Losing a big tree in a suburban neighborhood

Recently, several big trees were cut down in our suburban neighborhood. These were taller, older trees in a neighborhood full of such trees along the main street and in backyards:

What such trees is perhaps obvious: shade, habitats for birds and other animals, a sense of stability and permanence, connection to nature, a boost to property values. And the problems they could provide also vex suburbanites: leaves, potential for falling down on houses and property, and the potential to become diseased or sick.

But, as we watched the trees cut down, chipped up, and hauled away, I was reminded of another feature of these trees: the ability they have to frame homes and streetscapes. I am reminded of a short passage in James Howard Kuntslter’s TED talk where he describes the purposes of trees in urban planning: to frame the streetscape, to provide shade, and to protect pedestrians from the vehicular traffic. A stereotypical image of American suburbs is the curving two-lane road with a canopy of branches and leaves overhead. But, this also sits aside familiar images of Levittown and other mass subdivisions where all the trees are gone and new saplings can barely fill any space.

Is the big suburban tree a luxury, a status symbol, an aesthetic choice, an intentional choice by a developer? No matter the reason, I hope many of the other large trees around us remain and enhance what would be a bleaker suburban landscape without them.

“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.

Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

McMansions to blame for the decreasing tree cover in Los Angeles

A recent study suggests the rise of McMansions has contributed to a loss of trees in Los Angeles:

Americans’ growing preference for large single-family houses, along with the increase in driveways and swimming pools that come with home expansion, is the largest driver of tree cover loss in the US, according to the study.

Looking at satellite imagery and data from the LA County assessor’s office, the researchers found about one-third of the city’s trees in single-family housing neighborhoods was eliminated from 2000 to 2009. During that period, tree cover may have decreased up to 55%…

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that 1950s suburban development may have been good for trees, at least in LA. Private land owners planted trees on their land during that decade, contributing to a richer urban forest in the city.

“These ecologically beneficial consequences occurred organically — not as the result of conscious environmental policy, but rather as an outgrowth of the cultural aesthetic and economics of the times,” the researchers write.

This leads to several thoughts:

  1. Perhaps it is time to again modify Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to something like: “They paved paradise to put up a McMansion.”
  2. Cities can often have a lot of trees. This may be counterintuitive: when people imagine cities, they think of skyscrapers and a concrete jungle. While there may not be many forests in the city, there can be plenty of trees.
  3. With the praise given to ranch homes here, couldn’t McMansions reduce the issues by just planting trees? Those 1950s subdivisions didn’t have many trees at the time either – the classic images of Levittown often shows houses and bare land – and it took time for them to become the classic tree-lined suburban streets.

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?

Install an artificial plant to hide nearby McMansion

Have an unsightly McMansion next door? Install artificial plantings:

A San Marcos, California based company, Geranium Street Floral, has installed their artificial plants at many hip remodeled homes throughout Southern California. The company recently installed an artificial hedge at a remodeled property in North Hollywood that no doubt greatly improved the view in the backyard of the custom remodeled home. Geranium Street specializes in creating backyard privacy with their artificial plants.

Geranium Street president, Bob Smith explains that with the advent of “McMansions” throughout Southern California, the need for privacy is at an all time high. “Before, you had houses in a neighborhood that were all basically the same height, so privacy wasn’t much of an issue, but now they are tearing the old houses down and building houses that tower over those of their neighbors – suddenly everyone feels like they are living in a fish bowl. We have ways to solve that problem quickly with our artificial plants,” said Smith…

Bob Smith explained that many real estate developers have found the quick solution to their privacy and decorative needs by installing artificial plants. “Whereas it may take months to grow real vines and plant real trees, we can come in and install our artificial plants in a day or two. The new artificial trees and plants look more realistic than they ever did before, and they are very durable,” said Smith.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Given the water issues in California, I’m surprised this press release doesn’t include the rationale of saving money on plantings. Have a hedge and no water is required.
  2. It would be interesting to think about how these installations play with the idea of “nature.” Some would say the real plantings in the suburban sprawl like that found in southern California are already poor imitations of nature. But, what if those same plantings aren’t even real? Is this a more honest admission of the lack of nature? These options are billed as durable but they likely provide a different aesthetic and physical experience.
  3. Theoretically, such hedges could be built to any size of shape. McMansions can come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and a company could get pretty creative in how an artificial hedge hides the ugly house next door.
  4. What do artificial plants do to property values? They may be durable but I imagine they could be viewed as tacky or lower class.

Another downside: McMansions threaten trees

McMansion critics may have another argument at their disposal: constructing McMansions may often require removing trees.

About 2,000 street trees, or trees near Los Angeles roadways, are removed annually, according to Los Angeles City Hall leaders.

The trees are removed in some cases because of disease or death, but in other instances, they’re taken down because of the construction of so-called McMansions.

Concerned about the loss of trees at the hands of developers, a City Council committee called for a report back on new policies for the removal of street trees…

With some tear-downs, a “double driveway is needed where one used to be sufficient,” she said, resulting in the loss of a tree.

This doesn’t seem like that many trees, particularly since there could be multiple reasons behind the removal of street trees. Yet, losing trees could be another blow dealt by teardown McMansions to neighbors: not only will the new home fill up the lot and look out of place with nearby homes, it will require losing some of the greenery that residents tend to like. This is probably less about nature and more about appearances and quality of life where mature trees on residential properties lend gravitas and pleasant barriers between the street and sidewalks, lawns, and homes.

If the problem is the larger driveways for the new large homes, it would be interesting to see how Los Angeles regulates their width. Is there a ratio or size that could be invoked to fit all kinds of situations?

How about this crazy idea: builders of McMansions, teardowns or otherwise, should spend a little bit more money and cover their properties with decent-sized trees. Neighbors and others may still not like the house but who can argue with a number of new trees?

“Milan’s ‘Vertical Forest’ Declared 2014’s Coolest High-Rise”

The winner of an international high-rise award is a “vertical forest” in Milan:

Milan’s “vertical forest” has been named the winner of the 2014 International Highrise Award. Rising above a shortlist of towers by Rem Koolhass, Jean Nouvel, and Steven Holl, Boeri Studio’s Bosco Verticale was selected for being an “expression of the human need for contact with nature.”

“It is a radical and daring idea for the cities of tomorrow, and without a doubt represents a model for the development of densely populated urban areas in other European countries,” continued jury president Christoph Ingenhoven. It’s got like 900 trees on it.

Not exactly pristine nature here but an innovative way to include a lot of trees. Here is more on the benefits of the trees:

Said Boeri Studio in a statement, “this is a kind of biological architecture that refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.” Along with the saplings, some 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 floral plants are planted on the balcony of each apartment, with the aim of creating a microclimate of sorts able to filter out pollutants and oxygenate the area, fed only with the tower’s wastewater.

What if these trees were fruit trees or other kinds of plants? I suppose this could cause problems with falling objects but they could also provide food in addition to providing more nature.

Tree diagrams as important tool in human approach to big data

Big data may seem like a recent phenomenon but for centuries tree diagrams have helped people make sense of new influxes of data:

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge catalogs a stunning diversity of illustrations and graphics that rely on arboreal models for representing information. It’s a visual metaphor that’s found across cultures throughout history–a data viz tool that has outlived empires and endured huge upheavals in the arts and sciences…

For the first several hundred years at least, the use of the tree metaphor is largely literal. A graphic from 1552 classifies parts of the Code of Justinian–a hugely important collection of a thousand years of Roman legal thought–as a trunk with a dense tangle of leafless branches. An illustration from Liber Floridus, one of the best-known encyclopedias from the Middle Ages, lays out virtues as fronds of a palm. In the early going, classifying philosophical knowledge and delineating the moral world were frequent use cases. In nearly every case, foliage abounds…

At some point in the 18th or 19th century, the tree model made the leap to abstraction. This led to much more sophisticated visuals, including complex organization charts and dense genealogies. One especially influential example arrived with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in 1859…

While the impulse to visualize is more alive today than ever, our increasingly technological society may be outgrowing this enduring representational model. “Trees are facing this paradigm shift,” Lima says. “The tree, as a representational hierarchy, cannot accommodate things like the web and Wikipedia–things with linkage. The network is replacing the tree as the new visual metaphor.” In fact, the idea to do a collection solely on trees was born during Lima’s research on his first book–a collection of visualizations based on the staggering complexity of networks.

A few quick thoughts:

1. We talk a lot now about being in a visual age (why can’t audio clips go viral?) yet humans have a long history of utilizing visuals to help them understand the world.

2. We’ve seen big leaps forward in data dissemination in the past – think the invention of writing, the printing press, the telegraph, etc. The leap forward to the Internet may seem quite monumental but such shifts have been tackled before.

3. Designing infographics took skill in the past just as it does today. The tree is a widely understood symbol that lends itself to certain kinds of data. Throw in some color and flair and it can work well. Yet, it can also be done poorly and detract from its ability to convey information quickly.

The difference in tree cover between poorer and wealthier neighborhoods

One recent newspaper analysis and a new academic study both agree: tree cover differs between richer and poorer urban neighborhoods.

Last month, the Washington Post conducted its own study of the city’s tree canopy, with some findings that may not surprise anyone who lives in the capital: Lower-income neighborhoods were substantially less likely to have trees, with the city’s densest greenery clustered west of the 16th Street Northwest fault line that divides some of Washington’s wealthiest neighborhoods from the rest of town. Tree density in Washington, in short, provides a kind of proxy for wealth (and if you’ve spent time in Washington, you also know that wealth is a proxy for race).

Lest other cities scoff at Washington’s arbor-inequality, research just published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives confirms that a very similar pattern appears all across the country. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley looked at 63,436 census block groups from across the country covering 304 metropolitan areas and more than 81 million people. And they identified those blocks most at risk in extreme heat waves thanks to the lack of tree cover or the presence of too much asphalt (or impervious surfaces). Both of these factors have been shown to exacerbate the urban heat island effect, raising surface temperatures, suggesting that people who live in these neighborhoods may be at the highest heat risk as temperatures warm with climate change.

According to the findings, blacks were 52 percent more likely than whites to live in such neighborhoods, Asians 32 percent more likely, and Hispanics 21 percent more likely (controlling for factors that explain variation in tree growth, like climate and rainfall).

“It’s in the same range of elevated risk that we see for a number of environmental concerns,” says Bill Jesdale, one of the authors, referring to similar findings in the environmental justice literature that show minorities living in communities with greater exposure to traffic, pollution and other environmental hazards. “Often, unfortunately, you see relative risks that are quite a bit higher than that.”

Interesting findings. Trees might seem rather basic, even in cities, until such differences are pointed out.

So, what is behind these differences in tree cover? Are cities planting fewer trees in poorer neighborhoods? Do poorer neighborhoods tend to have fewer parks, fewer tree-lined streets, and more manufacturing and industrial facilities? Do the residents of wealthier neighborhoods make sure that their neighborhoods have more trees? Is this primarily about trees themselves or is this just part of a larger package of fewer amenities in poorer neighborhoods?

Based on these findings, I wonder if we’ll see more people advocate for trees in poorer neighborhoods. Who could be against trees and more greenery, particularly if it is an issue of justice and inequality?