Street Trees and Pedestrians

I get why planners like Jeff Speck and others like street trees so much — they slow the cars, after all — and I get why city governments like them (beautification) and why homeowners like them (increased property values), but I don’t like them.

I believe that, in a city like Boston or New York, street trees do more harm than good because they subtract from pedestrian space. Because America lacks either woonerfs or just very narrow streets, pedestrians are forced onto sidewalks and, except for certain important streets, the sidewalks are very narrow. They tend to max out around five feet wide, but there are streets where the sidewalks are even smaller, to the pioint where they’re just glorified curbs.

Putting in street trees, with their little things of soil, ends up taking up to half of the sidewalk. As a pedestrian this makes it very difficult to pass slower moving walkers; over the years the trees’ roots spread beneath the sidewalk and cause parts to be uplifted; the small space and constant automobile pollution stunts growth; and when the trees get mature they have to be removed anyways so that the same asphalt cracking and lifting they cause in sidewalks doesn’t happen to the road surface.

Very few cities with narrow streets appear to have street trees, since they’re not needed to slow the cars.

Tarragona

Barcelona

Nazare, Portugal

In fact, of the two examples I could find, one was from Philadelphia and the other was defining parking in Amsterdam.

Note the cars and bikes parked between the trees.

Trust the Dutch to be sensible, if bike-mad.

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2 thoughts on “Street Trees and Pedestrians

  1. Street trees have other important considerations too. They soak up massive amounts of storm water, reducing combined sewer overflows. They reduce crime – people are less likely to be violent when they can see greenery, especially trees. They increase health and speed up healing, which means that the tax base will be stronger – people are less likely to skip work for sickness (or their kids’ sickness), strengthening both their own earnings (and spending/tax paying) and the strength of their companies. In most places in Boston, where they narrow the sidewalk too much, the answer is to widen the sidewalk.

    • Agree with Jameson here. They can also help alleviate heat islands and provide natural shade (any west-east running street is going to get a lot more sun in it), and visually soften the street when the scale (width anyway) is too large for planters and potted plants to do the job. In the above photos, they could use more greenery IMO, but trees would not be a good fit, although maybe tree-line vines like these would work http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2014/041314_files/treestreet.jpg

      There are solutions out there to soften streets, but I think each street – or at least each neighborhood – needs to be considered on its own when making these choices, the same pattens don’t work everywhere

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