Trees on the Street: an Introduction

  • Trees on the Street: an Introduction

  • Ian Leahy

    March 8, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    When most people think of “forestry”, they have some vague concept involving lots of flannel, chainsaws, beards, and calls of “timber!” Most also grasp that there’s a specific outcome desired, whether it’s harvesting timber for wood products, protecting waterways from contamination, providing recreational opportunities, or some combination of all three.


    Street trees, however, are perceived by many as an entirely different animal altogether. These shoots of hardy nature emerge from the most intense urban landscapes imaginable. They get intimate with buses and trucks that come too close; they’re surrounded by concrete and asphalt on the ground, utilities underground, and buildings that impact sunlight all around. These street trees seem to have nothing in common with traditional rural forestry. And yet, in the midst of this bustling national capital, there is an entire forestry operation – complete with chainsaws and a few choice beards – that manages these trees for the same reasons that traditional forests are managed: water and air quality, enjoyment, and even wood products. Because of this dedicated attention, many street trees find the resources they need to not only grow to a mature size, but sometimes become amongst the largest trees you’ll find in the area.


    What is different from traditional forestry, however, is that this integration of nature into the everyday lives of residents and businesses creates a unique dynamic between people and trees. We don’t seek street trees out for recreation or solitude. Street trees are simply there for our conversations between neighbors or children’s first bike rides. They are part of our travels around town – maybe providing shade while waiting for the bus or a place to lean while hanging out with friends. They may subconsciously compel us to shop at one grocery store over another just because the tree canopy leading to or surrounding the building is more appealing.


    This connection makes for complicated relationships – sometimes rooted in a desire to nurture and protect a particular tree; other times rooted in a desire to eliminate a tree that may be perceived as blocking a business’s sign or penetrating a homeowner’s pipes. Often these conflicting values exist in the same person for the same tree. Managing such complex relationships in an urban environment is just as important as managing the trees themselves.


    To that end, we are beginning a monthly blog series designed to provide an inside perspective on how the District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Administration manages its leafy assets and the science related to the social, ecological, and economic value they provide to the District. We will explore a variety of topics including details of the services we provide, statistical analyses and maps generated from our world-class GIS street tree database, the laws that protect street trees, and ways you can help make street trees thrive. Hopefully, in the end, you will have a better understanding of why we do what we do and see the passion our staff has for delivering a street canopy that is as vibrant and safe as possible.

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