On street trees

Take a look at this shot from Google Maps and see if you notice anything:

View Larger Map

If you haven’t found anything, feel free to turn on the labels to show road names. Find Beals Street. (Yup, where JFK was born.) Now turn off the labels. Zoom out a bit if you want. And note that Beals Street has more treecover than any other street in the area. (Once you zoom out, you can also follow the Brighton-Brookline border by where the treecover changes south of Commonwealth Avenue, too.)

Beals Street is lined by American Sycamore trees. This isn’t obvious from above, but as you walk down the street the mottled, almost camouflage bark is striking as some of the trees are several feet in diameter. Their canopy spreads over the street to the extent that sunlight rarely breaks through to the road. Most other streets in the area have less continuous tree cover, and certainly none appear as straight lines of green from an aerial view.

The question is, how long will this last? Beals Street has a monoculture tree of the same age. Even if the trees are not felled by wind all at the same time, they will likely succumb within a few years of each other (there are already a few notable gaps along the street). If there is a blight or other disease, they could die even more quickly. At that time, Beals Street will be opened to sunlight like never before. And the houses, especially those on the northwest side of the street, will no longer be shaded through most of the day. And there seem to be no efforts to plant new trees in the sycamores’ stead.

Street trees have a long history, but the American Elm is probably the most telling example of what happens when a tree quickly dies off. The imported dutch elm disease began killing off elms in the 1930s in Ohio; by 1970 most of the tree’s range was infected. Streets which had previously been lined with the cathedral-like elms had nothing but stumps. Many such streets have still not recovered their tree cover—Kansas City had planted mostly elms and many streets became devoid of trees in ten years.

Some elms survive along street. Luzerne Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania has been painstakingly preserved for years as infected trees are razed and replanted. (Yes, they have a Facebook page.) Winnipeg, where the disease only spread in the late 1970s, has successfully kept the effects of Dutch elm disease manageable in the last three decades. But it doesn’t come cheap: Winnipeg has significant legislation and capital costs to keep the disease at bay.

Still, the results are remarkable: on Google Maps, streets appear as strips of green between houses. Going forward, we should savor such resources, but when new street trees need to be planted, age diversity and biodiversity should be goals.

200 feet of grass roots

I went for a run yesterday, and as usual observed interesting things at eight miles per hour (as opposed to double that speed on a bus or bike). As I ran along Kent Street in Brookline, I saw someone ahead of me reach towards a vine-covered fence and pick something. I’ve often loved finding wild-growing berries in the urban landscape (which reminds me: black raspberries along the Minuteman Rail Trail are in season!) but this didn’t appear wild—a strip of vegetation climbing a chain link fence between the sidewalk and the parking lot.

It’s not. In fact, it’s a project called the 200 Foot Garden. A couple of local residents saw the shabby patch of land and decided that they’d like to plant it, so back in 2009 they got permission from the property owner to landscape and plant the section of dirt (and, as he points out, save them the cost of landscaping). Once the fence was replaced, he helped to create a peculiar sort of community garden: one where anyone can take the produce. That’s right, anyone. I spy tomato plants, and I’ll be stopping by. (Now, I wonder if these are heirloom varieties. We’ll soon find out.)

The sunny patch seems to grow vegetables well, and while it’s actually only 180 feet long, 360 square feet of open space is a rather large plot in this part of Brookline, which has a population density of more than 25,000 per square mile (that’s double the city of Boston, and about equal to New York City). 25,000 people per square mile is about one person per 1000 square feet, so this unused plot of land, in this neighborhood, was akin to the land used by a third of a person. Or, to put it another way, with a three bedroom apartment going for more than $2000, the rent for this land would probably be around $200 per month.

What’s particularly splendid about this little garden is that it is a completely grass-roots, under-the-radar example of urban design. Mayor Bloomberg did not block off the street (while there are surely many Bloombergs in very-Jewish Brookline, none will ever be mayor—Brookline is, officially, a town, and it doesn’t have a mayor) for pedestrian use. There’s no 200 foot garden conservancy, no gala fundraisers, no executive director. Just an idea, a letter to the owner and some discounted vegetable plants from a local farm. And with surely thousands of similar weird, underused plots of land around, it’s an idea which could grow.

The peculiarity that is Brookline

If you were dropped in to Coolidge Corner at noontime and I asked you to tell me two peculiar things about the encompassing community, you’d have trouble picking out the two of which I was thinking. Coolidge Corner is the retail center of Brookline (although stores radiate along several streets) and is also bisected by the Green Line light rail (Coolidge Corner happens to be the system’s busiest surface stop, with 4000 boardings daily) and the 66 bus line, one of the busiest in the system, with more than 10,000 daily riders. It’s typical turn-of-the-century mixed use, with street-level stores and apartments and offices several stories above. There are no skyscrapers, but there are several buildings which, at ten and twenty stories, would not look out of place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

And if you go a mile in any direction, you remain in density. There are brownstones and row houses and the ubiquitous triple decker, and courtyard apartments and more recent taller (and elevator-serviced apartment towers). There are streets (particularly up nearby hills) with single family houses, but few sprawl over much space. Less than a mile north, another light rail line skirts the border with Brighton in the median of Commonwealth Avenue; to the south, a third spoke of the system runs along a grade separated right of way making fewer stops but at higher speeds since it is not at the mercy of the stop lights.

As far as municipalities go, Brookline is fairly dense: about 59,000 people live in just under 7 square miles; more than 8000 in any given square mile. But it is very unevenly developed. North of the Green Line’s D-Line (the southernmost of the transit lines) and Route 9 is the housing described, but south of it, in an area encompassing about four square miles, single family homes, many of them large estates, and golf courses are the rule. If you exclude the southernmost two census tracts, 47,000 people live in 2.5 square miles (18,000 per square mile). If you take out the two tracts straddling this Route 9-Green Line line, the population density of the remaining 2 square miles is over 20,000, with some tracts peaking towards 30,000.

Brookline is not very diverse, being 80% white (and 12% Asian), with large Jewish and Russian-speaking communities. The schools are only two-thirds white, and the 2010 data (which are not on Wikipedia yet) show somewhat more diversity. It’s also quite wealthy, with low poverty rates and high housing prices, although there are 2000 affordable units and many rental properties with rents similar to neighboring cities.

So, what’s peculiar about Brookline? Well, if you were to walk a few blocks south of Coolidge Corner, you’d get to the town hall. Not to the city hall. Brookline is not a city. (I’ve judiciously avoided using the word “town” to describe it thus far for effect.) There’s no mayor. There are selectmen (they serve as the executive) and a representative town meeting (with 240 members, which serves as the legislative branch).

And if you walked a block down any side street in Brookline later in the evening, you’d assuredly notice the other peculiarity: There would be no cars parked on the street. Brookline bans overnight, on-street parking. During the day, the whole town is two hour parking (and it is enforced). Finding parking in most of the dense parts of Boston (and Cambridge and Somerville) is not an enviable task. In Brookline, it’s easy, provided you don’t want to stay for more than two hours.

We’ll discuss more about Brookline in coming weeks (I lived here last winter and am back for the summer) and explore how these peculiarities help shape the town.