thoughts on our urban future

Let the trees invade the city

London plane trees were first introduced in Berkeley Square

The mayor’s office announced in 2009 a target to increase Greater London’s tree cover by 5% over the next 15 years. This means that more than two million trees need to be planted – or about 133,000 trees per year. The number will be impressive if it is attainable, and the impact of that many new trees would be felt from the inner city to the far flung suburbs.

While I do question the figures (if two million trees represent 5% of the existing tree cover, then the existing treescape should include about 40 million trees – or approximately five trees per person!), it is refreshing to hear about a renewed focus on trees during these times of budget cuts, job losses and effort to achieve ever greater efficiencies.

While the announcement is a couple years old, today the Mayor of London released a guide for designers, planners and developers called The Canopy. The guide is to assist in understanding the benefit of trees (from aesthetic and increasing property values to promoting biodiversity and improving air quality) and providing basic technical guidance (including general siting information, expense based on planting location and growth potential). Finally case studies are given to illustrate the potential of trees in a development, design and planning context.

While the guide is informative and written in an accessible with plenty of clear graphics, I wonder how much of an impact it will have. At the New London Architecture’s launch today, the first two questions from the audience focused on local emotional issues. The first person used the opportunity to question policies that would allow the removal of mature trees in a London park (apparently a park masterplan is redesigning the space so that it can host large festival events and provide better access from surrounding streets). The second question focused on irrational targets when quality is preferred (as two examples, Camden was used to illustrate the apparent illogical focus on banning the felling of any tree in the borough and Hammersmith and Fulham was used to highlight the apparent preference for apple and pear street trees).

Without going into too much detail, on one side, someone was passionately against the removal of trees – any mature tree in the specific setting – while the other side focused on the irrational retention of trees and provision of new trees.

Trees are an emotional issue, and need to be addressed locally. I would find it nearly impossible to conceive how you would implement a policy to introduce 133,000 new trees a year throughout London without clear local engagement. As a tree champion, I find it difficult to understand why street trees should not be planted up and down every street. However, over the last few years, I understand that huge battles have been fought for and against streets in our neighbourhoods. Issues ranged from the technical (there isn’t enough ground space for roots with existing utilities, visibility will be reduced for drivers, or the street is too narrow) to the personal (I do not want less sunshine in my flat, I will have to clean sap off my car and clean up after leaves, or crime activity will increase).

Perhaps the Government’s new emerging localism agenda would be best suited to deliver trees to those who want them in London. Perhaps the residents along a local street could agree that they want trees to line their street and simply request this via the Mayor’s office. With the policy in place, and a funding stream, perhaps it would be that easy to see results.

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  1. Just thinking about trees is refreshing! I wish every street would be tree lined as well, however as you mention there are challenges to their installation.

    While we all appreciate the shade of the canopies and the cleansing and calming environment they create, developers do not seem to appreciate their contribution to increasing property values and improving the experience of a place, at least not here in Trinidad. I suspect they spend too much time driving around in their air-conditioned SUVs, as opposed to experiencing the sterile environments at the pedestrian level that they create.

    Maintenance is always the concern. Who will maintain? Who pays? Definitely it is a local neighbourhood issue. Provision for installation of street trees should be made in the design stage of new projects. If the new residents want trees planted, they will at least have had some infrastructural provisions made for them, and would not have to worry about root encroachments. Types of trees and pruning techniques have to be decided. But thats another topic altogether.

    Its a good move that the London administration has taken in at least setting some sort of policy direction with regard to trees. It may be a useful to us here in Trinidad to start insisting that street trees be planted or at least provision for them be made in all new developments. The better examples in Trinidad are for the most part initiated by private corporate developments, not the average developer. It irks me when I see streets constructed and termed ‘Boulevards” or “Avenues” here, and there is not a tree in sight. Am I mistaken to think that Avenues and Boulevards should have trees? Is “The Canopy” available online? I would like to access it.
    Sometime ago I listened to an online presentation by EdMacMahon of ULI on Green Infrastructre. It inspired me to keep fighting for the inclusion of trees in any new developments that I may be part of.

  2. To add to the conversation about trees, I’d like to add Brooklyn, NY.

    The world’s first parkway was conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1866. The term parkway was coined by these designers as a landscaped road built expressly for ‘pleasure-riding and driving’ or scenic access to Prospect Park (also designed by Olmsted and Vaux). To these ends, commerce was restricted. The parkway was constructed from Grand Army Plaza to Ralph Avenue (the boundary of the City of Brooklyn) between 1870 and 1874. The roadway consists of 6 lanes flanked on both sides by a tree lined margin which includes a bike path, walking path and benches for relaxing. Each of these is flanked by a narrow street for the residences–thus keeping the main trafic removed from the residences. I have biked and walked this 5 mile stretch in comfort and safety all the way to the ocean.

    I live in an area called Park Slope in an 130 year old row house not far from Eastern Parkway and Prospect Park. 25 years ago when I moved in, on request, the city planted a street tree in front. Sadly that tree did not survive and died 4 years ago. The Mayor of NYC has a program to plant 1 million trees. The process, though long did work for us. First the supervisor came out to determine that the tree was dead. Next, it was removed and we were put on a list for a new tree. A year later they widened the opening for the tree (new thoughts about how much open ground should be available to eace tree) and a few months later a crew came to our block and planted 10 trees. A few weeks later, they installed a water bag system around each tree with instructions on keeping the tree healthy–each residence is responsible for their own but no one checks.

    The tree is now 2 years in it’s spot and the ground around it is planted with bulbs. But it will take many years to grow where it will provide the shade we want. There are areas of Brooklyn where the people on a street have decided they don’t want trees. The streets feel hot and sterile.

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