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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Made in the shade - trees and walkable streets

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 29, 2007

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street trees in my neighborhoodAfter a mostly lousy day yesterday, I arrived home to a wonderful surprise:  five new trees planted on our block.  It’s about time.  Some of the spots had been vacant for over four years, when Hurricane Isabel paid a visit and wiped out many of our neighborhood’s wonderful, tall trees. 

In addition, others were cut down more recently because they were deemed too old, fragile and dangerous to leave standing.  I always hate that, but it’s understandable given the fragility of nearby utility lines and the vulnerability of people’s homes.  During the hurricane, one came down on our neighbor’s porch, and the damage would have been worse had its fall not been stopped by the utility line it hit first.

Since the neighborhood was built 80 years ago, we’re simply reaching the end of the life span of a lot of these beauties.  During the 17 years that we have lived there, the loss and replacement has been sufficiently intermittent and scattered that the neighborhood is retaining its character, thank goodness.  And, in DC, we can thank the generosity of Casey Trees, a private foundation that has made its mission the restoration and preservation of the tree canopy in the nation’s capital.  Visit their web site and you can play with a nifty little calculator that will tell you the environmental and economic benefits (cleaning the air, curbing stormwater runoff, raising property values, sequestering carbon, and reducing energy costs) of the specific trees in front of your own house or building.

a stretch of road that is unfriendly to pedestriansBut street trees not only look great and produce scientific benefits, they also create an inviting environment for walking.  Especially when used in combination with such other elements of pedestrian-friendly design as sidewalks, sensible block lengths and street connectivity, inviting building facades, and nearby amenities worth walking to, trees can play their part in promoting greater physical activity and fostering a sense of community by putting more people on the street.  They also, contrary to the engineers’ myth, make streets safer for drivers, too, because they have a calming, slowing effect on vehicle traffic.  Walkability guru Dan Burden has a great publication that documents and illustrates 22 benefits of street trees.

the same scene, re-imagined with smart growthConsider the images accompanying this post.  The one on top is the block around the corner from my house.  It’s pretty friendly, no?  But consider the one below it, a photograph of a roadway in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  It is difficult to imagine a stretch of road less inviting or useful to walkers.  But look at the next image, accompanying this paragraph.  It is the very same stretch of road, presented at the exact same scale, but re-imagined as a mixed-use, smart growth neighborhood with, among many wonderful attributes, plentiful street trees that residents of the South Carolina climate would find most welcome.  Which of those two places would you rather visit, live in, or shop in?   

the scene again, all residentialThe final image is the same stretch of roadway, but this time re-imagined not as mixed-use but as a pedestrian-friendly residential neighborhood.  It looks wonderful.  These images are the great work of Steve Price at Urban Advantage in Portland, Oregon, and my friend Victor Dover, a prominent architect in Florida and for my money one of the country’s very best neighborhood designers.  A trip to their websites will be eye-opening and give you hope for the future of our built environment.  Heaven knows we need it.

So, in my case, there’s hope for my neighborhood, too.  Casey Trees and the city are on the job, though I will confess to being antsy over the last few years as to when this would happen.

So my mood improved last night.  And it got even better a little later when my basketball team kicked a$# against a team that beat us last year.  :)  HOYA SAXA.




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