Why planting urban trees is important to communities
August 09, 2016
August 09, 2016
Urban trees add beauty, provide shade from the heat, and create safety barriers between pedestrians and vehicles
I’ve focused my decade-long career as a landscape architect in the world of urban design, and it’s given me a unique perspective in the broad spectrum of landscape architecture. I now have a different outlook on the concept of placemaking and influence of the public realm. The elements of the public realm—including buildings, infrastructure, landscaping, furnishings & signage, hardscape and water—intertwine to determine how charming a place feels and how much it’s loved by the community.
In the urban environment, I place particular value on trees and am often alarmed by the state of our urban plantings. The conditions in which we expect the landscape to thrive are often laughable but, without a rich landscape, the value of place is lost. Planting in an urban setting can be challenging because of limited space, compacted soils, poor air quality, and limited natural lighting. However, the landscape should not be seen as an appendage tagged on after the construction of a beautiful building or block. No…the landscape, trees particularly, need to be viewed as a key public investment by our cities and towns, which will help ensure trees reach their potential as placemakers. As designers, it is our responsibility to ensure that trees are essential components of urban design.
The importance of trees to society is largely understood—they bring cultural, environmental, psychological, economic, and physical value to our communities. Urban trees, in particular, add value with their aesthetic beauty, but also through providing shade from the heat, and creating safety barriers between pedestrians and vehicles. Understanding their added value may increase the likelihood of cities allocating funding upfront to ensure that proper soil quality and quantity (elements vital to a tree’s long-term health) are included when budgeting for capital improvement projects. I’ve included several ways trees enhance placemaking below.
I grew up on my family’s farm in rural South Carolina surrounded by a beautiful landscape palette. Just as in a rural setting, urban trees have the power to transform the severest scene into a place worth experiencing. And a beautiful, tree-lined street can create a strong sense of community and civic pride. Trees also visually signal the change of seasons, further adding to the memories we have of a place—twinkling lights on bare branches in the winter or spring flowers symbolizing hope for warmer months to come. The beauty of place is not just about vanity in the case of trees, this attractiveness can also have healing qualities for chronic mental fatigue according to the University of Washington’s project Green Cities: Good Health.
Studies have shown that the presence of nature in a city, specifically trees in the streetscape, have a scientifically-proven effect on increasing serotonin levels in our brains, which provide a natural calming effect. Places that are stunning, particularly with beautiful landscapes, provide comfort in an otherwise complex environment.
Let’s face it, no one likes to stand in the blazing sun on a hot summer day. Being physically cool provides a comfort level that makes walking down the street an enjoyable experience. The canopies of street trees provide much-needed shade to our urban environments and often cool the air by nine degrees - according to research done by NC State University. And as a bonus, trees shield us from the sun’s damaging UV rays (which seem particularly harsh during summer). During winter, deciduous street trees allow sunlight to warm us and make a bitter, cold place more tolerable. Places that increase our comfort level entice us to stay longer.
As the mom of a young, active boy, it’s always reassuring to have a buffer between my child and moving vehicles. Street trees and even large pots help provide that extra element of safety for pedestrians on sidewalks. Lining a street with trees creates a barrier between traffic and also slows traffic, which is important in creating a sense of place for drivers. Traffic calming provides ground floor businesses a few moments to entice patrons to visit their establishments. Places that feel safe are inviting to a community.
Placemaking is a complex process with many elements contributing to its success. Layering landscape into the equation adds tremendous value by creating beauty and making us feel comfortable—isn’t that a place we all long to experience—unaffected by the hustle and bustle around us?