You could walk across a vast and barren parking lot past empty blank walls. Or you could walk down a tree lined street.
Making neighborhoods more walkable improves economic vitality and attracts residents. A former city planner and author of Walkable City, Jeff Speck researched downtowns all over the world. Walkability was the one characteristic that consistently stood out.
Walkability is not that hard to achieve, but it's more than just sidewalks. Sidewalks may be part of it but cities should think about the four features of walks: useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. A useful walk is one with a destination, like a store. A safe walk is safe for motorists and pedestrians. A comfortable walk is pleasant, and an interesting walk does not feature blank walls and parking lots. Trees improve three of these four characteristics.
Trees help calm traffic, creating a safer walk.
Trees provide shade from the sun and rain and block the wind, creating a walk that is physically more comfortable. The shapes and colors of trees are more comfortable to look at than the sharp lines of box stores and cubs.
Trees make for a more interesting walk. They break up the view, have irregular shapes, and are a haven for wildlife.
The only feature trees do not affect is the usefulness of a walk.
Kirksville has planted a lot of trees lately. The trees in the new median of the renovated Franklin St will improve walkability between Truman campus and downtown. The trees that Lakes, Parks, and Recreation recently planted in Brashear Park will improve walkability to the public schools.
Kirksville is a Tree City, a designation from the Arbor Day Foundation. While this designation encourages cities to plant trees, Speck claims it is too easy to achieve and doesn't go far enough.
"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." Developments of the past two decades have featured fast growing but short lived ornamental pear trees. I think these have to be the ugliest trees ever, with uniform branches and a shape that looks artificial. They blow down in the slightest wind, making them particularly unsuited for Kirksville's tornadoes and wind blasts and leaving barren neighborhoods.
During the housing boom of the 1950's and 1960's, maples and sycamores were popular. These trees are relatively fast growing and grow tall. But they are reaching the end of their life now, and their huge branches wreak havoc on buildings when they drop.
A combination of faster and slower growing trees, with prompt replacement of dead trees and planned replacement of the shorter lived trees, will shelter many future generations of walkers.
Kirksville's new trees include river birch, bald cypress, maples, oaks, and bloodgood planetree (a sycamore hybrid).
You can improve your neighborhood, your property values, and the energy efficiency of your home by planting trees in your own yard and replacing older trees when they die. Many yards lost trees with the pine beetles, and more trees will probably soon fall to the emerald ash borer. Tell your city staff and elected officials about the effect of trees on economic vitality. They may not know, and they'll be glad to hear from you.