Saturday, May 03, 2008

Sympathy For the Urban Trees

Earth Day spawned a host of articles on "environmental issues." I'm still sifting through my RSS feed results from that day, which is how I came upon The Greening of America--Ambitious Tree-Planting Programs Are Sprouting Up Nationwide by William Booth, Washington Post, Friday, April 25, 2008. It's not easy making those small changes:

Urban tree farming can be a time-consuming, expensive and exasperating experience -- like children, trees require years of maintenance. Businesses complain about the cost, neighbors about the sap. Their roots are murder on sidewalks; their limbs tangle with power lines.

"The city sidewalk can be one of the most hostile environments for a young tree," a cramped cell of garbage soil surrounded by smothering asphalt, says Gregory McPherson, a scientist with the federal Center for Urban Forest Research. "A virtual conflict zone," as one arborist put it, beset by disease, pollution, drought, insects -- not to mention drunk drivers and staple guns and trip-and-fall lawsuits. "It's a tough life," sighs Marcia Bansley, executive director of Trees Atlanta. It's hard out there for a poplar....

Nationwide, three dozen cities have lost a quarter of their tree canopy since 1972, according to the group American Forests, which discovered that America is missing 600 million trees, as our major metropolitan areas fade from green to gray. But here's the problem: The increased density of American cities means there is less room for trees to replace the missing. The same is true in the suburbs: All those new mini-mansions built to the edge of the property line don't have big yards.

When Los Angeles launched its "Million Trees LA" project, it was assumed there would be plenty of room, but as it turns out, "the space is actually quite tight," says McPherson, the scientist with the Forest Service who surveyed the city's bio-inventory with the help of aerial reconnaissance and computer algorithms. McPherson found just 1.3 million spots to "realistically" plant in Los Angeles, most in the yards of private homes....

Treewise, "Washington is in pretty good shape," says Mark Buscaino, executive director of Casey Trees, a community group that helped plant 1,500 trees in the city last year. Canopy cover in Washington is a nice, leafy, green 35 percent, he says, and per capita the city spends more than New York or Los Angeles on its forest, which includes about 120,000 street trees....

But everybody likes trees, right? Apparently, no. According to the community tree planters toiling on the streets, 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. The first item cut in any tight budget year is usually tree maintenance. "When you say, 'What's the cost of a tree?' it is more than buying a tree and putting it in the ground. It's also taking care of it," says Ray Tretheway, executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, who explains it takes two or three years for a tree to establish a home....

Especially, when cities give away small, vulnerable six-inch seedlings in bags or tubes -- the kind of tree offered today, on Arbor Day, around the country. Many arborists now urge cities not to distribute free seedlings for fear the green swag just ends up in the trash. Los Angeles recently stopped the practice.

Planting street trees often requires both a city permit and the permission of neighbors, who give many reasons for not wanting a tree at the curb. They don't like dogs, who do like trees. Tree activists have heard people complain about sap, birds, squirrels, spiders, leaves and shade. Oh, and they don't want their views blocked.

Burry explains that neighborhoods with the fewest trees are the toughest places to plant. "These are often the harshest environments, communities on the bad side of environmental justice issues -- lots of renters, working class, two-job individuals. For us it is much more costly." Burry says it takes intense community outreach -- many meetings, much door knocking, to get neighbors to agree to plant and care for new trees. Then: "Sometimes there has been no organic life on the street in 20 years. The soil is extremely dry, nutrient-poor, compacted. We have to pour gallons and gallons of water and just let it sit, and still sometimes you dig and it's like concrete. This loud clang." Other challenges? "They don't have water hoses," Burry says....

2 comments:

OfTroy said...

mayor bloomburg has made a million tree commitment, too, --and i think NYC is already a pretty green city.

In NYC, its not just that there aren't water hoses.. there are no places to attach water hose!

It freezes here, so exterior spigots need to be turned off and drained.. and they are taxed! (and while NYC water bills are still pretty low compared to many other locatities..our taxes for fixtures are pretty high!)

There are some good resources available (at least in NYC--but i know other municipalities do the same)--NYC collects leaves in the fall (special 'garbage/sanitation' pick ups) and composts them--and the compost is free come the spring.

taking ownernship of street tree is pretty easy to do..

just get a bucket (5 gallon) for water, and some compost and some simple tools and take over care of a tree.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I hope lots of people follow your advice! NYC really does have lots of trees, considering the population density, and when I lived in the Washington DC area, I really enjoyed tree watching.