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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

City Trees

Air Date: Week of

The century-old trees that grace many of our country's urban centers are under assault. Development, with its encroaching asphalt, is an obvious danger. But so are more urban threats, like tail pipe exhaust, diverted water flows, and declining city budgets for tree maintenance. Host Steve Curwood talks with Boston Globe environmental correspondent Scott Allen.


CURWOOD: The century-old trees that grace many of our countries urban centers are under assault. Development, with its encroaching asphalt, is an obvious danger. But so are more urban threats, like tailpipe exhaust, diverted water flows, and declining city budgets for tree maintenance. Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe. He says city trees didn't always have it so tough.

ALLEN: There was a huge explosion of tree planting, especially in the eastern United States and in the Midwest, in the late 19th century. It was the golden age of park building. We had very ugly cities back then, and landscape architects just went to town in our cities. And we here in New England, we benefit from it today. You know, the Emerald Necklace of parks around Boston, like the Boston Common. But 100 years is a long time for a city tree to live, period. And during that last 100 years the life that they have has really deteriorated a lot. These trees were planted at a time when we had cobblestone streets and now it's all paved. And horses were the way of transportation; now it's cars. They live with just astronomical stress compared to the years when they were first planted.

CURWOOD: So our older cities, then, in the East have this problem. What about the rest of the country, with some newer cities?

ALLEN: Well, newer cities, their problems tend to be a little bit different. They tend to have the problem of development. Newer cities are still developing. Washington and Baltimore are not new per se, but look at the sprawl and development down there. And in the past 25 years, their tree cover has dropped from 55 percent of the land area to just 38 percent. That's a loss of two million acres of urban forest due to development and urban sprawl.

CURWOOD: Now, Scott, I like to see trees in the city. But are they more important than me just enjoying them aesthetically?

ALLEN: Well, I don't want to underestimate aesthetic enjoyment, but I think that there's a lot of quantitative information that lets us know trees are even better than we used to think they were. It's not just a beauty question. Trees are marvelous at reducing temperatures. They call it the heat island effect. You go from a rural area to a city and you can feel the temperature rising. And that is the heat bouncing off buildings and asphalt. You put trees in there and you can knock temperatures down three to five degrees. That translates directly into energy savings in the summer time, and we all like it better. Trees are also terrific at preventing floods. They suck up the water that would otherwise be in people's basements. So trees do a terrific job in that regard. They also swallow carbon dioxide, our great emerging enemy of the twenty-first century. So trees are giving us all these benefits, and they look great doing it.

CURWOOD: So, what's happened, then, to the commitment to trees? You say Boston, cities like Boston in the East 100 years ago, they were running around planting trees. Why not today?

ALLEN: Well, I think there's been an awful lot of resting on our laurels. Today, it's popular to buy new pieces of land, it's popular to preserve historic buildings. But the whole issue of trees getting into their old age is not getting very much attention. The maintenance of a tree is not a sexy thing. It's a man with the pruning shears, it's fertilizer, it's water. And we are not investing in those in the way that we used to.

CURWOOD: Now, if you look around the United States, which U.S. cities do you think are doing better investing in trees than others?

ALLEN: Well, Milwaukee stands out from everybody else, and arborists around the country will point to Milwaukee as the best example, at least in terms of how much money they spend on keeping their trees. Milwaukee spends about $30 per resident to take care of their trees. By comparison, the city of Boston spends $2.23, and that does not buy you proper pruning, proper watering, fertilization, and other things. It's just, the tree's on its own for all intents and purposes.

CURWOOD: So, how are we doing about planning for trees in cities?

ALLEN: Well, there is, I guess you'd say a tree movement that has picked up in the last few years. Maybe now that we've gotten so prosperous in this country, we can now start turning our attention a little bit to these other sort of less life-threatening issues. But there are people all across the country that are starting to take more responsibilities for the trees themselves. You're seeing people taking a greater interest and willing to actually pay, you know, $200, $300, $400 to get a tree put in front of their house by the Public Works Department and then maintained so that it safely reaches its maturity. And there's also an increasing amount of research going into, how can we grow trees under the harsh conditions of city living and not have them die in 12 years?

CURWOOD: So if anyone who's listening to us now has some new trees that were planted outside their house, any quick advice for them?

ALLEN: Well, unfortunately, once you've put the tree in the ground, you've sort of made the commitment. You really, the first priority is, is there enough room for the roots to spread out? And a lot of arborists would say in an urban setting, don't bother with those sidewalk trees. Get your tree back into more of an open space where the roots can spread and it can get proper water and it can grow appropriately. Once you've put the tree in the ground, I guess the best thing I can say is, stick with your tree. Go out there, water it -- it really does need water, it can't get too much in those early years, and hope for the best.

CURWOOD: What's the hope for the future of our city trees?

ALLEN: I think that the thing that made me most encouraged when I was reporting this story is that over the last four or five years citizens have begun to feel like you can't just take trees for granted and expect those men with their pruning trucks to come around and save the day. And people are beginning to take responsibility, beginning to form organizations like Trees Atlanta, or here in Boston it's called The Boston Tree Party. People are basically banding together and they're coming to their city councils and saying our trees look bad, we need to invest in them and we need to do it now for future generations. And interestingly, trees, once they're made into a political issue, they become very much like mom and apple pie. So I think the fact that people are starting to care and identify it as an issue and not just part of the landscape may be the thing that makes me most hopeful.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today, Scott.

ALLEN: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Scott Allen reports for the Boston Globe.



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