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A Tree Ought to Grow in Philly

Trees increase health, safety, and air quality. So why doesn’t the city insist on planting more of them?

Trees increase health, safety, and air quality. So why doesn’t the city insist on planting more of them?

For two years, I watched as the mega Whole Foods at 22nd and Pennsylvania Avenue rose from the ashes of an old Holiday Inn. I waited for its completion with the kind of excitement I usually reserve for counting down the days until winter’s thaw. But when the project was finished, the building dubbed Dalian on the Park, which houses luxury rentals in addition to retail, looked oddly bleak. Something wasn’t what I was expecting. Something was missing.

Trees. Thirty-one trees to be exact.

Do SomethingIn the project’s renderings, a whopping total of 33 trees filled in the landscape between the Dalian and the street. They helped the building fit in near the leafy Parkway and elegant Rodin Museum. Today, the main trees onsite are the ones in the building’s private terrace three stories off the ground. Two scraggly, weed-ridden saplings grace Spring Garden Street. The main expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue is bare, the only sources of shade are the logoed umbrellas cordoned off in Whole Foods’ private sidewalk seating area. On the rest of the sidewalk, the pavement in the summer is so hot you could fry a free-range egg.

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The Dalian on the Park is far from the only project to include trees in its renderings and eliminate them in reality. The so-called Fergie tower on Walnut Street did the same thing. So did the East Market development, where none of the trees meant for 11th Street materialized. The newly opened Lincoln Square at Broad and Washington has a clutch of trees around its Sprouts grocery store, but none on the sidewalk around either corner. Same for the Walnut Estates, on 22nd Street, where trees grace the front of the townhouses, but not the main building on Walnut Street (the street isn’t completely paved so there’s still hope!). 

The trend isn’t limited to profit-driven developers: Penn’s new Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics sits on a formerly green lot and has no trees on its sidewalk. And Project HOME’s JBJ Soul Homes at 15th and Fairmount has but one tree despite intentions of many more. The list really does go on.

The mostly treeless Whole Foods on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Look around the city and you’ll notice that many new developments have beautifully paved sidewalk, but few trees alongside them. Architects include trees in their renderings to signal beauty and sophistication, and sometimes to mask what otherwise might look like too-stark development. But they fail to appear in the finished project because, one assumes, builders and developers can’t be bothered to include them.

Any homeowner knows trees are beautiful, but they have some drawbacks. Their roots can upturn sidewalks. Their leaves, seeds and other droppings can be annoying to clean up. Their trunks can turn into unintentional bike parking. Their pits attract dog pee, poop and trash.

But, like many other major cities, Philadelphia has made a commitment to planting them because of their aesthetic, environmental, social and economic value to the city. If trees’ well-known environmental attributes such as their ability to absorb climate-change causing carbon dioxide and to divert water during storms weren’t enough, trees also have myriad health benefits. Shady streets in Philly can be 20 degrees cooler than those in full sun — in a heat wave this can mean life or death for residents. Urban tree cover has been shown to play a protective role against urban violence, suggesting that there is something about trees and green space that improves mental health. They also have a positive economic impact. A 2008 study by Penn professors Susan M. Wachter and Grace Wong Bucchanieri mapped Philadelphia house sales and new tree plantings between 1998 and 2003, and found that houses within 4,000 feet of a newly planted tree—an astonishingly large area—sold for 7 percent to 11 percent more than those without trees. Talk about bang for your buck.

Greenery serves as a reminder of our link to nature and our responsibilities to the environment. As we slowly watch trees get developed out of the city, I wonder what other city aesthetics we’ll let disappear without a fight.

For these reasons, trees have been a priority in the area for quite some time. But one wonders if, as the Kenney administration moves away from sustainability as a priority, trees are no longer getting the attention they need. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, in collaboration with partners in Delaware and New Jersey, committed to planting 1 million trees in the Greater Philadelphia region. About seven years after the project started, 549,000 trees have been planted (according to a website updated eight months ago).

The City for its part is doing what it can. “Our goal is to increase the tree canopy, we want as many trees as possible,” says Sue Buck, Deputy Commissioner for Operations at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. But Buck acknowledges that planting trees sometimes isn’t as simple putting a shovel in the ground. Often times, developers submit renderings for review by Parks & Rec’s district arborist, and even deposit $700 per tree, but don’t always plant the number intended. If they don’t plant the trees, Parks & Rec uses the deposits to plant trees, but there’s a backlog.

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It’s a shame the issue isn’t getting more attention, considering all the social media and ink given to, say, a short-lived ad campaign on some trash cans. Once a new sidewalk is paved without tree pits, you can bet that a developer will never repave and plant trees there.

But like the trash bin ad campaign fiasco, this issue gets to the heart of what we want contemporary Philadelphia to look like and how we set standards for development. Tree-lined streets are what make Center City’s residential neighborhoods such a joy to stroll. And the planted bollards along Broad Street bring a note of celebration to that corridor. But greenery also serves as a reminder of our link to nature and our responsibilities to the environment. As we slowly watch trees get developed out of the city, I wonder what other city aesthetics we’ll let disappear without a fight.

Frustratingly, the main vehicle for encouraging tree planting is to host trees in your backyard through programs like TreePhilly. And the city’s recourse against developers who don’t plant is just $700 per tree—a minor cost of doing business.

Shady streets in Philly can be 20 degrees cooler than those in full sun. Urban tree cover has been shown to play a protective role against urban violence, suggesting that there is something about trees and green space that improves mental health. They also have a positive economic impact.

While Philadelphians have coalesced around other issues, like historic preservation, YIMBYism, and Vision Zero, it’s time for a similar convening of people and organizations like TreePhilly and PHS who are committed to preserving the environmental quality of our streetscapes. To start, what about an award that calls attention to developers who do enliven the landscape with trees and greenery? And “razzies” for the developers who have noticeably failed at this?

It would be great find more ways to praise good examples—like the lush  tree canopy that lines Jefferson University at Walnut Street between 10th and 11th—with the bad, like the new Comcast Tower, which so far features no outdoor trees, just a mini forest inside its private lobby.

While it’s commendable that the Kenney administration is focused on big issues like schools and criminal justice reform, planting trees alongside new development seems relatively like an easy win. Let’s make sure we don’t lose on this issue.

Diana Lind, a Citizen board member, is Managing Director of the Penn Fels Policy Research Initiative.

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