well as possible. I’ve no sympathy for the messy tree problem, because most trees drop something, and pros beat cons on that front. But putting trees that get large fast in tiny spaces is an exercise in frustration for future residents and foresters. It’s not ethical gardening.

    I think it’s important, too, that urban foresters take into account that there are other trees in the neighborhood, even if they aren’t on the landscape strip. The best spots for large trees is in yards, where there’s plenty of room for roots. There are plenty of trees for small spaces — Syringa reticulata (Japanese Tree Lilac), Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden Rain Tree), Acer buergeranum (Trident Maple). (There’s a solid argument for non-native trees, by the way: maximizing the number of viable small street trees is extremely important for a diverse urban forest.)

    Arborists and foresters need to thing broadly about the goals of urban forestry before they start planting. I’d refuse the Liquidambar (Sweet Gum) under your neighbors’ circumstances.

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