Sep 17, 2009

What's A Tree Worth?

Yesterday the city of Palo Alto completed its removal of some 50 trees, mostly holly oak (Quercus ilex), from sidewalks and medians on California Avenue. This is the first phase of an urban facelift that promises additional pedestrian-friendly features such as crosswalks, benches, and new red maple (Acer rubrum) shade trees.

It's a bit disturbing, especially for someone in my business, to witness the clear-cutting of an entire business district. And the barren streetscape is particularly shocking for anyone who hasn't been there since, oh, Monday. But what seems to be most upsetting for people is the fact that, for most of us, this was an utter surprise.

My studio is located on Cal Ave, and I can attest that the city did reach out with mailers advertising public meetings and soliciting comment. But none of us was told that the project was moving forward, nor given a timetable. When I called Public Works on Tuesday (when the tree removal began), I was told only that "it's part of a remodel for the street." No proposed plans on file, no renderings to review.

As Jeff Gatlin of the Daily Post reports (sorry, no link, they think "giving away news online is a dumb way to do business"), reactions on my street range from resigned to furious. The owner of Leaf and Petal thinks the removals should have been done "in increments like a fifth at a time". The manager of Szechuan Cafe thinks "it was a bad idea to cut trees that were here for 30 years." Next door, excellent Mexican restaurant Palo Alto Sol lost a huge tree that shaded several of its tables; owner Hector Sol was as hot as his salsa rojo, saying "Whoever did this is an idiot… now customers refuse to sit where they used to ask to be seated."

For what it's worth, I feel that (1) all the trees should have been taken out, and replaced, at one time — a patchwork of old and new would have looked particularly odd; (2) the deciduous, colorful red maples will be an improvement over the evergreen, dark holly oaks; and (3) Hector's food really is excellent.

But there's a lesson in here about the emotional attachments people form with their landscapes.

For better or worse, we were used to the holly oaks. Sure, their deluge of acorns made walking a bit treacherous each fall. Sure, they misted sap onto cars, people and bikes each spring, Sure, they were massive and not particularly pretty. But they were "ours," they shaded us while we sat and dined and socialized, they added a vertical dimension to a low-slung avenue, they softened the aging concrete facades. We loved those old trees — we just didn't know it until they vanished.

Twenty years from now, we will have the same attachment to the red maples. I can only hope that, if future planners decide to remove those, they will have learned that we all would appreciate a little more time to prepare our hearts for the loss.


Dirt Guy said...

Nice piece John. I can certainly understand the local's concerns, but as I'm sure you've seen in other parts of downtown Palo Alto, they are renovating infrastructure as well and the only way to manage this kind of work is in block-long chunks. It's not as simple as just replacing trees.

The good news is that Palo Alto has a great and well known Planning Arborist who oversees all of these projects, which are all undertaken with a very long view. In time, it will be better for everyone, including the new trees. Enjoy your view of the progress.

John said...

Thanks, Matt! I absolutely agree the changes are an improvement, and in fact it's kind of exciting to be in the middle of it all. On further reflection, maybe I should have filed this piece in my "Learning From The Big Guys" series, as a lesson in customer communication (or lack thereof).

Martin Casper said...

Good Post John...
It is always interesting how governments no matter whether at the local or national level will do things at their own discretion without full disclosure. At the same time, we as citizens need to accept the fact the change is sometimes necessary both on the near term and long term. This applies in a significant way to landscaping as is far from static.

John said...

Martin, that's a great point. Whether it's Man or Nature doing the felling, trees will always fall. In all the clamor since the oaks were taken down, what I hear most is people's fear (usually masked as anger or sadness) that they don't have control over their environment; but really, we never do.

In this case, the city clearly struck out by not anticipating this primal fear and placating us with involvement and information (even pseudo-choices) that could at least have given us some feeling of control.

Ilona said...

This seems to be more urban planning gone awry. I do not understand the way landscapes are replaced as some sort of fashion statement. I think we should be more organic than that even if it is an urban environment (and thus highly manipulated).

I've seen tree replacement done well- and imagine that this will be an example of the, but replacing thirty year old oaks with red maples?

I agree with Dirt Guy on the idea of "chunks" and perhaps varying the tree varieties by keeping some oaks and replacing some...although that destroys the continuity of the visual. If our sense of beauty would just be more keyed into the natural growth of plantings that are healthy, varied, and indicative of the area.

What you do on the West Coast eventually influences what happens here in the more stolid Midwest. I don't think it is always fear of change that fuels the dismay at taking down healthy trees, but a real sense of loss of that feature of the particular persona that a certain type of tree gives an area.