Cambrian Rise

The Impact of Street Trees and Landscaping

This article is part of our discussion on Good, Healthy Neighborhoods.

I think that we can generally agree that a “good” neighborhood is healthy and that a “healthy” neighborhood is, generally, good. But what does this mean?

A good neighborhood is so much more than a prestigious area code and a healthy neighborhood goes well beyond a place where you see a lot of joggers on the street. A good, healthy neighborhood supports the physical and mental health/well-being of individuals. It is where people of all ages feel comfortable participating in the life of the street, where people walk or ride bikes to work or for personal enjoyment, where people walk their dogs, where people engage with public spaces for purposes of eating, talking, playing or just enjoying the weather.

These neighborhoods come in all shapes and sizes and may contain public spaces that include elements which are uplifting — like a grand public square, serene — like a well-placed bench with a tree that shades its occupants from the heat of summer, or inspiring — like a piece of public art that encourages us to stop and contemplate it for a moment out of our busy day.

The concept of “healthy” neighborhoods, for most people, conjures up images of bikers, joggers/runners or walkers, but aspects of mental health – feeling safe, at peace, or even a more abstract feeling of “comfort” should not be ignored in building good, healthy neighborhoods. Buildings with design elements that relate to a human scale (as opposed to monumental or ill-proportioned – you know it when you see it!), with landscaping that create spaces rather than obscures them, well-lighted and complementary to the hardscape are calming, pleasant places.

A recent article entitled “Walkability Needs Nature” by James Brasuell asserts that ‘The healthiest neighborhoods are both walkable and green, according to a growing body of evidence’. Nature is key and Brasuell’s assertion considers both physical and mental health.

One of the more glaring deficiencies in some of the most impoverished, downtrodden neighborhoods that I’ve experienced is that they don’t contain street trees – a small, not necessarily defining detail, but telling, nonetheless.

In some of these areas, trees have died and just never been replaced and in most (if not all) cases, there are telltale signs of their prior existence, like tree grates or compacted squares of dirt where the sidewalk has not been replaced.

Attention to landscaping, which is usually a lesser budget line item and often an afterthought in the design of a building, can highlight the architectural design and create outdoor spaces that are an extension of your living space. Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted believed in the healing powers and restorative ability of the landscape, especially in urban areas.

“…The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.” -Frederick Law Olmsted

A July 23, 2015 New Yorker article by Alex Hutchinson entitled “How Trees Calm Us Down” describes a study undertaken in Toronto and published in the journal Scientific Reports led by University of Chicago psychology professor Marc Berman. After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt.

“To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger,” Berman said. The data also showed the health benefits stemming almost entirely from trees planted along streets and in front yards, where many people walk past them; trees in back yards and parks don’t seem to matter as much in the analysis.

He surmised that it could be that roadside trees have a bigger impact on air quality along sidewalks, or that leafy avenues encourage people to walk more. We can all probably agree that the presence of street trees can be uplifting and the absence can be quite stark. Trees, shrubs, planted window boxes…these are all important elements in an urban landscape.

Of course, so many qualities contribute to that elusive sense of a “good” neighborhood” that it’s hard to pin down what exactly makes some neighborhoods places where you want to be versus places where you are not inclined to linger. Cleanliness, interesting architectural design, people out and about, inviting, well-lighted (natural and artificial lighting) public spaces – these are some things that create an attractive streetscape, in addition to the landscaping.

It’s important to remember that the development of buildings shouldn’t incorporate landscaping as an afterthought but, instead, consider it an integral element of the design. Good planning and design should always include multiple elements that don’t stop at the outer walls of a building – for example, marking or highlighting the front door (whether with a canopy, a colonnade, distinct/dramatic lighting, a path, etc) and the spaces between the building and the public realm, if the site doesn’t allow for 100% lot coverage.

Whether consciously or unconsciously applied, greenery/landscaping/trees are a lot more than ornament, as are the spaces that allow you to sit and/or move through spaces safely – lighting, benches, sitting walls, paths and sidewalks. The benefits of the neighborhoods that deliver both quality housing and an attractive public realm contribute to the overall health and well-being of all of its residents.


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