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What The... : An ode to municipal trees

Some of New London’s oldest and most prominent residents are under attack. They’re being pushed out by cars, stifled by sidewalks, slain by storms, smothered by asphalt, infested with pests, crippled by senescence and doomed by development. Since 1993 we’ve lost a thousand of them.

“We lost two mature oaks on Prospect Street,” says Maggie Redfern, who cares and keeps track of the trees in New London. “We lost several on Plant Street, when the city put in new sidewalks. We lost the cherries on Huntington Street.”

Replacements aren’t planted quickly enough to keep up.

Emerald ash borers recently killed two at Williams Park. Redfern took me there to see a European beech, a glorious monument of shape and shade that was in decline. But it was gone. Only a ground-level stump remained, 5 feet across, powdered with sawdust, still smelling of sawn wood.

We found blonding on a standing ash — pale patches where woodpeckers had tried to hammer in at ash borers under the bark. The birds might get some, but not all. The tree is likely doomed, as are the other ash in New London unless they are treated.

Respect and reciprocity

Back in about 1850, we lost a buttonwood so towering and significant in the history of New London that its spot on the corner of State and Main (now Eugene O’Neill) was called Buttonwood Corner. It isn’t just a cute name. It’s a testament of respect and reciprocity.

Through the course of the 20th century, we lost legions of American elms. They used to lean over streets in leafy arches, casting shade from sidewalk to sidewalk.

In post cards from the early 1900s, the linear forests look like a heaven now long lost. Today we have but three municipal elms — one on Broad Street, between Williams and Hempstead; another two blocks over, on Granite, a third on Jefferson by Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Are these scant survivors resistant or just tolerant of urban stress? Hard to say, Redfern says. Maybe the’ve escaped the disease because now there are too few to spread it. The elms used to lean into each other, their branches and roots enlaced like lovers’ arms.

But they loved too much. Disease easily spread. They took each other down.

What ‘parking’ means

Long ago, streets in some urban areas were set aside for parklands where trees and grass grew. Horses were “parked” under the trees for the cooling shade and pasture snack.

Now we park cars where the parks once were. Asphalt covers the width of streets, and sidewalks frame the sides. At best there’s a sickly tree in a square yard of earth surrounded by concrete. Its roots buckle the concrete, a futile resistance that dooms the recalcitrant tree to the chainsaw.

A level sidewalk and parking spaces have priority over oxygen and shade.

Who, Redfern asks, is maintaining the 65 trees planted around the municipal parking lot on Eugene O’Neill? No one, apparently. The young trees are slowly choking from the wired collars that helped them grow as saplings.

They need pruning, too. Without maintenance while young, they won’t grow into the healthy urban forest that was intended. Trees are willing to help us, but they need a little help, too.

Redfern and an organization she helped start, New London Trees, have done some tree planting in the strip down the middle of Governor Winthrop Boulevard in cooperation with the city.

Two stripling elms selected for their disease resistance are taking a stand at the upper end. Below that are a pair of red maples and three red oaks — sturdy, dependable native species that will grow into large canopy shade trees. Below that are London plane trees, a cousin of the buttonwood that used to stand just down the street.

Why not a well-matched monoculture? Well, remember the elms.

Municipal trees — that is, trees along streets, in parks, and on school grounds — may be the biggest bang-for-buck asset that a city can have. They suck up storm water that floods streets, and they grab particulate matter that causes asthma and disease.

In New London, each year the city’s municipal trees inhale over a thousand pounds of carbon monoxide, just as much sulfur dioxide, almost as much nitrogen dioxide, and 21 tons of ozone. They take 3,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into wood. Over 114,000 tons of carbon dioxide is stored in New London’s city trees. To pull that much out of the air by other means would cost over $4 million.

Using trees rather than machines to make these purifications saves New London $171,350 a year, and that number doesn’t include other immeasurable financial, aesthetic, health and psychological benefits.

A building surrounded by trees may save 25 percent of its cost of heating and cooling. Neighborhoods with more trees have less crime. People are willing to trade salary for an office window that looks out on trees.

Trees nurture mental health. People on leafy streets suffer less stress and live longer. Children are happier around trees.

Despite such benefits, New London has been letting trees die off. According to a detailed inventory undertaken by the city in partnership with Connecticut College, the city had 1,887 municipal trees in 2018. In 1993, a similar survey found 2,935 trees — a loss of more than a third in just 25 years.

New London allots pitiful little to the planting and maintenance of trees compared to what the city gets for the investment. Maggie Redfern and New London Trees are pushing to get the budget increased, and, budget or no budget, they are going to find a way to plant trees.

And everyone — absolutely everyone — would like to see more trees.

Glenn Alan Cheney is managing editor of the literary press New London Librarium.

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