"Thank God they can't cut down the clouds"

"I am sorry" sighed the tree.
"I wish that I could give you something,
but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump. I am sorry."

The Giving Tree,
by Shel Silverstein (1932-1999)

by Gary Piro


n his children's book, The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein pays homage to trees and the way they benefit and enrich our lives. The story shows how trees are taken for granted and only appreciated after they are gone. This is a lesson that could well be heeded by the Carlsbad City Council.

Through a sequence of seemingly unrelated events over the past 10 years, many intelligent and well-meaning city officials have unwittingly turned Carlsbad into what is arguably the most "tree unfriendly" community in the greater San Diego area. No one is to blame and there are no "black hats" at City Hall, but it's about city attorneys, risk managers, by-the-book engineers and street maintenance budgets.

The first city action (which, ironically, occurred about the time that the city changed the name of its main street from Elm to Carlsbad Village Drive) was the passing of an ordinance that prohibits developers of new projects from installing any trees within the city road right-of-way; that is, within ten feet of a city curb.

The second action was to enact an ordinance that requires anyone performing more than $50,000 of improvements to their home to dedicate 30 feet of road right-of-way, and pay for the widening of the road with curb, sidewalk and treeless parkways.

The third city action that put the future of the trees in jeopardy was the enactment of an aggressive program of tree removal wherever trees cause any damage to sidewalks, curbs or asphalt roadways.

The net result of these actions has delivered a tremendous blow to the character of "Olde Carlsbad" (that area west of El Camino Real). Little by little, streets are being widened, trees are being removed and lush landscapes are being replaced by monotonous suburban improvements.

Carlsbad is a case study of what can go wrong when a city governs itself with an excessive concern for liability and the financial bottom line. By being so obsessed with avoiding potential lawsuits, the city has completely missed the boat when it comes to maintaining the ambiance that made Carlsbad a wonderful place to live.

It is for this reason that the Citizens for the Preservation of Olde Carlsbad (CPOC) has requested a hearing before the Carlsbad City Council, hopefully to turn around the steamship "S. S. Urbanization." CPOC is neither a group of environmental fanatics nor an anti-growth organization. We are only a group of concerned residents who want to ask our City Council if they have considered all of the factors and the negative impacts of these actions that have taken place over the past years. We believe that the city's obsession with street tree liability flies in the face of not only traditional community design, but also new cutting-edge technology in land planning.


Planning for trees


From the time we first started designing cities, the connection between our roads and trees has been intertwined. In fact, there are more streets named after trees than any other topic save for letters and numbers. Downtown San Diego, for example, defined its residential area by naming those streets after trees, alphabetically. The beginning of the old residential area started at Ash Street, then as you head northerly the street names went up the alphabet, i.e., Beech, Cedar, Date, Elm, etc.

In A Clearing in the Distance, the life story of Frederick Law Olmstead (the father of Landscape Architecture and the designer of Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace park system), the author describes one of Olmstead's first private community design projects. In 1868, Olmstead laid out the suburban community of Riverside, Illinois, which boasted as its main feature a "pleasurable drive to the city." This was a 200-foot-wide strip of land planted with 35,000 trees that had a meandering 30 foot roadway, and a pedestrian walkway that is visually and physically separated from the roadway.

Modern planners are also arguing for the extensive use of trees along streets for a multitude of practical reasons.

For one, studies show that when all other street design factors are the same, a tree-shrouded street has fewer accidents than one without trees. County of San Diego Planning Director Gary Pryor has said that drivers on tree-lined streets slow down and are more cautious of obstacles and pedestrians.

In San Diego, former city architect and designer of the Gaslamp district, Michael Stepner, has been on a campaign to convince the city to change its road standards to offset the sidewalk 5 feet from the curb, much like the streets in La Jolla. This would allow for a landscape barrier with plants and trees shielding pedestrians from the traffic, similar to Olmstead's Riverside concept.


Tree bien


There is also much new evidence regarding the benefits of trees, which far outweigh the pennies required for their maintenance. In his 1990 Reader's Digest article "What Good is a Tree," Roving Science Editor Lowell Ponte points out that trees save water (an acre of maple trees puts 20,000 gallons of water into the air each day) and save energy (shade from trees can save $175 per year on air conditioning). Ponte, now a Carlsbad resident and nationally syndicated radio talk show host on Talk Radio Network, states that research indicates that a tree contributes over $270,000 in value to society over its lifetime. This includes providing oxygen, recycling water, regulating humidity, controlling air pollution, producing protein, providing shelter for wildlife, controlling erosion, reducing heat and fertilizing the soil.

Linda Romero, who works on the Urban Forest Program for the California Department of Forestry says that recent studies show that trees may add as much as 20 percent to home values, which translates to property tax revenues. Romero also points out that cities like Bakersfield are aggressively embracing Global ReLeaf and Tree City, U.S.A. programs to attract Silicon Valley-type businesses to their city. Their goal is to have formerly barren Bakersfield covered 50 percent with trees.

And yet, Carlsbad has been ridding itself of its trees. To quote Henry David Thoreau, "Thank God they can't cut down the clouds!"

  This is an editorial by Gary Piro. Gary Piro is a Carlsbad resident, the owner of his own Civil Engineering company in San Marcos and former chairman of the County of San Diego Planning Commission. Mr. Piro can be reached at 760-744-3700 (workdays); 760-729-4042 (evenings and weekends) and 760-613-7861 (cell phone). Please feel free to call at any time.