Trees, part 3: Improving Walkability

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Continuing the discussion of the benefits of trees for walkability, this post takes a look at cities who are dealing well with their trees, and how Seattle can improve – both for the trees’ sake, and for its citizens’.

Trees have many benefits for the air, soil and general feel of the community, contributing to the overall health and sustainability of our planet.   These benefits outweigh the potential hazards – that of tearing up sidewalks from the underside with their elaborate root systems.  Aside from providing shade and pleasantries to the eye, trees further impact walkability in communities in that they provide safety.

Posted by Megan RisleyAugust 1, 2011

While there has not yet been a lot of research done to show explicit correlation between trees and ‘clear zones’, many transportation experts and urban planners note, from experience, that trees encourage decreases in speed – if not for their statues of grandeur, then at least for drivers’ caution.  There is a general knowledge that drivers – indeed, all people – respond to beauty by slowing down; the sense of enclosure that the utter height of trees, especially trees evenly spaced apart, bring can help people to gauge their speed that an otherwise cleared region would not be able to provide.

And yet, even with this list, which is, as it is, incomplete, trees are still and understudied, undervalued part of urban landscape and development.  Their ability to aid in carbon sequestration shadows the view that they are ‘in the way’ of urban development.  Trees are looked at as a threat, or impediment, to urbanization and infrastructure, with little regard to the trees themselves, let alone the myriad benefits they could bring to said infrastructure.  A tree’s value is determined by its species (is it one that roots ‘out’ instead of ‘down’, therefore potentially tearing up the sidewalk, size (can streets and traffic still manage around it) and location (is it in the way of a potential new road?), not its function as an active participant in community health and walkability.

In Seattle, the ‘canopy goal’ is 40% – that is, not quite half of the city’s layout should ‘look green’ from above.  This, however, will be reduced to 30% in 2012, likely for development and urbanization goals.  There are tools and examples out there, though, to show the benefit of trees.  For example, Philadelphia, PA has elaborated a web-based way of tracking trees -an online, interactive treemap that can be updated by location.  Palo Alto has been exemplary in its research of and care for its natural, ancient oaks around the city, and thus, has a clearer idea of how to utilize and protect this source of beauty and health for its community.  Minneapolis’ government page explicitly states how important a resource an urban forest is to any city, and has done its homework as well in tracking its trees.  The city even recently made available over 1,500 trees for its residents to plant around the area!

Seattle’s residents as a whole share the ideals of health, community and sustainability – take the foot and bike traffic constantly on the trails such as the Burke Gilman and Interurban as evidence enough.  Trees are an integral part in maintaining these ideals city-wide and should considered as a vital piece in the walkability puzzle.





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