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Somerville Times piece on respecting our urban trees

Somerville’s urban forest is under attack. Take a walk near the commuter rail line, by the High School, along Cedar Street, on lower Beacon Street, or in Union Square. You will find barren, sun-baked streets and sidewalks where most of the trees have been removed to make way for construction. Stop and listen while you walk. Do you hear the unexpected and beautiful sounds of nature, or the silence of a recently flattened habitat? Breathe the air, is it fresh?

It takes a generation for a tree to reach maturity. Saplings must survive 20-to-30 years before they are large enough to provide significant shade and other vital ecosystem services. During that time, they are vulnerable to the harsh urban environment. Walk along Somerville or Highland and you will see the rows of young trees planted just a few years ago, succumbing to lack of water, little to no maintenance, and poor soil conditions.

When we destroy trees, their local ecosystem comes to a crashing halt. The plants and animals that coexisted and relied on those trees for survival must adapt immediately, if they survive at all. Birds are the most obvious animals impacted by the removal of a tree. Butterflies, bees, flowers, bats, fruit trees, and other plants and animals all feel the impact. We already hear anecdotes of increased rat sightings and even groundhogs as a result of deforestation. Is this the environmental change we want?

Our current construction boom is welcome. Somerville needs housing stock, business opportunities, and local economic growth. But all too often, trees are treated merely as an obstacle; they are clear-cut because simple removal is always the lowest-cost option.

This practice of deforestation is not sustainable. We need balance, and soon. Here we describe the problem facing Somerville and propose a series of simple, clear actions to ensure that our home is a beautiful, vibrant, healthy Tree City in more than just name.

A Data Driven Approach

Some of our construction projects replace the trees that they remove. This is good, but a simplistic tree-for-tree swap is inadequate. The website includes a calculator that shows the difference in CO2 sequestration, storm water uptake, cooling, and other tangible benefits between trees of various sizes and species. A 10” diameter red maple (measured at chest height) provides more than double the benefit of five 2” red maples. It takes years for saplings to match the benefits of a single mature tree, assuming that they survive at all.

The Beacon Street clear cut removed over 70 trees, totaling more than 600 inches of diameter. Project plans, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that these will be replaced by 200 2-inch saplings. Every year these mature trees captured thousands of gallons of stormwater runoff in flood-prone Ward 2, sequestered tons of CO2, and lowered heating and cooling costs by thousands of dollars. It will be many years before the saplings can match the trees that were destroyed.The losses on the Cedar Street and Somerville Avenue projects are similar. This is a city-wide phenomenon.

Other current projects simply raze acres of trees without replacement: the Green Line extension, MBTA work along the Red Line tracks, and the new High School. We were unable to find even one project that planned to replace the biomass of trees that it removed.

City efforts in urban forestry have been academic and ineffective. There is no systematic record-keeping of tree removals; we do not know how many trees have been cut down in Somerville, by year or by project, despite multiple orders by the Board of Aldermen. Nearly a year ago Somerville passed an ordinance recreating the Urban Forestry Committee. It remains unstaffed and unadvertised. The last city budget that provided funds for tree planting was in 2013. The Department of Public Works tree-care line item has been underspent by 50% each of the last three years.

We cannot expect to retain and grow a healthy urban ecosystem when we don’t know what we have, or what we have to lose, and when we don’t even bother to spend the money allocated to care for our trees.

A Smart Tree City

For all of this, we are realists. Sometimes a tree is directly atop a hundred-year-old wooden sewer, or in the path of a planned new road. Omelets require broken eggs, and urban growth requires chainsaws. Still, it feels as though many trees are being removed because it’s simpler to clear cut than to design new construction to work around existing trees.

Somerville’s mature trees are pretty miraculous. They have survived in the most urban of areas, with bad air, little-to-no water beyond precipitation, and barely enough soil – which is often contaminated and lacking in nutrients. Instead of honoring these remarkable organisms, we cut them down and tell ourselves it’s okay because we’ll plant new ones in their place.

The city of Somerville is superlative in so many ways – hip, progressive, diverse, welcoming, supportive of local businesses. It’s also the least green city in the Commonwealth, one of the hottest in Greater Boston, and the second most densely populated city of 75,000 or more in the country. We need every tree we can get.

It is remarkable, and questionable, that we are still listed as a “Tree City USA” by the Arbor Day Foundation. We should live up to that designation and treat our trees with the respect they deserve.

Taking Action

We ask the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen to work together to make these changes so that we can preserve and grow Somerville’s Urban Forest.

*Staff and seat the Urban Forestry Committee without further delay.

*Do the work of tree care rather than re-allocating funds to other purposes.

*Allocate funds, every year, for new plantings and maintenance.

*Keep accurate records of tree removals and plantings.

*Set a minimum goal of net-neutral biomass for each ward, year over year.

*Require that construction plans include cost estimates and options to preserve mature trees.

*Plant native species only.

*Explore legal options to protect significant trees on private property.

Chris Dwan and Renée Scott Somerville’s Friends of the Urban Forest ( Green & Open Somerville (

Link to online article:

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