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An Inconvenient Tree

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“The issue surrounding our tree is not an isolated issue, it is a symptom of a larger disease that will end us as a society if we are not careful.”

By Martin Dreiling Posted Jan 27, 2009

The little town of Burlingame, CA is engaged in an earnest struggle over the proposed elimination of one eucalyptus tree that sits in front of a neighborhood library, and is part of a historic grove that lined the entry to an early estate here. Trouble is, the roots are extending in to the road and some think the solution is to simply cut it down.

The following is a letter to Burlingame’s city council, written by local architect Martin Dreiling.

Dear Council members,

This tree is a big deal. It’s not just about a tree but it’s about the bigger question of who designs our cities. This is about BART, Cal Train, 101 overpasses and all the other issues that will potentially turn Burlingame into the next San Bruno.

Our towns are held in the grip of staff who have a narrow focus (with much expertise aligned about that focus) but little ability to synthesize creative solutions. Our towns are also held in the grip of the fear of lawsuits. This fear, and the constant real threat of litigation causes us to make a thousand little decisions that seem harmless from the quality of life viewpoint. A tree here, a stream there.

But that is exactly how our cities degrade; incrementally, a little unnoticeable piece at a time.

There used to be a white rail fence and a line of plum trees along California near Broadway . These were the first trees to blossom in spring (they would have started showing flowers in about three weeks from now). They were removed to make the pavement about three feet wider and replaced with some really ugly curbs and some useless “lolli-pop”
trees that have taken forever to show any form and offer none of the aesthetic qualities of the previous assembly.

There used to be a wall of Eucalyptus along the tracks at the Millbrae border that gave us a huge sense of separation from the airport. They are gone now and many people can actually see the terminal buildings from their second floor windows.

But that is exactly how our cities degrade; incrementally, a little unnoticeable piece at a time.

We used to have dark skies at night, but the engineers decided that the lights at the new soccer field had to be bright and they failed to address the appropriate aesthetic concerns. Thus we have giant bright lights that can be seen from any place in the hills and that actually light up the sky for people living in the flats. These lights permanently pollute the moon-rise from the porch of my house on Paloma.

There used to be parking spaces in front of Wells Fargo on Broadway. These spaces were important to the street and they made the sidewalk more comfortable to humans. They were removed to increase traffic flow at the Broadway intersection. Now, with two lanes available, people are more comfortable racing to get through the yellow lights. Speeds of 40 miles per hour are regularly observed and the sidewalk feels unsafe.

There used to be a stand of Euc’s at the intersection of Millbrae Ave and El Camino. These were typical of all the key intersections of hill roads and El Camino along the peninsula. They used to occur at Sneath, San Bruno Ave., Crystal Springs and most of the others. They help set the character of El Camino and they defined the important intersections. Most are gone.

In fact Burlingame is one of the few towns on the peninsula where the large Euc’s still roam free. Thus we are one of the most distinctive towns on the peninsula in terms of visual quality and reference to the history of land occupation on the peninsula. The tree in question defines one of the historic drives to one of the historic estates that were the defining settlement pattern of the peninsula. These trees, while expensive to maintain and live with, offer enormous (and often intangible ) value to all residents of Burlingame. They are part of our distinction, part of our character, part of our identity.

Most residents of Burlingame could add four or five things to this list of beloved things lost. Some of those items would be sentimental, but most would represent substantive losses to the character of Burlingame, losses that were unnecessary and that were replaced with either token attempts at faking character or, in many cases, bland engineering solutions.

In the twenty three years I lived in Burlingame, I have watched the character of the town degrade. No matter how smugly we would like to think of Burlingame as a wonderful place, it has become more average, more routine, less special. It’s still special, but less so.

This has occurred not by any onslaught of vandals or thieves or even developers and speculators (often the same kind of people.) It has occurred largely because of decisions made by Councils based on recommendations of staff. Those recommendations are often considered in isolation, structured around questions that are designed to deliver the
answers that staff seek. Staff are not evil, this is part of their job: to apply their expertise where appropriate.

But the other part of their job is synthesis. They each have an obligation to look outside of their own interest, their own expertise and value the interests and expertise of others. At this our staff often fail.

It is also the City Manager and the Council’s responsibility to be the captains of these processes, to look at all the concerns and weigh them and go beyond a simple staff recommendation. When staff fail to synthesize a proper solution, the leaders have to do it for them.

The question regarding the tree has devolved into one of safety and cost. In isolation the tree has come to be seen by some as a death threat, a money pit, a lawsuit looking for a place to happen. These are extreme and somewhat hysterical views inflated in part by the frenzy of battle.

In reality, this tree has been there a long time and none of these things have happened.

Further, the tree likely protects the city from litigation in its service of traffic calming. There is emerging science out there that is beginning to link a large portion of traffic injuries and fatalities to the basic engineering principles at play in this issues. There is increasing evidence that the obsessive goals of moving more cars faster, a goal that is behind the removal of this tree, is as responsible for traffic accidents as any other single factor.

Everyone in public service has heard of the notion of traffic calming over the last ten years. Traffic calming has gained momentum as a planning concept in large part because of this realization.

The irony however, is that most cities are forced to go through a realization cycle in which they spend millions of dollars to remove obstacles from traffic flow (to speed up their roads) and then spend millions of dollars to slow that traffic flow with artificial calming devices such as signs, bumps, circles and lots of silly striping.

Here we have God’s own means of traffic calming (How would Jesus design your street…?) and we want to cut it down. It will then have to be replaced with caution signs, stripes all over the pavement and, eventually speed bumps just like the one currently caused by the roots of the tree.

If the goal is to have a safe intersection, we already have that. If the goal is to have a beautiful intersection, we already have that. If the goal is to have a lawsuit proof intersection, that is impossible, frivolous and will result, ultimately in removing all things beautiful and poetic.

If the goal is to have a lawsuit proof intersection, that is impossible, frivolous and will result, ultimately in removing all things beautiful and poetic.

Thus we connect to a larger issue of our times: What do we sacrifice for security? Do we give up civil rights, do we bust our Constitution, do we imprison ourselves in our homes at our computers so that we can be safe (and we sure ain’t safe at our computers any more…)?

Do we strip our lives of poetry, beauty, meaning to be safe?

We used to go to the airport to meet relatives who flew into town. Being so close in Burlingame, it was easy to drive over, park and walk in to meet people at the gate. The ancient celebration of arrival and departure that fills the poems of all civilizations, was intact and functional even in the context of the highest tech travel.

Now concerns for safety have eliminated that from our lives, replaced with solutions designed by lawyers and engineers.

The issue surrounding our tree is not an isolated issue, it is a symptom of a larger disease that will end us as a society if we are not careful. It will turn us into the automatons we fear, it will remove the joy from every day living. Ultimately it will fragment community so that no one is trusted and no one is our neighbor.

Dramatic, yes. But the world ebbs and flows on single digit percentages and it’s little things, like this damn tree, that count. A tree here, a corner store there, a porch removed, a street widened.

Most towns in America looked and felt like Burlingame at some time. Most don’t today. None were bombed, bulldozed or otherwise dramatically changed. Most were picked apart a little bit at a time, unnoticeably.

Your job is to notice.

Martin Dreiling

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  • Anonymous

    street trees are important – road safety engineers and lazy councils make urban areas unhospitable – its not hard – why are so many streets treeless? 

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