Using trees in public spaces

by Michael Smith

The environmental, economic and social benefits of trees are well known, I should think, and have also been well enough documented in many places.

Trees have an immense role to play in the built environment and we have been neglecting this for too long. If we look at the towns that were created by the likes of Rowntree and Cadbury they incorporated a great deal of trees in their design, because it was obvious to them that trees benefit people. The same was done during the slum clearances of, say, Bermondsey under the involvement of Dr. Salter. Why we ever nigh on went away from it beats me, and I should assume many others who are passionate about trees, in the urban and other environments.

The location of trees and and the benefits they bring, can be secured for future generations by influencing the planning, design, construction and management of our urban infrastructure and spaces.

The role of the planner, architect and urban designer is crucial in allowing trees to remain an essential component of pubic life and the life of our towns and cities. The numbers of trees planted, including within new developments, is much less relevant and is much less of an issue than the quality and scale of the trees planted.

As far as cities are concerned it is the larger landscape species that confer the greatest benefit to a city. This especially in terms of attractiveness, stature, creating a sense of place and, crucially, for casting deep shade and cooling our buildings, public squares and meeting places in future.

Such trees must be, as indicated, of a good quality and of that kind that already has attained a certain height and strength. On cannot simply go and plant forest nursery stock of the kind that is used in woodland and forest planting and expect them to grown and do something.

Trees, as any forester knows, take a long time to grow to any stature that will give shade and also small trees may not survive the rigors of town and city, and this includes vandalism.

I am sure that most of us who have any dealing with this subject know far too well that as soon as you have planted some young trees somewhere, whether in a park or open space or by the side of the road, that this is like a red rag to a bull fort the young hooligans and they go an try to inflic as much damage as they possibly can.

Large stature trees are not as easily affected by such actions as are small saplings and hence the recommendation for larger landscaping species of trees, ideally tub grown.

The management of such trees, as well as the trees in parks and other public open spaces in towns and cities must be approached in a new way too. It should, in my opinion, in the same way as in other European Union countries, be done by city forestry departments and if and when trees have to be felled for whatever reason or when trees fall in parks they should be fed into the “food chain” so to speak. That is to say that they should be marketed for the good of the parks and open spaces, whether this be for firewood or for furniture lumber.

Residential areas should enjoy tree canopy cover of at least 25 per cent to alleviate the impacts of climate change, with 15 per cent canopy cover in mixed-use or commercial areas.

This should mean more planting of trees in parks, open spaces, car park areas, etc.; avenues of trees again in residential areas where, in the not so distant past they had been removed for reasons of overshadowing people's homes and gardens. And this is certainly not before time.

In this context it would be nice to also goo back to the avenues of fruit trees that used to line the roads all across the counties and which were in fact harvested for the common good. Our ancestors were not as stupid as many of the modern folks might like to think. While they may not have had the modern technology we have today they knew what Nature had to offer and how to make use of Her gifts. Time we had a little trip back to the future, so to speak, and took some leaves out of the old ones' books.

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009