Almost ten years ago I was asked to lead an organization which would spearhead a “public-private” partnership focused on maintaining and growing the urban forest in my home town. A recent article I found through the Planetizen website about Louisville, KY and how the death of its street trees has lead to the worst “heat island” effect in the United States reminded me both of that period of my life, and a conversation I had with some friends about the impact of the June 1st 2011 tornado here in Springfield. What my friends told me was that the tornado had uprooted many large trees on their property which had shaded their home during the summer months so effectively that they had previously had no need of air conditioning. After the storm, however, they had needed to buy multiple window units of air conditioners in order to keep their home livable in the summer.
I will include the impassioned letters I wrote to state officials when I resigned as president of the Friends of Springfield Trees (FroST…I liked it!). If you look at the Louisville data and the anecdotal evidence from my friends and the tornado what you see is that in cutting the city forester’s budget the citizens of Springfield do not really save any money given that the few dollars a year they don’t pay in property taxes they do have to pay in higher electric bills, add to that the negative impact on the climate that higher electrical usage has, and the carbon sucking capacity trees have it becomes clear that the loss is more than just financial. Beyond that, of course, trees beautify neighborhoods, cue drivers to slow down, and provide habitat for urban wildlife.
What is most concerning with respect to trees is that we do not see how severe the cutbacks have been because we are living on the investment in the urban forest made 50 years ago, and even 100 years ago. The young trees which we haven’t planted in the last 30 years would just now be starting to provide optimum coverage, their absence offset by remaining mature trees. By the time we notice what we’re missing even planting at a massive scale will do very little to improve the environmental dynamics of our cities for years and years. And this will be at a time when the impacts of global climate change might make keeping cool even more urgent than it seems now in the sweltering heat of July and August.
Here are my letters:
Dear Mr. Seaborn,
I want to thank you for your assistance with the grant we were given by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts DCR last year. I will be forwarding the necessary documentation to close out what (small) portion of it we have utilized. More importantly I’m writing you to give you my opinion on the entire program.
I started to participate in the Community Forestry program here in the city because I was very active in the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association in Springfield’s downtown and saw it as an opportunity to beautify my neighborhood. I received some excellent training and very much enjoyed learning about tree selection, planting, and maintenance. I planted 10 trees and followed up the planting with the necessary after care such that in over the first three years only one tree was lost, and that was to a motor vehicle. I even filled out the necessary form to see to it that the city would be reimbursed for the loss.
The city forester, Ed Casey, took note of my dedication and spoke to me of the possibility of starting a “Friends” organization which could work to obtain funding and volunteer labor to see to it that Springfield would remain a city with plentiful street trees. I worked with many people to get the organization off the ground and build some momentum; we have had both successes and failures. (The following is not meant as a personal attack, we may even be of like minds)
I must say that I have felt a great deal of ambivalence toward the program which has finally spilled over in to antagonism. This whole program is a sham. It is an attempt by political ideologues to strip government of its place in our society and replace it with amateurish volunteer organizations that need to beg for funding, chiefly from private sources, when the same work should be done more efficiently and for greater social good by traditional municipal governments.
20 or 30 specialists should be EMPLOYED by the city to select, plant, and care for our trees. They should receive a living wage, health benefits, and retirement benefits. The idea that a group of volunteers can deal with planting and maintaining the 40,000 street trees that Springfield has had and should have is ridiculous. All we do in attempting it is to give cover to the people whose ultimate desire is to impoverish the public sphere, and perhaps more importantly to them, eliminate ANY expectation that they bear ANY responsibility for the well-being of our society at any level.
Certain politicians have managed to deceive large numbers of Americans with facile platitudes about government inefficiency and the benefits of keeping “their” money for themselves. They fail to mention what even Adam Smith knew about markets, that they undervalue the public good and view many important issues as externalities. In a democratic society people levy taxes on themselves and then choose where to place their priorities. This is not theft, it can denote wise investment in our future. I want to give more to my municipal government and get more from it. I want politicians and bureaucrats to talk about what government can do. If the 150,000 residents of Springfield and its thousands of businesses increased their tax levy slightly the city could have the type of Forestry Division it had for decades and decades. People need to be told that there is no such thing as a free lunch, if we want a city resplendent with healthy trees we have to pay for it. I will not be part of this sham any longer. If you want a green Springfield, see to it that the city has the money to have a real program.
We need to change the measurement of GDP (where the Exxon Valdez was the greatest boost to economic prosperity of any ship voyage ever!) with a quality of life measurement that can see the difference between a billion dollars spent on prisons and a billion dollars spent on parks. Have you ever been to a city in Europe Mr. Seaborn? That is prosperity. In Madrid people get paid to plant trees and sweep streets. Parks are cleaned and maintained, sometimes new ones are built and facilities actually expanded! Our prosperity is a chimera; the snake oil we’ve been sold by anti-tax zealots is killing our cities, our schools, our parks, and our trees. I cannot in good conscience continue to be part of this deception. I will resign as the president of the Friends of Springfield Trees. There may be someone who will choose to take my place; I do not know who it might be.
Please understand that the following criticisms are meant to create better long term prospects for the urban forest and nothing else. It is clearly colored by my own personal and political beliefs, but having said that I would hasten to add that I wouldn’t retain those beliefs if I didn’t truly believe that their transformation into actions would not benefit the society as a whole.
The whole project is misguided chiefly because it stems from a belief that it is possible to get something for nothing. Rather than following a fairly simple and straightforward idea that that we, as a society, should establish spending levels and spending priorities through the political system, we have been sold a bill of goods by so-called “fiscal conservatives” who claim that anything from full privatization to “public private partnerships” can more efficiently do the job of “gubment”. One need only look at the relative efficiency of medicare when compared to private health insurance to see how objectively ridiculous this assertion is.
In the case of Springfield’s urban forest I have personally spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours planning, training, being trained, trimming, watering, and planting trees in the city of Springfield. Looked at broadly one could credit me and FrOST (as well as the community forestry program from which it sprang) with planting and/or saving 250 trees over the last 4 years. I’m proud of that number. I have spent much of my free time and vacation time engaged in this process. To make a long story short, just to keep the number of Springfield street trees level we would need to multiply that number 10 fold, perhaps 20 fold on a yearly basis. Is it “possible” to do this? Yes. Is it possible to do this more efficiently than it was done in years past by the municipal employees gainfully employed at a living wage by the city to do this job. No way.
Worse than that, in the end it gives cover to the race-to-the-bottom-starve-the-beasters” who claim that there is (ironically) a free lunch: We can pay less in taxes and not lose anything in the way of services. It hides the fact that we have abandoned cities to their fate; it even does a wonderful job of seeing to it that the most actively involved in the community get a tree in their tree-belt thus mollifying them while the politically invisible can continue to be ignored (Just found this!). In the end, for me, I am involved in a project which I feel is antithetical to my beliefs. It is interesting to me that most affluent suburbs appear to be maintaining their canopy. Public-private partnerships seem most popular in areas populated by minorities.
Now some musings on the micro aspects of the organization. Overall there is too much dogmatic rigidity when it comes to tree planting and species selection. In one circumstance, our venerable city forester (who is as dedicated as a man could be to his work) refused to allow the state to plant 50 trees in a tree belt during a highway project because there were wires buried in the tree belt…and that might mean that someday repair work on the wires might someday damage the trees…which now won’t be there because the forester won’t allow it. That is crazy. In this case the money budgeted for those trees just went “poof” in the budget, they weren’t going to be shifted to some “better” location: It was there or nowhere. To a man the people at FrOST disagreed with the decision and that was expressed to Ed, who said that he hoped that the lack of trees would create a groundswell for the diminished use of tree belts for utilities. Again, most voters driving in from the suburbs don’t care if a strip of “ghetto” is treeless, and fewer “patches” from utility work in the road is worth whatever (ahem) inconvenience and aesthetic deprivation urban dwellers might have to suffer.
Then there is the proscription on large tree under wires. (Imagine a robot voice) “No large trees under wires…must plant small flowering trees…much more attractive.”
Simply NOT TRUE. I can take you to street after street after street after street after street in the city where absolutely STUNNING shade trees cover the sidewalks and the driveways all the while weaving in and out of the wires. The tiny maxi-shrubs just don’t do most of what trees are there to do. Compare a street with sycamores towering over it, to another ornamented with shadblow serviceberries cowering under telephone wires and tell me the serviceberries do a better job. Too much dogma, not enough looking at the real world.
I agree that we should not just plant thousands of trees in the hopes that a few dozen will survive, but the algorithm that might eventually lead to a successful community forestry program in the city is going to need to be a bit less dogmatic. Certainly, it is better to plant 18 trees, and have, say sixteen thrive, than it is to plant two and have them both live. The city is losing hundreds of trees every year, soon it will be nearly a thousand, until the arc of depletion reaches its midpoint. We need every “net” tree we can get.
I’d love to TALK to you sometime. My writing style may seem hyperbolic, but it is intended to be insightful, direct, and part of dialectic.
No one ever got back to me on any of this.