For the Love of Trees
Kim Portillo, AICP/CFM, Planner + Floodplain Administrator
I spent the first impressionable five years of my life growing up on the west coast in the early nineties, usually with messy hair and dirt-stained clothes from the hours I would spend playing outside with my slightly older and equally wild sister. Of the few things I remember from that time in my life one aspect stands out in spectacular detail: the California flora. My mom tells me we lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t great; she tells me stories of police chases on our street and crazy neighbors. In my mind’s eye from my five-year-old perspective, that’s not what I remember. I remember the grape vine that grew in our backyard where my sister and I would pick and eat any that were even slightly ripe. I remember the orange tree whose branch we had a rope swing over. I remember the rose bush along the side of the house that I crashed my bike into my first-time riding without training wheels. I remember taking walks down the tree-lined streets, a protective canopy providing shade from the sun as I snuck to grab cherry tomatoes from the garden next door.
I am hardly the first little girl to take joy in a tree-lined street. Now, as a grown up, urban planner living in Kansas City, Kansas, I still seek out these areas in my neighborhood walks.
As a matter of fact, humans have been walking tree-lined streets for hundreds of years. Humans and nature have always had a symbiotic relationship, albeit arguably more beneficial for humans than flora. As humans, we need the benefits of trees; their cooling effects, their role in the ecosystem and in the management of stormwater and as a home for other living things, and, oh yeah, that important thing called oxygen that they create.
From my walks under the trees, I remember a serene feeling, being larger-than-life; I was queen among majestic landscapes, crowned in my own mind. For centuries, trunks, branches and leaves have framed the most regal of streets. In the United States, street design has been heavily influenced by European royal promenades and landscaping.
In modern history, from the radial boulevards of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City to the Complete Streets and Green Infrastructure movements of today, urban planners have long recognized a need and benefit for urban greenery. However crucial we planners may see it to be, the dream is not always realized. What has happened to the street trees?
Well, a few things. Cities began designing for the automobile to start with, taking parkways and boulevards that served pedestrians and replacing them with limitless asphalt, wider streets, and no sidewalks in order to move cars faster.
In some places, the beauty and benefit of the tree was forgotten and instead the general view became that of a nuisance. Another line-item cost for a City’s maintenance department. From limbs that needed trimmed to leaves that clogged drainage gutters and ruined pristine lawns. Roots that grew too large, cracking sidewalks in their path and branches growing too tall, interfering with power lines.
Not to mention the pests that have taken out millions of street trees in the past few years alone. The Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive beetle from eastern Russia and northeastern Asia, has destroyed at least 70 million ash trees in North America.
Green ash, a common tree planted in many Kansas urban and rural settings can die within just four (4) years of infestation (Kansas Forest Service, 2020). In addition to killing the tree, the Emerald Ash Borer can also cost cities thousands in stump removal, grinding and tree replacement. In many situations, dead trees are removed for posing a hazard, and are often not replaced.
Recognition of the need for trees is, however, regaining momentum in some cities. Here in Kansas City, Kansas, a Complete Streets Ordinance was recently passed, and the zoning code requires the planting of street trees for certain developments.
This is not without some cause for concern however, as the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has expressed that zoning regulations can lead to certain trees being planted under power lines that grow too large and interfere with the lines. To help remedy this, the Parks and Recreation Department has developed a brochure detailing allowable street trees.
Although there may be concern, the benefits of reinvigorating our urban forests greatly outweigh the negative impacts. Studies have shown that trees create a safer environment for all on the road, where street trees provide protection between the pedestrian and vehicle there is a decrease in crash rates in urban areas (University of Washington, College of the Environment, 2018). In addition, trees reduce carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air and help mitigate some common issues in cities such as erosion and stormwater runoff (Urban Foresty Network, n.d.). For concerned homeowners, the presence of yard and street trees in residential areas can have a positive impact on home values.
The road to the elusive perfect city may be a long one, but it would be better traveled if it had trees. It’s about time we start to appreciate nature, if only for the love of trees.
Would you like to see more trees in your neighborhood? You can receive a FREE TREE courtesy of Bridging the Gap, the Heartland Tree Alliance, and the Unified Government. Follow this link to find out more!
Kansas Forest Service. (2020, February 19). Retrieved from Emerald Ash Borer: https://www.kansasforests.org/forest_health/current_pests/emeraldashborer.html
University of Washington, College of the Environment. (2018, August 16). Urban Forestry/ Urban Greening Research. Retrieved from Green Cities: Good Health: https://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_SafeStreets.html
Urban Foresty Network. (n.d.). Trees Improve Our Air Quality. Retrieved from http://urbanforestrynetwork.org/benefits/air%20quality.htm
Source for Letchworth Photo: https://www.gardencitiesinstitute.com/resources/garden-cities/letchworth-garden-city
Source for Emerald Ash Borer Damage Photo: https://kcparks.org/services/emerald-ash-borer/
Source for all other photos: Kimberly Portillo 5/24/2021