Why Street Trees are so Essential for our Cities

Street trees are often taken for granted and overlooked. But in Akron, Ohio, they’re a mainstay of the urban landscape. Named a 2015 Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation, Akron received the designation due to its commitment to urban forest management, led in part by City Arborist Bill Hahn.

In 2015 alone, the city planted over 2,000 trees and over 3,000 seedlings, in addition to pruning nearly 3,500. And every Arbor Day in Akron, thousands of saplings are distributed to locals by nonprofits and even MadTree Brewing Company (living up to its name).

In fact, the city of Akron, Ohio, is home to over 55,000 street trees. And if you want to know where to find the very best ones, just ask Leah Heiser, the Flowerscape director at the 37-year-old organization Keep Akron Beautiful—a nonprofit whose mission, Heiser says, is “to enhance the quality of lives in Akron through beautification, conservation education, and removing litter and graffiti.” Through the Flowerscape program, Heiser manages and cares for 32 public gardens throughout Akron.

Street trees aren't just attractive, they also provide a myriad of benefits for our neighborhoods and cities.

Street trees aren't just attractive, they also provide a myriad of benefits for our neighborhoods and cities.

Her favorites are the variety of trees in Alexander Park, the 60-year-old maple tree on West Market Street near the Keep Akron Beautiful office, and the London planetrees on High Street across from the Akron municipal building. London planetrees, Heiser says, are ideal and commonly used for city streets: “It looks exactly like a sycamore tree,” she explains, “but requires half as much water, and it’s extremely sturdy.”

To some, street trees might seem like an attractive but ultimately unnecessary urban feature. When we walk our streets, many of us—especially those of us lucky enough to live in places splashed with green and lined with flowers—probably take urban trees as a given. Whether they hang over our heads as we bike along the sidewalks or line the edges of pocket parks, trees aren’t usually given much attention or respect.

But ample research indicates that that’s a mistake, as Sarah Kobos wrote last year in “The Magic of Tree-Lined Streets.” Street trees provide plenty of pragmatic benefits in terms of urban planning and environmental wellness, such as shade from heat and relief from humidity, making streets more walkable and bikable and lowering the average electricity bills of surrounding households. They also lower the average driving speed, making roadways safer for pedestrians and drivers alike. There’s even evidence that they improve the health of nearby residents, lower crime rates, and drastically increase property values in an area.

Heiser adds that street trees are essential to a city’s environmental health. They improve air quality and decrease the circulation of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and ozone. “They’re extremely important,” she says of urban trees. “They help beautify the city, help reduce urban heat, help reduce stormwater runoff, clean the air, all those really wonderful functions.”

Horticultural variety, says Heiser, is essential to ensure when selecting trees for urban streets. “You want to stay away from monoculture and promote variety in order to prevent infestations,” she explains. And though this factor isn’t as essential to her personally, she notes that cities generally look for low maintenance trees that don’t require much water or consistent upkeep.

Tree selection also has to be based on the specifics of a particular urban environment. “My overall goal,” Heiser says, “is creating healthy ecosystems that have longevity, rather than instant gratification. I’m focused on creating multifunctional green spaces that are not only beautiful for the community, but also serve as wildlife habitats and food sources for local wildlife.” When planning tree planting in Akron, Heiser looks for gingkos, pears, birches, white pin oaks, river birches, and “native trees that support local wildlife. They grow so well in our environment, without a lot of leaf litter.”

As for Heiser’s plans for the landscaping in Akron, she hopes to add more trees to the Flowerscape sites and to increase the overall variety of trees Akron has to offer. “We want to create more fluidity in our green spaces in the downtown area,” she explains, adding: “We have lots of pocket parks, but we need more of them, and more connectedness between them.”

For Heiser, the value of trees and green spaces in urban environments goes beyond pragmatics into a philosophy of life and the rich history of the city of Akron. “Our history is based off of the canal, and we have a really cool opportunity to beautify the canal area and to link our history to our present through a green space.”

Moreover, incorporating trees into the urban environment, Heiser argues, fosters a greater respect for nature and stirs our innate instincts to connect with it. “We don’t spend a lot of time in nature anymore, so it’s hard to reconnect with it, and we don’t always know how,” she says. “We have a chance to foster that natural respect with interactive green spaces.” The humble street tree presents an opportunity to do just that.

(All photos courtesy of Leah Heiser)

This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.