Going Green Naturally

In cities across the country, trees cool, sustain, and enhance the places that matter

There's a stump beside the curb in front of our house. It used to be a tree, but the tree died and started shedding big sheets of bark, and then cracks appeared at the bases of several limbs. Pretty soon the whole thing looked like it was just waiting for the right moment to fall on somebody's car—or head—so we called the city, and some workmen came out and took away the tree and left us the stump.

I miss that tree. The afternoon light inside our house is strangely bright these days, and the fact that the front porch needs painting is glaringly apparent. The view up the street is still nice—the double row of curbside trees frames a big church several blocks away—but now I can't help noticing that the frame has gaps where other trees have disappeared in recent years.

2010 Green Issue IconBefore its tragic rendezvous with a chainsaw, my tree was a symbolic link with a colorful historical figure: Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, who, as head of the Board of Public Works and then governor of the District of Columbia, was the city's most powerful man in the early 1870s. Washington was a pretty scruffy place in those days. There was talk of moving the federal government to a more central location (St. Louis? Really?), but Shepherd wasn't about to let that happen. To help transform his hometown into a world-class capital, he launched a massive public works project that included the planting of 60,000 trees.

Shepherd left the city $21 million in debt. He was driven from office (he moved to Mexico and, I'm happy to report, made a fortune in silver mining), but his leafy legacy endures. Today, Washington is practically a city in a forest. Everywhere you look, Shepherd's trees and their successors shade our houses and sidewalk cafés, soften the hard lines of office buildings, and surround statues of forgotten generals. In winter, when snow-laden branches turn every street into a doily-roofed tunnel, and in summer, when tree shadow helps keep our asphalt pavement from boiling, I think to myself, hooray for Boss Shepherd—and if he overran his budget by several million dollars, it was money well spent.

In an urban setting, trees are good friends to have around. That's why many communities have hired urban foresters to care for their trees, and places from Boise to Buffalo have adopted the nickname "City of Trees" as a sign of their arboreal pride. We all know about trees' contribution to environmental health, but they offer other benefits, too. According to the National Trust's Main Street News, street trees "can enhance a customer's experience and further strengthen [a business district's] competitive edge," and real estate agents say that mature trees make historic neighborhoods distinctive—and marketable.

Their many fans notwithstanding, city trees are in trouble. A 1999 study, for example, reported that D.C. was losing more than 4,000 street trees every year—news that moved a woman named Betty Brown Casey, bless her, to spearhead the establishment of a nonprofit organization called Casey Trees. In 2002, the group inventoried every single street tree in Washington, and since then, it has overseen the planting of more than 6,000 new ones. You see why Betty Casey is high on my list of hometown heroes.

There's a book called—guess what?—City of Trees that would help me recognize the difference between, say, a cut-leaf Zelkova and a bladdernut, but I'm less interested in calling a tree by name than in just enjoying its company, making sure it stays healthy, maybe giving it a friendly pat now and then. I can't resuscitate the one in front of my house, but I can—and will—see about getting it replaced. Pronto.

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