Thursday, June 9, 2011

This is a Tree

Throughout Callowhill, stenciled around the base of newly planted trees are messages reading "THIS IS A TREE". It seems silly, and perhaps for the more cynical Philadelphians, even annoying. But in a city in which AstroTurf is a passable substitute for grass and parents routinely employ their children to mar saplings with box cutters, it's clear that many need reminding.

As early as kindergarten, I was taught that trees breathed life into all living animals. But trees aren't just necessary for life. They cool our streets by providing shade. They absorb the water that cools the ground. In the winter they provide natural insulation both above and below ground. Basic science tells us how much plants and animals need each other, but the City of Philadelphia seems defiant in its acceptance of all things vegetative.

When South Street decided to chop down its mature trees in lieu of new ones, the temperature difference between the strip and adjacent tree lines street was at some times more than ten degrees. That's significant to both your quality of life and your electric bill. But why are cities like D.C., Atlanta, and even New York overflowing with greenery while Philadelphia's most densely populated streets are barren of any vegetative life?

Take South Philadelphia if you're familiar, and try to think of a single backyard you know of that isn't made of concrete, or even has a tree. I've seen window boxes with plastic flowers. When you do see a newly planted tree, the bark has most likely been stripped by a knife in an effort to make it die. 


Some streets are small, yes, but where did this violent hatred of trees come from?

Like most bad ideas, it came from the 1950s, and like most of what is wrong with Philadelphia, it lingers in those who still think that way. That's why you'll find trees in University City and Society Hill, neighborhoods that aren't home to those with 60 years of mid-century baggage. 

It's no doubt that by the 1940s, Philadelphia had become a disgusting and polluted dump that probably smelled worse than a bad day in Sao Paulo. But it was the subtleties of the campaign, perhaps inadvertent, that bred a generation to look at trees and see squalor. In their minds, trees were dirty. 

I've heard the argument, irrational as it may seem, that many older Philadelphians don't like trees because "they slip on the leaves." I've never heard that anywhere else.

Take this picture of a clean-up campaign from the 1950s. In an era when many residents are fleeing the city for greener pastures, those determined to stay were looking for any reprise from the filth. I'm sure if you could smell the streets of 1949 you'd probably vote for street sweepers and concrete too, but painting trees as synonymous with blight did five decades of irreparable psychological damage.

Treeless playgrounds are paved with rubber, asphalt dog parks have only several patches of dead grass, and sweltering streets roast under an unshaded sun. As the exhaust of their air conditioners and cars make these streets boil, residents step outside to grab their mail and still have the audacity to complain about the heat, returning to their living room to turn the thermostat down below 60.


  1. Don't you think some of it had to do with the idea that as neighborhoods became worse and worse with crime, the city believed that by removing trees it would deter crime? I think the thought was: remove the trees, put in as many unsightly, bright yellow lights as possible, and you will be removing the places for crime to take place "in the shadows". This of course was a huge mistake that we are still dealing with today. Sadly, I know of other cities still doing this. York, PA recently removed all of the trees on one of their "worst" streets. Where the trees were, they put bright light posts instead. What a mistake.

  2. I don't doubt it. It's a very short sighted solution characteristic of the area. Chopping down the trees in bad neighborhoods might give criminals less places to hide but it makes an undesirable location even less desirable, thus attracting more criminals. The city did a good job creating its own badlands that way. In the long run you just create a neighborhood even the cops avoid.

  3. Where did you get the cleanup public relations material? Real cool.

  4. I believe I found it on

  5. This post is much needed. I simply cannot believe how older people revile trees.

    There is simply no better way to make an area trashy and slum-like than to take down trees. If you ever go through South Philly or North Philly, you'll see the handiwork of the anti-arborists. It doesn't help that these neighborhoods (for the most part) don't have great housing stock to begin with (when compared with other parts of the city).

    Trees are absolutely vital. I'm not an enraged environmentalist either. I just recognize the value of trees and how they contribute to the overall quality of life in an area. Germantown suffers from this in areas too even though it is probably one of the most green areas in the entire city. Chelten Ave feels like a wasteland when you drive down it. It's no coincidence that the new shopping center by La Salle feels like a desert with its huge swath of parking and lack of trees. We need preserve our trees just as much as our significant buildings.

  6. Very well said! Thanks for reading.