City Beautiful: The Secret Life of Trees

Despite tree-hugging tendencies, I’m trying my hardest not to hate trees and other blossoming urban flora right now as they wake up from a long winter and their wanton pollination causes my awful allergies. To feel a little better, it’s a good time to remember that while urban forests dish out suffering to those of us with sensitive immune systems, they do take a lot of abuse from us too.

In late February the New York Post reported a shocking expose: in 2010, New York City police fined over 100 citizens for acts of  “arborcide,” where people attacked trees, tore them limb from limb in some cases (unknown was how many of these attacks were due to pollen-induced allergy rage). Aside from assault, our urban canopy deals with a host of indirect attacks too. They filter our air but can suffocate when their little leaves clog up with pollution, their roots retain stormwater while we inadvertently poison their soil, they calm us down even after having insomnia from the damn street lamp next door that stays up all night long.

So instead of cursing all the happy little trees out there for my imploding head and stuffy nose, this week’s City Beautiful collects images of street trees the world ’round and the uncharacteristic uses and abuses they take from the humans with whom they cohabitate.


Mexico City: Gum was supposedly invented by the Aztecs, who would chew on sticky resin from the chicozapote tree as a way to clean their teeth. In a way of giving back for the bounty we have received from nature, people now stick their gum to tree trunks, which isn’t very nice but does end up forming some interesting patterns. Check out this story on about another landmark gum tree that was cut down in Philadelphia a few years ago.

Photo credit: Flickr user choppington

Delhi: The banyan tree – the exotic, pensive Sacred Fig. Buddha was believed to have attained enlightenment under one, in Hinduism the tree symbolizes eternal life.  In cities the big tangles of trunk, roots and branches make them quite nice to sit on or under for shade, though they can make for beautiful but difficult neighbors. This 400-year old one in Delhi invited itself in for tea.

Photo credit: Flickr user Mr. Matt

Singapore: Another sacred banyan tree, this one enveloping a shrine in Singapore’s Little India.

Photo credit: Flickr user cathdupuy

London: The Stokenchurch Shoe Tree is a big ash that lacks a better explanation than “There’s a tree there that people throw their shoes up” (though not just shoes – if you look closely there’s also a bike tire).  Spending £265,000 on an investigation as to why only yielded the same tired explanations for why people do strange things with trees: fertility or putting a hex on someone.

Photo credit: Flickr user Stephskimo

New York: I’ve locked my bike to trees a few times and always felt terribly guilty about it for unclear reasons. It just seems disrespectful, which this photo of a burly New York chain lock choking a little elm tree confirms in my mind.

Photo credit: Flickr user mogaphoto

Urbanization News Roundup March 18

After a week of catastrophic events in Japan and continuing unrest in the Libya it is very difficult to focus only on news related to cities.  However, there has been many interesting reports this past week that will interest urbanist.  We urge you though to look at this list of ways to help Japan.

Making Room for a Planet of Cities

This weeks featured story is a report by the Lincoln Land Institute, led by NYU Wagner adjunct professor Shlomo “Solly” Angel.  The report is “a comprehensive and original analysis of the quantitative dimensions of past, present, and future global urban land cover, culminating in a proposed new paradigm for preparing for explosive growth in cities the world over.”  Gregory K. Ingram, president and chief executive officer of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, wrote a feature article on the report for Planetizen:

Our most recent Policy Focus Report… suggests that key components of such planning in developing countries include generous metropolitan limits, an arterial grid of streets spaced one kilometer apart that can support transit, and selective protection of open space. The goals of densification, infill, and containment may be generally appropriate for U.S. cities, but not for cities in the developing world where average urban population densities are over four times higher than in the U.S.

Purchase the whole report here.

A group of architects have started an initiative, Vision 2050, to create three different models for the planning of Delhi. “….architects, mostly from the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in New Delhi, have started an initiative called Vision 2050 through which they intend to create three different models of Delhi. This project is a non-governmental effort and is carried out in collaboration with a company from the Netherlands, called Dutch Design Fashion Architecture, and the country’s embassy in India. What makes the initiative unique is that for the first time these models will be based on people’s aspirations and on what they think Delhi should be like in 2050. Most Indian cities are planned by a closed group of experts, and generally, the design is thrust upon the city without any consultations with its people.”

Maharashtra renews efforts on low-costs housing reservation “The Maharashtra government plans to make it mandatory for real estate developers to reserve more than one-third of the constructed area in new projects for low and middle-income families, in an effort to provide cheaper homes in cities such as Mumbai, where property prices are the highest in the country… The 35% reservation is the second such effort after a court rejected a previous order last month.”

Unsustainable Housing in India

After 70 residents were crushed to death in New Delhi when a building collapsed on November 15, a few interesting stories have emerged about the growth of India’s cities.   The building that collapsed housed more than 400 people in a crowded structure that suffered from flooding in the basement and illegal floors built by the owner on top of the structure.  According to the New York Times short film India’s Poor Struggle for Shelter Delhi is filled with four to five story structures such as this, even through the legal maximum height throughout most of the city is three stories.

Unfortunately these illegal and unsafe structures are often the only places were urban poor families can afford to rent within mega-cities. In a related article India’s Cities Fail to Keep Up With New Arrivals a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute cited unprecedented growth in Indian cities.  The report estimates that about 590 million Indians will live in cities by 2030, and:

To provide enough housing and commercial space, it said, India must build the equivalent of the city of Chicago every year.

I was recently asked how I would propose to development more sustainable Asian cities and I after stumbling through an answer I realized that the most important aspect of sustainability to me, and often the most over looked, is equity. I guess Bill McDonough’s idea of sustainability as Equity, Economy, and Ecology all being equal parts, has stuck with me since I read Cradle to Cradle.  Although the environment tends to be the most popularly associated term with sustainability, without examining equity issues within cities informal housing will still exist and will be a detriment to the environment due to crowding and poor sanitation.

As we work in the future to build, redesign and adapt cities in be more sustainable, we as planners should not ignore the question of equity as we develop more environmentally sustainable practices.  This incident in Delhi has highlighed that without providing more financially diverse housing options illegal housing units will continue to be built and leased to the urban poor, even as more environmentally sustainable practices happen elsewhere in the same city.