why worry about our large street trees?

why not just remove them?

Our City Engineer, Chris Wallin, and his staff clearly want to do the best they can for the City of Schenectady, within financial and legal constraints, and directives from above. Assistant City Engineer Peter Knutson spent a considerable amount of time a few weeks ago composing answers to my concerns over the removal of trees that were healthy (at least until affected by street or sidewalk construction). But, two points made by engineer Knutson leave me concerned that they are missing the Forest of Benefits due to the (potentially) Problematic Trees.

Peter wrote me on March 22, 2016, that he believes (emphasis added):

  1. My job with the city is to limit liability. Even if one in a thousand trees has the potential to become a liability, that would leave the city open to hundreds if not thousands of potential lawsuits with the hundreds of thousands of trees in the city right of way.  As I said, if a property owner wants to accept liability for a tree we can cross that bridge when/if it happens.  Until I am advised otherwise by corporation counsel, any tree that I feel had been impacted negatively by any construction will be removed.
  2. ” [Y]ou say that the little trees ruin the historic feel but if you give them 5-10 years they will be mature and give the same feel as the larger trees with minimal burden of damage.  It just takes time for the trees to grow and that’s why we wouldn’t do all the trees at the time but phase them in block by block (plus we don’t have the money to do all the streets in the Stockade at the same time).”

Both the focus on the nebulous potential liability for fallen trees and the faith in comparable results in the near future (or ever) seem misguided. The “costs” — aesthetic, social, economic, health and environmental — involved in removing large street trees is so great, and the impact of the smaller “location appropriate” trees over time so underwhelming, that I hope the City will undertake a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the effects of removing our old-growth street trees, and of the efficacy and cost of alternatives to such removal, before any new program of sidewalk repair is started. As I wrote six years ago, when the City wanted to remove all large trees along its Washington Avenue right-of-way in order to repair its sidewalks, “Schenectady needs a Tree Preservation Policy”.

The web presentation “Benefits of Trees in Urban Areas” (posted with graphics by Grants Pass, Oregon, with text by ColoradoTrees.org.) starts with this insight:

Trees are major capital assets in cities across the United States. Just as streets, sidewalks, public buildings and recreational facilities are a part of a community’s infrastructure, so are publicly owned trees. Trees — and, collectively, the urban forest — are important assets that require care and maintenance the same as other public property. Trees are on the job 24 hours every day working for all of us to improve our environment and quality of life.

For me, the two greatest benefits — sufficient in themselves to justify a tree preservation policy — are the beauty of large trees and the inviting and shielding shade they provide, especially in rows, groups and canopies. There is, of course, much more to admire about trees and justify their preservation and conservation.

According to the SVJ Tree Guidelines report (at 14), which is referenced above:

Trees provide a host of social, economic, and health benefits that should be included in any benefit-cost analysis. A 1992 survey of municipal tree programs in California found that the greatest benefits from their programs were

  1. increased public safety,
  2. increased attractiveness and commercial activity, and
  3. improved civic pride (Bernhardt and Swiecki 1993).
  4. Additional environmental benefits from trees include noise abatement and wildlife habitat.

The social, physical and psychological benefits provided by urban forests improve human well-being. . . . Humans can derive substantial pleasure from trees, whether it be feelings of relaxation, connection to nature, or religious joy (Dwyer et al. 1992). Trees provide important settings for recreation in and near cities. They also encourage people to walk, improving overall physical fitness. Research on the aesthetic quality of residential streets has shown that street trees are the single strongest positive influence on scenic quality.

On the practical side, directly relating to the above benefits, trees also bring financial benefits to property owners and local governments, according to the SVJ Report (at 15):

Research suggests that people are willing to pay 3-7% more for residential properties with ample tree resources versus few or no trees. One of the most comprehensive studies of the influence of trees on residential property values was based on actual sales prices for 844 single-family homes in Athens, Georgia (Anderson and Cordell 1988). Each large front-yard tree there was found to be associated with a nearly 1% increase in sales price ($336 in 1985 dollars). This increase in property value resulted in an estimated increase of $100,000 (1978 dollars) in the city’s property tax revenues. A much greater value of 9% ($15,000) was determined in a U.S. Tax Court case for the loss of a large black oak on a property valued at $164,500 (Neely 1988).

community group in the Sydney, Australia region concurs as to property values:

“Property values increase when there are visually beautiful street trees within view. . . .  If you want to immediately lower the value of your property, get the council to remove a large tree from outside your property.”

AmericanForestsLogo Similarly, the group American Forests, the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country, lists many reasons why it advocates for the protection and expansion of America’s forests.  See its BENEFITS OF TREES webpages. The Tree Benefits section begins with this statement:

Trees provide a range of environmental, social and economic benefits that improve our quality of life. Healthy trees increase in value with age and pay big dividends by cleaning our air, purifying water, reducing energy costs and beautifying our communities.

There are sections on Environmental and Social Benefits. Here are some of the points made at American Forests about Economic Benefits:

The economic benefits of trees can be both direct and indirect.

  • Trees can lower air-conditioning and heating costs of a household or business by decreasing energy use. If planted near a building, trees can reduce energy bills by up to 40 percent.

  • Homes that are landscaped with trees are worth four to 15 percent more and sell faster than homes without trees. Trees can also increase the property values of a whole neighborhood or business district.

  • Trees enhance the beauty of communities, and help to attract tourists and businesses. Studies have shown that people walking or driving down a street lined with trees are more inclined to slow down and linger at store windows and are willing to pay up to 12 percent more for goods and services, and the presence of trees encourages patrons to spend a longer time shopping.

  • Communities can save money and even increase revenue by planting trees. 

Trees and Pedestrians. Similarly, as to trees and pedestrians, the guidelines provided by the Federal DOT for its Americans with Disabilities Act, tell us in the section on Best Practices in Designing Sidewalks (in Part II, Sec. 4.4):

FHWA Trees are generally installed because they improve the pedestrian experience along the street. Trees serve as a visual and auditory buffer between pedestrians and automobile traffic. They also improve the aesthetic appearance of a street and provide shade or shelter in warm or windy regions. In urban areas, trees provide needed green space and break up the monotony of the public right-of-way. In some residential areas, large trees that extend over the street may have a traffic calming effect by creating a sense of enclosure. According to urban design research, visual enclosure is required to transform streets into pedestrian places, which results in increased comfort for pedestrians and decreased comfort for speeding motorists (Institute of Transportation Engineers, 1999).

Benefits such as those given above have led the City of Portland, Oregon, to say this about its Tree Canopy:

“Portland’s urban trees are the soul of a city known for its progressive land-use planning and extensive green infrastructure. Trees are a crucial part of the cityscape, softening and beautifying the built environment, improving neighborhood safety and livability, and providing vital ecosystem services such as air purification, temperature mitigation, and stormwater interception. Effective and efficient management of the urban forest relies on an understanding of the structure and function of the resource, as well as the benefits it provides.”

Similar points are made at the Colorado Trees organization’s website, in the piece “Urban Forests Can Improve Economic Sustainability”, which notes:

“The scope and condition of a community’s trees and, collectively, its urban forest, is usually the first impression a community projects to its visitors. A community’s urban forest is an extension of its pride and community spirit.”

SaratogaSpLogo   Saratoga Springs. Closer to home, and soon to be Schenectady’s foremost regional casino competitor, Saratoga Springs, NY, has demonstrated its appreciation for its urban forest, especially its street trees. This appreciation led its City Council to resolve on June 3, 2008 (about the time Schenectady was clear-cutting N. Ferry Street) that:

“the preservation and expansion of the Urban Forest will serve the public interest by improving the community’s physical, social, cultural and economic environment.”

That resolution led to efforts that brought into being and adoption Saratoga Springs’ Urban and Community Forest Master Plan , which the City is using to guide its efforts in “maximizing the benefits that trees provide to Saratoga Springs.” The Introduction to the Master Plan notes that:

Since 2008, the City has adopted other progressive policies, notably Climate Smart and Complete Streets, in which the trees and the urban forest play pivotal roles. No serious plan for reducing greenhouse gases could ignore trees as among the most cost-effective tools to work with. Nor can one imagine designing pedestrian-friendly streets or neighborhoods without trees. The Urban and Community Forest Master Plan provides an opportunity to weave these strands of the City’s planning and design efforts into a promising big picture for Saratoga’s future.

The draft amendments to the Spa City’s tree-related zoning provisions state as the Findings and Purpose:

 “The City of Saratoga Springs hereby finds that the preservation and expansion of the urban forest will serve the public interest by improving the community’s physical, social, cultural, and economic environment. Trees are a valuable asset, a cost- effective component of our urban infrastructure. They abate noise, provide welcome and energy-saving shade to people, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance air quality, and reduce stormwater runoff and pollution.

They also enhance the beauty of our City and provide a natural habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Finally, trees contribute to the profitability of our retail, restaurant, and tourism businesses and increase real estate values in our neighborhoods.” 

TreeAttitudes-SS The Saratoga Springs Master Plan also acknowledges that not all citizens and businesses appreciate the benefits of trees. Click on the insert to the left of this paragraph, title Different People See Trees in Different Ways.  Therefore, it adopts as an Action Strategy promoting and cultivating citizen involvement in the “care and stewardship of our urban forest.”  That strategy includes raising awareness “through education, collaboration, and the exchange of information—among stakeholders about the value and needs of the urban forest.”


Finally, as to general benefits of our urban forests, the International Society of Arboriculture says:


TreesAreGood-ISA More and more communities are beginning to recognize the tangible benefits that trees provide in the urban environment. Healthy trees reduce air and noise pollution, provide energy-saving shade and cooling, furnish habitat for wildlife, enhance aesthetics and property values, and are an important contributor to community image, pride, and quality of life. Furthermore, many communities have realized that in order to protect and enhance their valuable tree resources, it is useful to view and manage their trees as a cohesive unit, the community or urban forest.



Yes, SIZE MATTERSsizematters

As common sense suggests, the smaller trees that are planted after removal of our old urban forest trees simply cannot achieve the practical benefits, much less the grandeur, of the trees they replace. (see our post “N. Ferry St. then and now“) They were not bred for height or breadth, nor greatness. As arborist. Gordon Mann of Auburn, California, states in “Sidewalk and Roots: Mitigating the Conflict—An Overview” Auburn, California :

“Trees are valuable urban infrastructure that provides many benefits to people. Larger trees provide greater benefits than small trees. Removing and replacing a large tree with a small tree will maintain tree counts, but not maintain the same level of benefits. Therefore, whenever possible, we try to retain the existing larger trees while making a repair or create better space for larger trees in the future.”

In its Guidelines for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances, the International Society of Arboriculture explains (emphasis added):

“The benefits derived from the urban forest generally increase as tree size and canopy cover increase. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the community to protect its existing tree resources from loss or depletion. It is not possible to indefinitely preserve individual trees, since each tree will eventually die. However, it is possible to preserve both the urban forest and natural woodlands by restricting the indiscriminate removal of trees in all age classes, and by making provisions for natural or human-assisted regeneration. This embodies the concept of conservation.

. . .  “In areas with native tree resources, ordinance provisions that address this goal should conserve stands of trees rather than only individual tree specimens. They should prevent depletion of the tree canopy over both short- term and long-term time horizons.”

In addition, the Saratoga Springs Master Plan notes: “Since the benefits derived from the urban forest generally increase as tree size and canopy cover increase, it is in the best interest of our community to protect its existing tree assets and limit the removal of existing trees. Increasing the number of trees in our city (and the number of large-canopy trees in particular) will lower municipal and citizen costs in many areas, benefit the commercial viability of the city, and enhance the health, safety and general welfare of our citizens and visitors which municipalities are authorized to protect.”


Logic and experience suggest that trees are especially important in historic districts, where they not only reflect the ambiance of the past but also help create the first (and lasting) impression that the district is a special place worthy of attention and protection. In his essay “The Role of Trees in Historic Neighborhoods“, J Ryan Duddleson, M.A. RPA, wrote on the subject after devastating storms hit South Bend, Indiana, in July 2014. Duddleston notes the importance of addressing urgent safety needs, but stresses that “once the immediate threat is addressed, several options are available to proactively manage trees, balancing preservation and safety.” More generally, he emphasizes:

It’s easy to think of our neighborhoods as made of separate individual pieces – our homes, businesses, streets, the open spaces, parks and trees – but in reality they are not independent. All of these parts combine to form the unique places we live and work. Think about recent changes in your own neighborhood; the last time a new building went up, or one came down, think about recent (or ongoing) road construction, or maybe look at the empty space down the street where that tree stood until the last storm.


These sorts of changes can affect the entire neighborhood, for both residents and visitors. The impact can be more dramatic in historic neighborhoods, where the trees themselves may be historically significant as well as contributors to the overall character of the landscape. . . .

Duddleston also explains the guidelines prepared by the South Bend Historic Preservation Commission [HPC], and summarizes that:

These address the unique histories, buildings, and environment of the individual neighborhoods, and include standards for maintaining elements that reflect the district’s character, regarding both structures, and natural elements. In general, the guidelines recommend removing trees only due to damage, disease, or if the tree threatens a structure, or is otherwise unsafe. When planting new trees the guidelines also recommend choosing certain tree species that reflect the historic character and correspond to the ecological setting of the district. . . .


Giving examples to show that “These trees contribute to the character of these neighborhoods in many ways”,Duddleston concludes:

Whether in a formally designated historic district, or other neighborhoods, trees shape the character of our community. Along with providing ecological benefits, shade, and space for recreation, they also connect us to our past… By incorporating a little preventative maintenance and enlisting a professional arborist when necessary, we can help preserve the important places in our community.


Mayor Ed Morgan, of Abingdon, Virginia (arguably the State’s oldest town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains) puts it more succinctly on a Faces of Urban Forestry page of the National Arbor Day Foundation’s website:

: “The historic districts would not be the same without trees. . . . We have come to recognize the economic value of trees, as well as their contribution to the quality of life in town”.

Of course, municipalities and their historic commissions, across the nation, have promulgated special ordinances, rules, or regulations of many kinds to protect existing trees. For example: 

  • The City of Los Angeles has instituted special restrictions against the removal of any tree in specified Cultural Heritage Locations (including the requirement of a public hearing with regard to each designated tree), and also designates “street trees of significance,” stating that “The trees may be of importance due to their size, species, appearance, growth habits, flowers, or a combination of these characteristics. The City should be proud of these trees and the flavor and character that it provides to the neighborhoods in which they are planted.”

It is, therefore, no surprise that when the founding members of the Stockade Association first met on September 18, 1957, they listed as the first item in a list of ways to “Protect and improve the area”: “

a. encourage replanting of trees and preservation of present trees by owners.

Although a tree-preservation policy is needed for the City’s entire urban forest, it is especially appropriate and necessary for its historic districts. Thus, a Gazette editorial, which played an important role staving off the City’s threat to strip Washington Avenue in the Stockade of its large old street trees in 2010, Schenectady should spare trees, spoil sidewalks” (April 17, 2010), argued (emphasis added):

The Schenectady Historic Commission Should Act. The City’s Zoning Law, Article VIII of Chapter 264 of the Schenectady Code, gives as the purpose of our Historic District legislation to (among other things, with emphases added):

▪    Safeguard the heritage of the City of Schenectady by preserving resources in the city that represent or reflect elements of its cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.
▪    Protect and enhance the attractiveness of such historic resources to home buyers, visitors, shoppers and residents and thereby provide economic benefits to the city and its citizens.
▪    Conserve and improve the value of property within Historic Districts.
▪    Foster, encourage and advise the preservation, restoration and rehabilitation of structures, areas and neighborhoods.
▪    Promote the use of Historic Districts for the education, enjoyment and welfare of the citizens of the city.
▪    Foster civic pride in the beauty and history of the past as represented in the Historic Districts.

A tree preservation policy can help achieve many of the City’s Historic preservation goals. Our Municipal Code, §264-74(B), the Schenectady Historic Commission has the power to investigate and report upon matters before the City boards and departments, and to undertake surveys and studies, and make resultant proposals for regulations and special conditions and restrictions, “as may be appropriate to serve the purposes of this article.” Importantly, to assist the Commission, it may “may retain such specialists, consultants or experts to aid in its duties and to pay for their services and call upon available City staff for technical advice.”

It is our hope that the members of the Historic Commission, with assistance from the staff of the planning and Engineering departments, will play an important role formulating, advocating and eventually implementing a Tree Preservation Policy for our City’s historic districts, with any such policy serving as a model for a City-wide tree preservation policy. If the Stockade Association does not vigorously embrace that cause, Stockade residents must join with those of all of Schenectady’s historic districts, and businesses located in those districts, to ensure the Historic Commission and City Council are aware of the importance of saving our big trees. 

NFerry-March2016In our Stockade District, Lawrence the Indian has no choice; since 2008, his statue at Lawrence Circle gazes out at the deforested block of N. Ferry Street. But, many tourists and visitors to Schenectady, as well as those seeking places to live, may chose to stay away from the Stockade and other historic districts in our City, if they are stripped of the special beauty and benefits of a significant tree canopy.

CitySchdyWebmast p.s. By the way, the City of Schenectady has recently revamped its website. The opening image on its masthead is a collage of images of the Stockade, touting Schenectady as “Home of New York’s First Historic District.” Somebody on the City’s web design team seems to be in agreement with us that trees add to the allure of the Stockade. See image on the right.

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