Autumn River

Street trees, and streets without trees

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone?”

– Joni Mitchell

When it comes to street trees, Joni Mitchell was wrong. We do know what we have before its gone. Dan Burden eloquently described the value of street trees this way:

“Indeed, street trees so well establish natural and comfortable urban life it is unlikely we will ever see any advertisement for any marketed urban product, including cars, to be featured without street trees making the ultimate dominant, bold visual statement about place.”

A quick review of any architectural rendering will show, of course, that he’s right. And he’s not the only one.

  • Kaid Benefield penned an essay, “The Case for More Urban Trees”, in The Atlantic Cities a couple years back. He says the bit of “urban forest” in his neighborhood is one of his community’s greatest assets.
  • Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns records his on-street homily to street trees, proclaiming that “we should have trees along every street”.
  • Given the time, we highly recommend you read Jill Jonnes excellent long form essay in the Winter 2011 Wilson Quarterly, “What is a Tree Worth?
  • And I’m also fond of Kevin Klinkenberg’s piece “Street trees & the importance of codes” wherein he relates the importance of street trees to walkability. If you read our recent pieces on the topic (part 1, part 2), we give a tacit nod to their importance as well.

To give Ms. Mitchell some credit, she did at least get me thinking about street trees in the context she intends: Appreciating what we have while we have it. But it also begged the question, what if our street trees WERE gone? What a better way to see the framing of public streets than to remove the very objects – trees – that enhance the space. So I put together a few GIFs that illustrate the before & after. Seeing them, I hope, will help you renew your appreciation for our arboreal friends.

Join the fun and tweet with the hashtag #StreetsWithoutTrees on twitter and we’ll add your gif, or your comments, to this page.

Hyde Park, Boise, Idaho

Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado

Main Street, Bozeman, Montana

Suburban neighborhood

Grand Avenue, Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Downtown Billings, Montana

Downtown Grand Junction, Colorado

Downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado

Residential Bozeman Neighborhood

John Lavey is a Program Director out of Community Builders' Bozeman, Montana office. John works with community partners throughout the northern rockies to advance community development, economic development and conservation development goals.

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5 Responses to Street trees, and streets without trees

  1. This is a fantastic piece and will be very useful in meetings with the public concerning the design of complete streets and Corridor/ main street revitalization. It would also be interesting to correlate the width of the street combined with street trees. I studied historic neighborhoods from the 1920s and the combination of narrow streets with street trees provide to $70,000 price differentiation for the Identical small bungalow.

  2. Robert Gibbs says:

    Our research also confirms the their value to urban shopping districts. Shoppers stay longer and spend more with street trees (Principles of Urban Retail Planning & Development, Wiley). However, I have yet to find a historical post card showing many street trees in US downtowns during their peak, Pre-war periods. Downtowns thrived even without the trees. Caution, plan trees away from storefronts and business signs; locate at property lines without a uniform grid.

  3. Or specify proper vertical or High branched trees suitable to be placed along commercial frontages at the property lines.

  4. Cathy Costakis says:

    This is great…thanks for doing this. Trees have an amazing affect on how the space feels and how people feel in those places. They also have a positive effect on mental, emotional and physical health. Dan Burden did a great article a while back on 22 benefits of urban street trees:

  5. @Bob Gibbs: Downtowns American cities were weak on trees for much of the 19th century, BUT, there are several buts:

    When the American graduates of the French Ecole des Beaux Arts started the City Beautiful movement in the late 19th century, they brought to it their love of the tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Paris.

    Residential neighborhoods in cities frequently had lush canopies already.

    Also in the 19th century, Village Improvement Societies started springing up around the time of the American Centennial in 1876. These emphasized tree-lined streets and this is when the American practice of naming streets after the trees planted on them bloomed (so to speak). Elm Street, Maple Avenue, etc.

    From that time on Main Streets in American Streets usually had great canopies of Elms or Sycamores. Look at the photos in the Great Barrington and Nantucket sections in Street Design, The Secret to Great Cities and Towns (Wiley, 2014).

    New Haven had the first municipal tree planting program in America in the late 19th century and became known as Elm City. Other cities followed.

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