Tree amenity

June 21, 2010 at 11:24 pm | In cities, green, land_use | 10 Comments

I spent the past week in Boston and noticed that most streets – whether in Boston, Brookline, or Cambridge (the three municipalities I spent time in) – were either relatively tree-less or had undersized trees.

While there are many streets that have some trees, and while there are some neighborhoods that approach leafy-ness, I’ll go out on a limb <…pun> and say that for the most part, the trees are puny or even absent.

Take one of my old haunts, Coolidge Corner, for example, which is mostly built-up with lots of low-rise apartment blocks and is filled with pedestrians going about their business. Its main streets are wide (too wide) and poorly furnished with trees. The few tiny street trees are no match in scale for the road widths, nor does their minuscule canopy provide shade. Lack of tree cover is especially noticeable on very hot days that leave pedestrians fully exposed to the sun. There are lots of cars (and also the Green Line, C train) on those wide roads, however, and it’s clear that in the overall scheme of things vehicular traffic has priority over pedestrian traffic.

One way you can really tell that cars have priority is by the absence of public amenities for pedestrians – and let’s remember that everyone who gets off the T becomes a pedestrian. This means that if a city is interested in getting people out of cars and into public transit, it’s really important to think about the pedestrian experience. Transit doesn’t end until you reach your destination – which invariably involves some walking.

Large boulevard trees are a public amenity that most benefits life at three to four miles per hour – that is, easy to moderate walking speed.

It’s easy to understand destination amenities that are either essentially private (neighborhoods well-provisioned with coffee shops, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, etc.) or public-but-nodal (a destination like a library or community center, for example – edit: see also a PS in my response in comments, below ). But streets rich in boulevard trees comprising a continuous – and contiguous – exposure to nature provide a public amenity that makes density enjoyable in passing – that is, not just as “destination.” This strikes me as an important amenity in low-rise areas that nonetheless have significant density.

In downtown CBDs characterized by “canyons” (high-rise buildings), a pocket park can provide a sufficient amenity. But in low-rise neighborhoods (like the ones I’m pointing to here), lollipop-sized trees planted along roads that obviously favor cars come across as a half-hearted attempt.

I wonder whether the lack of tree cover provided by large boulevard trees in Boston (and nearby municipalities) is planned. Trees cost money to plant, maintain, and replace; they require clean-up (leaf and branch pick up); the leaves clog storm drains, the limbs grow to interfere with overhead power lines, the roots get into storm and sewer lines and other underground utilities; and they raise liability issues when storms bring down branches. But their benefits are huge – if those benefits are ignored, it’s because they just haven’t been quantified. And that’s too bad.


  1. Oddly enough, we spent the last part of our extended stay at Marriott near Coolidge Corner, and walking the neighborhood, I found myself enjoying the canopy of linden trees, especially the day we walked from around the Harvard Medical School, along Longwood Ave. back to Beacon near the hotel. I was noticing them and seeing them perhaps as bigger than they are because here in California they are even scarcer, both for the reasons you mention in your post, and also for fire control, I suppose.

    Then again, we also saw what the macrobursts did to some of the bigger trees around Beacon Hill the week before, with the carnage of shorn limbs damaging cars parked along the streets.

    Comment by maria — June 22, 2010 #

  2. That’s the thing with greenery or signs-of-nature in a dense urban environment, isn’t it? Even if the signs are fairly sparse, they’re such a boon that they impress themselves on your mind. Since I’m looking at Boston streets (whereby I mean the 3 municipalities I visited) with “West Coast temperate rainforest jungle eyes,” I’m seeing “sparse” (compared to “lush”), because where I live, trees are so dominant – and I’m lucky to live in a core residential neighborhood known for its “urban forest” populated by giants. I can’t speak about Marin County, but if it’s more “desert-y,” then signs-of-nature are not going to be about big trees that suck up a lot of water. I didn’t get a chance to go to the Charles River banks at Memorial Drive on the Cambridge side near Harvard Square, but I recall a big brouhaha around the time we moved away from Boston about whether or not those trees (true giants: plane trees) were going to be cut down. There was some concern around tree age, liability, and all the other things (including maybe disease) that I mentioned above, but honestly, I can’t even imagine that stretch of road without the trees. I hope they’re still there – or else, if some were cut down, that they were replaced/ replanted. Another weird thing I’ve noticed: when I lived in Greater Boston, I became very interested in gardening – as a kind of mental health thing to help me over feeling isolated when the kids were still little. I needed the beauty that gardening (even in small spaces) can provide. Here in Victoria, where nature just hurls the plant life at you non-stop, I’ve lost interest in gardening. It’s a curious dynamic. If nature gives you too much, you take it for granted too often. If it’s harsh (too hot, too cold, not temperate, slaps you around a bit) or if you live in a dense urban environment (or both), you get a huge benefit from it when it comes to you as an amenity in the form of beauty. In any case, lucky are the residents of municipalities that have active policies to provide natural amenities, guided by what the climate affords.
    PS: I should have included parks as public “destination amenities” (where I listed libraries, community centers, etc.) – great examples range from Boston Common to pocket parks. Almost every municipality includes parks, but as destinations. My interest with the boulevard trees is more in how they provide that continuous and contiguous contact with nature, which follows along with the pedestrian. Maybe I’ll go add that in now.

    Comment by Yule — June 22, 2010 #

  3. PPS: I guess another thing I’d add is this: if a municipality is going to stick with relatively (relative to road width and to low-rise building height) small trees, then it’s best to plant them in some kind of formal arrangement that competes, visually, with the built form and infrastructure.
    So, what I mean is: plant them with an eye to spacing and to rows – essentially creating another layer of architecture using natural elements.
    Make the spacing obvious, not like the trees were plunked down randomly. If the spaces between the trees are too far apart, the effect is random. If it’s close-close-close-close, followed by far, followed by close-close-close-close again (just as an example), your mind will intuit a pattern, and patterns that appear deliberate in urban settings are soothing. As we know, the urban environment can overwhelm with stimuli – there’s a lot to pay attention to, including not getting run over by drivers who seem to think of pedestrians and cyclists as mere future roadkill. (See? Jungle metaphors! 😉 ) So if you can create patterns with plantings – and Chicago does a bang-up job of this with big stone container plantings on its main downtown boulevards – that’s very much a helpful amenity.
    As for rows, when possible, plant them at least occasionally in double rows, not just single file. I find that’s an incredibly effective way to let even small trees create a canopy effect (one row is closer to buildings/ street-wall with the other row at the street side, and the pedestrian passage inbetween – this only works with really wide boulevards, obviously). It also lets another pattern effect come to the fore, namely that the trees were planted deliberately, and are in a parallel alignment. Again, same effect (architectural, really) as when you plant them with spacing effects.
    Re. the double row effect: Garden Street in Boston’s West End has this, even though the trees are on either side of the very narrow old street. Click here for google street view. Isn’t that just lovely? Makes you want to walk up the street, even if it is uphill and 90 degrees out!

    Comment by Yule — June 22, 2010 #

  4. Apropos of pocket parks: In San Francisco, in the Noe Valley, where a lot of liberals and greens make their home, there is an opposition to the creation of them, not so much on principle against small oases, but against the fact that the residents have no say, or vote, in the creation of the perceived inconvenience that this will cause them. You can read about it here:

    As for planting trees: in many of the smaller towns in Marin that had lots of growing trees in the commercial areas, the sidewalks started to buckle, and this being a litigious culture, these protrusions were deemed a liability, and so down came the trees, with new pavements and parking spaces, and, yes, saplings of the kind probably chosen for their roots, instead of what was there. I should look this up and see what kind of trees were cut down and what kind is their replacement. Now you are making me think out loud! 🙂

    Comment by maria — June 22, 2010 #

  5. Some stats say an “urban” tree has a life expectancy of no more than a dozen years. Obviously, some habitats are more hostile than others so in some environments mature trees are a rarity. I’m sure some cities would be stunned to see the massive century-old plane and chestnut trees around Downtown Victoria.

    Comment by robert randall — June 22, 2010 #

  6. Some City presentation or guideline I saw showed Victoria’s desire to implement something done in Vancouver,mentioned above, which was a double row of trees with a sidewalk in between. It was done in Humboldt Valley recently:

    Comment by robert randall — June 22, 2010 #

  7. […] » Tree amenity Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 […]

    Pingback by Can i get home owners insurance to sue my neighbor for his trees he planted? | Health | safety | insurance — June 22, 2010 #

  8. Thanks for the pointer to the google street view of Humboldt Street, Rob – perfect! Next time I’m walking there, I’ll have to try to figure out if I know what kind of trees these are, and how big they’ll get. Even at their current size, it’s clear that they will work well.
    Maria, thanks for that pointer to the Noe & 24th Streets proposal in San Francisco. Fascinating. I skimmed through the 45 comments and see lots of similarities to NIMBY sentiments in Victoria. At the same time, it’s hard for me (outsider, no knowledge of the situation there) to say that all the opponents are wrong – I’ve sure seen some doofus city planning myself, so I don’t trust the comments that say, “they [the city planners] are the experts, they know what they’re doing.” Yeah, as if, eh? 😉
    As for the Marin towns that lost their full-grown trees because of buckling sidewalks …oh my. That just hurts. This is where real public engagement is so important (and maybe in the Noe & 24 St. case, too): get out there first and engage the public, make sure that people understand what the trade-offs are, and that there are options beside just eliminating whatever seems to be causing “problems”…

    Comment by Yule — June 22, 2010 #

  9. yeah…really good post, i think boston is a nice place, cause every body will find a real nature there, green threes, and the other vegetation….really nice place

    Comment by heisenberg — June 23, 2010 #

  10. dear yuly…nice to comment to your blog,

    yes..i agree with some one above says about plant them with an eye to spacing and to rows – essentially creating another layer of architecture using natural elements. for me this real true fact,,,

    Comment by ahid arrusmani — June 23, 2010 #

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