“In the suburbs, trees take on a outsize role”

With local plans to remove the trees along her suburban street in New Jersey, one writer considers their role in suburban communities:

Despite these losses, I had not expected to lose so many at once. And yet, West Orange is grappling with a problem faced by communities around the country. Street trees planted decades — and in some cases, a century — ago were not ideal species for a paved environment and are now large, mature and in need of maintenance. With little soil available beneath the sidewalk, roots interfere with drainage systems, and buckle concrete. Utility companies aggressively prune tree limbs away from power lines, leaving awkward, and potentially unstable, V-shaped trees…

And so, the iconic Norman Rockwell-style streetscape is fading away. As West Orange replaces sidewalks and curbs, it often removes old town-owned trees and plants new species that are more compatible for the location, if homeowners request them. “Over the next 20 or 30 years, there won’t be any tall trees where there are overhead wires,” Mr. Linson said.

Conservationists espouse maintenance methods that could protect more trees, like permeable sidewalks and more careful pruning. While these efforts are often costly for cash-strapped towns, they could preserve a resource that cleans particulate matter from the air, absorbs runoff and reduces the heat index. “The benefits to society far outweigh the costs” of higher maintenance, said Robert McDonald, the lead scientist for the Global Cities program at the Nature Conservancy…

But for all the hope for the future a sapling may represent, I wonder if I will be here long enough to see these new young ones fill out and replenish my block. Instead, I may only get to experience them as sparse reminders of the giants that have been lost.

I’m reminded of a short section of James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk about suburbs where he talks about the role of trees along streets: to provide shade, to frame the street, and to protect pedestrians from vehicles on the road. When the trees must be removed or they are not there in the first place, it is noticeable.

Our suburban street has a nice collection of sidewalk trees that do just the things Kunstler suggests they can, including curving nicely over the curving road. Yet, right before we bought the property, our big tree in the front had been removed – I can see it an older Google Street View image – and several months after moving in the city put in a new sapling. This left the front of our home exposed to the summer sun. While we are fortunate to still have several big trees in the front and back, it will be nice to have that one tree back in 10-20 years.

As the writer suggests about the outsize role of suburban trees, I am still surprised to see so many new subdivisions that still show little regard for keeping trees. A new home may be great but an empty yard is so much less enjoyable than one with even just a few interesting and/or stately trees.

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