Greening the city

One of the nicest things about cycling along the Embankment (apart from the new cycling infrastructure, of course) is… the greenery.

This is particularly obvious as you approach the Houses of Parliament from the north. As the bend of the river unwinds, the Palace of Westminster gradually reveals itself through a lovely forest of trees as you near Parliament Square. And you really notice the trees as this happens.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.36.08

I have to say I wasn’t too aware of this on the few occasions I dared to cycle here before this cycling infrastructure had been built. Frankly, I was probably too busy worrying about drivers, and working out where the next potential hazard was going to come from, to properly engage with the scenery. Now, every time I cycle along here, I can relax and fully appreciate the difference these trees make to the urban environment. They are a softening, calming and sheltering presence that add greatly to the beauty of the city.

The Embankment is, unfortunately, something of a rarity for London though. Far too many roads and streets are not this well-endowed with trees, or indeed have no street trees at all. Blackfriars Road is also lovely to cycle on, thanks to a similar combination of cycling infrastructure and greenery.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.50.50

But you don’t have to look very far in London to find streets and roads that are barren.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.55.31

No trees on Victoria Street

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.56.14

Nor here, amongst the remains of Superhighway 7

They’re usually barren for a reason – most of the street width is being used to accommodate the flow of motor traffic. Trees literally don’t fit, not without some repurposing of street space.

But even roads and streets that have recently been rebuilt are devoid of trees.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.53.32

No trees on the new Regent Street layout (and still a massive one-way road with no cycling infrastructure)

The new layout at Aldgate also

The new layout at Aldgate only seems to have managed to include a couple of trees

This is even true for roads that now have cycling infrastructure. For instance, it looks like a big opportunity has been missed to plant trees as part of the rebuild of Farringdon Street.

Much nicer, but couldn't we have had some trees here too?

Much nicer, but couldn’t we have had some trees here too?

By contrast, it strikes me that trees are an integral part of new street layouts and roads in Dutch cities like Utrecht. They are planned for, and it just happens.

Tne new road layout on Vredenburg has come with new trees

Tne new road layout on Vredenburg has come with new trees.

… As has the cycling infrastructure on St Jacobstraat

Indeed, reviewing my photographs of Utrecht, I’m struck by how universally green the city is. All of my photos have trees in them, without me even noticing at the time.

The city centre is full of trees.
Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.27.05Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.27.53 Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.23.31New developments have trees in them.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.27.28

New street arrangements carefully retain existing trees, and make a feature of them.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.28.23Older cycle paths are, of course, accompanied by street trees – you can usually date them by the age of the trees. A few decades old, in the examples below.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.23.10 Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.26.23

And, naturally, cycle paths in the countryside around Utrecht are framed with trees.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.25.58 Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 23.26.05There’s a practical, pragmatic reason for much of this effort – trees help to shelter people walking and cycling from the elements, be it wind, or rain, or sun. A dense line of trees really does make a difference if you are battling a crosswind, and it can stop you getting sunburnt, as well as keeping the worst of the rain off you.

But within urban areas this greenery is vitally important for aesthetic reasons, to soften the urban environment, and to make it calmer, more pleasant and attractive. I’m wondering why opportunities to include them in new road layouts in London – and perhaps elsewhere – are still being missed. Is it cost? Is it an unwillingness to allocate street space away from motor traffic, for these purposes? Or is factoring in greenery something that simply doesn’t appear at the design stage?

We seem keen enough on greenery that we’re apparently willing to spend £180m putting trees on a bridge in the middle of the river – so why are we failing to incorporate greenery into new roads and street designs whenever the opportunity presents itself, as well failing to add it to existing roads and streets?

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22 Responses to Greening the city

  1. A lot of people forget to think about the ways we could use the buffer for the cycle track (and if we are building parallelfietsstraaten, service streets built as cycle streets, the buffer between the service street and the part of the road we are keeping at 50 km/h). We could add a huge amount of trees and grass, plants and flowers. They all make it much more comfortable. The Dutch say that if possible, there should be at least a 1.5 metre wide clear zone buffer next to a carriageway with a speed limit of 50 km/h, and if 1.5 metres cannot be attained, then as close to it as possible is desirable, although it is strictly speaking, optional. So place the trees at least 1.5 metres away from the carriageway if possible, but otherwise, full it to the brim with nature.

    It absorbs the pollution, it provides wind breaks, shelter, something nice to look at. It provides a space for if we actually have a road that is too wide, like if a street isn’t used often by pedestrians, we don’t have a need of three lanes for cars, only 2, one per direction and we just need ordinary cycle tracks, but we need to make sure not to build the car lanes too wide. As a bonus for doing this, we increase the amount of space between cyclists and pedestrians and the motor traffic, increase subjective safety, and as long as we also provide some space on the cyclist side so as to ensure that falling over on your bike doesn’t lead to you hitting a tree, it feels very comfortable. It also optically slows the cars down. I don’t feel nearly so comfortable with going fast on a narrow one lane per direction road lined with trees in my car. It works brilliantly.

  2. Phil Jones says:

    Blimey Mark. You’ve discovered urban design!

    • Well, I did that a while ago… 🙂

      Putting that to one side, do you have any idea why these opportunities are being missed (for instance, the examples in the post here – in Westminster, or as part of Superhighway improvements?)

  3. Paul M says:

    It’s not just space which gets in the way of trees in an urban landscape – or even a rural one for that matter. Even in leafy suburban streets you will hear clamour to remove street trees “because they drop sap on my nice shiny car and damage the paintwork”

    If a tree is near a junction, there will be a clamour to cut it down because it obstructs sight lines – for drivers. Heaven forfend that the road should be re-engineered to slow down traffic at the junction to avoid accidents that way.

    And every time some drunk or testosterone-fuelled kid wipes out his own and his passengers’ lives losing control of his vehicle and “colliding with” a tree, the clamour goes up – not to police the roads or take firmer action against dangerous driving, but to cut down the offending tree.

    The only time I recall a clamour* to keep trees under threat from a road scheme was, I think, Gilbert Road in Cambridge when it was suggested that trees might have to go to make way for an offroad cycle path.

    *from motoring types, that is.

    • congokid says:

      Oddly, the clamour to protect some trees in Redditch recently came solely from drivers. The trees in question were planted in a dense stand on the central island of one of the town’s many roundabouts, and with the absence of footpaths, local houses or any form of non-motorised life, car drivers and passengers were the only people who ever saw these particular trees.

      Despite the clamour, the trees were duly cut and removed, though I think the plan is to replace some of them.

      It’s a sad reflection on the town’s motor-transport fixated councillors that almost all of the best views of the surrounding Warwickshire and Worcestershire countryside are available only to motor vehicle occupants on roads that offer zero provision for active transport.

  4. Stuart says:

    Don’t forget Hackney’s efforts of maintaining greenery in the city by leaving trees in the middle of the cycle track.

  5. Jim Smyth says:

    It’s a terrible city to cycle in but at this time of year you can really notice the trees in Birmingham. There are plenty of little vantage points and rises in the road where you can’t see any roofs for all the trees. The Cross city line and the canal that follows this are a particularly good example but most of the suburbs around here are packed with trees and green spaces.

  6. S Boles says:

    I’ve heard from council engineers that it’s very difficult to find available space for trees in old cities due to the location of underground services (water, gas, sewers, electricity). Maybe the Dutch success here is indicative of better planning below ground as well as above.

    • Aron says:

      I guess so. Sewage and utility works get done right before renewing a street, throughout the whole country. Sometimes trees will be replaced too, if they are a safety hazard, unhealty or simply in the way. But often they are also let in place, and we get a cycle lane instead of a segregated cycle path. So it’s often a clear choice.

  7. Bmblbzzz says:

    In addition to the cost of planting the trees, there are the ongoing costs of sweeping up leaves, repairing surfaces cracked by roots, pruning and possibly watering. And H&S will be pointing to the insurance premiums and talking about branch drop. It’s all a shame, really.

    One of the benefits of trees you didn’t mention is reducing summer temperatures and increasing humidity and keeping down dust.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      The first paragraph contains the kind of excuses that an LA that can’t be arsed, or is trying to fob you off, will reel off. That’s the shame. In general councils are usually more happy to provide (and preserve) trees than not and the fact remains that loads of new projects are going in which do include trees. Plus of course, there are huge numbers of on-street trees already in London – and they need maintenance and so on, which goes on year on year. A few more won’t make much difference.

      As for underground utilities mentioned by another contributor – ask the council to show you the map of their distribution so that the gaps where trees might be planted can be identified. “Oooh, we don’t keep data like that.” …despite surveying the pipes locally every time there are roadworks. Bah. it’s nearly 20 years since I enjoyed playing SimCity and could create a rudimentary city-wide utility infrastructure. Surely councils could use this kind of technology? I’d imagine the Dutch do (anyone?). But anyway – can’t fit in trees? So let’s have some hanging baskets on lampposts or raised bed planters at street level.

      After all, research suggests that greenery is intrinsically good

      • hanneke28 says:

        The Dutch maintain a national database of underground infrastructure. The Klic has existed for more than a decade, maybe two. It’s mandatory for everyone laying pipes or cable in public ground to send their maps to Klic, not just where but exactly how deep. All the companies and government agencies who had underground infrastructure had to send in maps of their existing lines when Klic was created.
        Anyone wanting to dig in public land has to check with Klic to make sure they won’t hit existing lines.
        The best way to ensure compliancy and accuracy is to make the one in the wrong responsible for the damage. If tge gas company has said their pipes are 60 inches down in this lokation, and the telecom company planting a new glassfiber line has permission to cross that line but to dig no deeper than 40 inches, and they still hit the gaspipe and cause an explosion, then either the gas company’s map as sent to Klic was inaccurate, or the telecom company dug too deep or in the wrong place. Whichever got it wrong is the one who pays.
        This means the companies and councils have a lot of incentive to check that their contractors are working accurately, so the maps are accurate (and amended if anything changes).

        The existence of this national database also makes it possible, in the planning stage, to contact anyone who has pipes or lines under a street that is going to be renewed, and tell them they can do any repairs or upgrading they want and that section in the time period before the street is resurfaced; after that they won’t get permission to dig up the street for anything short of a calamity for the next 20 years (or whatever your planned resurfacing schedule says).

        Considering the rules of fiscal responsibility for councils say that for any infrastructure work tgere needs to be bith ordinary maintenance money planned in each year’s budget, and the money for big renovation/refurbishment has to be saved up for by the time it will probably be needed, the year when the money for refurbishment will be available is known well in advance. That means all tge utility companies can plan far in advance, too: the year before tge planned overhaul will be their window of opportunity to upgrade that section.
        Those planned overhauls generally go by zones or (sub)divisions; for residential areas they are usually planned once every 30 years. So that is part of budgetting for the council, putting in a depreciation (if that’s the right word in English?) over 30 years so that by then there’ll be money available in the budget to update the entire public space in a residential area. The composition of the populace will probably have changed in 30 years (less primary school kids , more elderly, for instance) and mobility needs will also change. So the big refurbishment also give a chance to change street layout, like adding bike lanes or cycle paths, new greenery and parking spaces but filtering through traffic.

        • hanneke28 says:

          Sorry for the typos, I’m typing on my phone and it’s hard to check such a long reply. I hope it’s still comprehensible.

      • AWavey says:

        but its one of the issues on a cycle path I use regularly that actually the trees if left long enough,do create something of a hazard, largely because the council has left them to just keep growing, there maybe something in the types of tree you pick and some tree species are better suited than others,. but the roots have made the cycle path more like riding on corrugated iron in parts and in the winter when the leaves shed, they turn into a mush, which in the wet is slippy enough after a morning frost, they are lethal, in the dark,hit one of the really bad root bumps and youll be flat on your face.

      • HivemindX says:

        There is no question that trees require more maintenance than no trees, so the local authorities are justified in pointing that out. Some of the routes I cycle along have a thick enough carpet of leaves that it is actually difficult to cycle through them in the autumn. The council does have a requirement to clean these up (although how much they spend on it is questionable) as well has trimming branches and repairing root damage.

        They are not justified in simply cutting costs without considering the benefits though. After all, the roads budget could be reduced massively by simply not having roads but that isn’t considered an option. I doubt the amount spent on tree related maintenance is much compared to the other things the local authorities spend money on.

  8. Koen says:

    Reading your post, I now understand why there is sometimes so much resistance to cutting trees for improving cycling conditions. There are not as many of them already, so people tend to defend what they’ve got much fiercer. Understandable. Good point you’ve got there, Mark. The world needs greener cities, people need more livable cities.

  9. Trees might be nice but the councils don’t seem to be able to maintain them (at least in Nottinghamshire) – paths massively uneven due to roots rutting the tarmac, branches trying to rip your neck and head to shreds (overgrown trees are the main reason I anyways ware a helmet) , and the detritus littering the path, and that’s before I even mention the hedges and brambles taking over some paths reducing their already narrow width).

    The new cycle highways, still under construction, are already full of leaves and branches blocking the drains – hopefully maintance will start once they are officially open, but based on existing maintance I don’t hold out much hope – a new leisure path opened a few years ago became impassible within the year (to be fair the greenery is now pruned back twice a year at least 4 metres from the path, but could do with a third clean up as usable width is halved twice a year)

    • MJ Ray says:

      All those problems are present in Norfolk too. Soft hats deflect stray branches better than helmets, though, because they don’t have vents that branches get stuck in.

  10. Emily says:

    I’ve been may places throughout Europe and it’s surprising just how well they accommodate for cyclists compared to the UK.

  11. Pingback: Grey and Green… Can governments attempt to increase green spaces in inner cities? | theevolvingcity

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