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Bring Back the Trees Please!

Back in the mid seventies I was just old enough to become aware of Buffalo’s gorgeous urban forest.  Kids take their surroundings for granted and that is what I had done until I was a teen. Unfortunately, my new-found awareness was honed just as 3 giant elms were being cut down in front of my house. The city quickly replanted my street, Lancaster Avenue, with chestnut trees.  They have grown large and full in the decades since Dutch Elm Disease wiped out a large majority of the city’s street trees. This is not the norm however, as most of the Buffalo remains barren of meaningful street trees since the disease ravaged its neighborhoods.

As seen in these historic views, the cathedral-like tree canopy was truly incredible, world-class even. My mother tells of riding with her parents down Delaware Avenue as a little girl, face pressed against the window, thinking how the street was like a dreamy wonderland.  Old aerial views show a dense mat of leaves covering the city with the occasional ornate roof peak or church steeple piercing the canopy.  The leafy environment was the polar opposite of the city’s mighty smoke spewing industrial engine. It was glorious by any measure, one of the most incredible architectural spaces ever created, and now it is mostly gone.

Nearly 60 years have passed since the devastation took hold of the Buffalo’s streets. Unlike Lancaster Avenue, the city foresters, for the most part, just cut down the trees and walked away. In the rare occasion, when the city did replant, it was done with a mish-mash of irregular tree types and sizes.   Often they would use a variety of tree types which could not produce the visual unity needed to replicate the gorgeous arching space created by the elms.  The thinking was and continues to be that mixing varieties inhibits the spread of disease from tree to tree, reducing the chance of a city-wide die off.  In theory this sounds good but, in their zeal to protect the city from tree plague they also denied the city the potential of ever redeveloping the extraordinary urban space it used to have.

In a tsunami of bad luck, the Dutch Elm plague hit the city just as Buffalo’s economic fortunes collapsed. In a poor city of endlessly shrinking budgets planting trees was an easy line item to eliminate.  The unfortunate decision to drastically reduce tree replacement has turned out to be quite shortsighted. A half century of growth would have yielded a mature replacement canopy by now, with many of the new trees now being as old as the trees that were lost.  The lack of that mature tree canopy has real economic consequences.  Dozens of studies show that mature trees add substantially to property values with the added benefit of reducing energy use and cleaning the air.

This quote is taken from an article on CITYLAB . It has several links to research on the value of urban street trees:

In a 2010 paper in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, Donovan and Butry found that a tree in front of a Portland property added more than $7,000 [PDF] to its sale price. Earlier this year another team of economists reported that walkability, in the form of nearby businesses, raises a Portland home’s value by about $3,500 in a treeless neighborhood, but more than $22,000 [PDF] in a tree-lined one.

Here are a few more links on the value trees add to city real estate:

The Benefitsof Trees from Arborday.org

The Value of Street Trees from SmartGrowth.org

The Economic Value of Trees in Urban Areas from Treenet.org

The bottom line for the city of Buffalo is this; planting trees is a simple and fool-proof means of increasing the value of real estate in the city. Here are the two rules for doing it successfully.

  1. Make sure they have the conditions needed to grow big.
  2. Don’t plant simply to fill space.  Plant to create space.

Note however that the increased property values are just a  side effect.  The real benefit of meaningful planting of street trees is that the city will become a more beautiful and thus more pleasant and attractive place to live.

Buffalo, start planting now and do it with fierce determination.









 

These two contemporary views show Buffalo’s Timon Street on the city’s east side.  It is one of the rare places in Buffalo that you can experience the tree canopy that used to be common.  This street remains intact and livable in a part of the city that suffers from mass abandonment, crime and poverty. Are trees the difference.

Thank you Chuck Banas for the historic images 

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