The Benefits of Street Trees
By Liz Dunn
Leschi is certainly unique, even in leafy Seattle, for its abundance of parks and green spaces. But, in some spots it is not nearly as green as it could be. There are several streets in Leschi, including some key arterials, that are distinctly lacking trees or even proper curbs, sidewalks and planting strips. Examples are sections of 35th Ave South, 31st Ave South, Lake Washington Blvd and MLK. There are also many less-traveled side streets that are lacking street trees and in many cases, the proper curbs and planting areas in which to put them.
Why all the fuss about street trees?
Why should you as a Leschi resident care about whether there are trees on your street, or on the streets nearby? Well, besides the obvious -- that they make a street look more attractive -- street trees are proven to provide numerous concrete benefits to residents in terms of property values, traffic calming, pedestrian friendliness, and crime reduction.
1. Cars drive more slowly on streets with trees.
In the March 14th edition of the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest magazine, former Seattle city arborist Marvin Black points out that traffic moves more slowly on streets lined with trees. Trees have a calming effect, and drivers are at least subconsciously aware that where there are trees, there are often pedestrians and children playing.
In his book Great Streets, the internationally known urban planner Alan B. Jacobs notes that wide streets where the buildings are small and set back lose their definition, unless this effect is mitigated by lining the street with trees. Otherwise it feels like primarily like a transportation corridor, not a place where people live. Jacobs also cites research showing that for many people trees are the most important single characteristic of a "good street".
There is plenty of room to plant street trees along our arterials, even if it requires creating or widening planting strips between sidewalk and street. Most arterials were built much wider than they needed to be, decades ago, before urban planners understood that wider streets simply encourage drivers to go faster because they don't have to pay as careful attention to where they are going.
2. Street trees cut traffic noise.
Street trees reduce the amount of engine noise created in the first place, because drivers go more slowly. But a line of large leafy trees can also absorb a great deal of noise. Even a line of smaller trees can be enough of a buffer to block traffic noise from reaching private yards and homes.
3. Residents walk more on streets with trees.
When cars drive more slowly, pedestrians feel safer. In addition, curbs and trees provide a physical and psychological buffer between sidewalk and car traffic that increases this feeling of safety. The busier the street, the more this safety buffer is needed. And of course, trees provide an environment in which it is more pleasant to walk - something attractive and green to look at, shade in the summer, a canopy from rain in the winter.
Another thing that happens when we plant trees is that people can no longer park their cars up on the sidewalk. How often have you tried to walk down a street where a car has pulled up onto the planting strip and sidewalk, forcing you onto the street? The whole neighborhood benefits when people get out of their houses to walk. Residents are more likely to meet up regularly with their neighbors, to keep an eye on each other's property, to use their local parks and to patronize local businesses.
4. Trees improve air quality.
Trees consume carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. In general, the more trees we plant, the better air we breathe.
5. Street trees increase property value.
In his book City Comforts, local urban planner and author David Sucher says, "Even streets of modest houses gain a grandeur and presence when treed. Old money need not be the only ones to have old trees." Streets with trees look more stable and prosperous. Families with children are more attracted to a neighborhood where they can picture themselves going for walks and letting kids play on the sidewalk. A neighborhood that looks cared for, with visible sidewalk activity, experiences less crime and especially fewer break-ins. Of course, it is important to select a tree species that will thrive with minimal maintenance and will not block sunlight and views.
Sucher estimates that street trees can boost the value of each home on the street by at least $1000 to $5000. In their pamphlet Benefits of Trees, the International Society of Arboriculture estimates that the improvement in curb appeal due to street trees increases real estate values by 5-20%.
How can we make it happen?
Getting trees is relatively easy as the city has several programs under which they will provide the trees and coordinate the planting if we match their efforts with volunteer manpower. Although an individual property owner can apply for a street tree permit, the best results by far occur when all the neighbors on both sides of a block get together to plant matching rows of trees. So if you are excited about getting trees on your block, talk to your neighbors and get them excited too! Getting proper curbs and planting strips put in where they are needed is a bit trickier but is also possible if there is strong support from the neighborhood.
Anyone who would like to see street trees planted on their block, or who simply wants to help with the effort, can contact Liz Dunn at 324-3738 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.