I spent the past week in Boston and noticed that most streets – whether in Boston, Brookline, or Cambridge (the three municipalities I spent time in) – were either relatively tree-less or had undersized trees.
While there are many streets that have some trees, and while there are some neighborhoods that approach leafy-ness, I’ll go out on a limb <…pun> and say that for the most part, the trees are puny or even absent.
Take one of my old haunts, Coolidge Corner, for example, which is mostly built-up with lots of low-rise apartment blocks and is filled with pedestrians going about their business. Its main streets are wide (too wide) and poorly furnished with trees. The few tiny street trees are no match in scale for the road widths, nor does their minuscule canopy provide shade. Lack of tree cover is especially noticeable on very hot days that leave pedestrians fully exposed to the sun. There are lots of cars (and also the Green Line, C train) on those wide roads, however, and it’s clear that in the overall scheme of things vehicular traffic has priority over pedestrian traffic.
One way you can really tell that cars have priority is by the absence of public amenities for pedestrians – and let’s remember that everyone who gets off the T becomes a pedestrian. This means that if a city is interested in getting people out of cars and into public transit, it’s really important to think about the pedestrian experience. Transit doesn’t end until you reach your destination – which invariably involves some walking.
Large boulevard trees are a public amenity that most benefits life at three to four miles per hour – that is, easy to moderate walking speed.
It’s easy to understand destination amenities that are either essentially private (neighborhoods well-provisioned with coffee shops, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, etc.) or public-but-nodal (a destination like a library or community center, for example – edit: see also a PS in my response in comments, below ). But streets rich in boulevard trees comprising a continuous – and contiguous – exposure to nature provide a public amenity that makes density enjoyable in passing – that is, not just as “destination.” This strikes me as an important amenity in low-rise areas that nonetheless have significant density.
In downtown CBDs characterized by “canyons” (high-rise buildings), a pocket park can provide a sufficient amenity. But in low-rise neighborhoods (like the ones I’m pointing to here), lollipop-sized trees planted along roads that obviously favor cars come across as a half-hearted attempt.
I wonder whether the lack of tree cover provided by large boulevard trees in Boston (and nearby municipalities) is planned. Trees cost money to plant, maintain, and replace; they require clean-up (leaf and branch pick up); the leaves clog storm drains, the limbs grow to interfere with overhead power lines, the roots get into storm and sewer lines and other underground utilities; and they raise liability issues when storms bring down branches. But their benefits are huge – if those benefits are ignored, it’s because they just haven’t been quantified. And that’s too bad.
The Tree amenity by Yule Heibel, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
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