Downtown Trees are hurting, help is still far from coming

Sara Caldwell



March 10, 2011

Story 2 Final Draft


Trees in Downtown Athens


Somber arms reach for the sky, searching for sunlight. Aged and thirsty, the gentle giant curls away in search for water, but random passerbys wouldn’t know its struggle underneath its thick skin –– they wouldn’t even know it was dying.

The trees in downtown Athens need help. But nothing’s going to happen right away.

Community Forestry Coordinator Andrew Saunders of Athens-Clarke County, in Athens, Georgia said the downtown area of Athens is anticipating a streetscape revitalization concerning the area’s tree canopy, but it could be a long time coming.

“We have a mature set of trees in much of our downtown area,” Saunders aid. “And the infrastructure is competing with those trees.”

A mature tree in an urban environment can sustain life anywhere between 30 and 60 years, Saunders said.

Most of the trees of downtown Athens are 35 years old, and Saunders said there is a decent amount of cabling on older trees to try and minimize defects.

“We’re down there all the time, looking at the trees, ” Saunders said. “We measure the wood density to allow us to check for decay that could lead to an unexpected failure. We prune any dead limbs out –– with such a heavy use underneath, there’s no real tolerance for risk. We need to make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to harm anyone.”

While Saunders and the other staff members of the Athens-Clarke County Landscape Management team work to clear any dead or littering tree debris, the most recent Athens-Clarke County Arborist Progress Report from January states that there have been issues with 22 diseased or stressed trees in the area. There have been 39 violations concerning missing or dead trees, and according to the report, the majority of the community tree ordinance violations were related to dead or missing trees that were initially planted to meet code requirement.

Recommended guidelines for the Athens-Clarke County Community Tree Council Tree Ordinance include goals where the council hopes to establish a policy of no net loss to the present tree canopy covering the area. Specific recommendations include a tree canopy cover requirement on zoning classes, where all new site development would be required to have a minimum amount of healthy canopy cover, according to documents.

They’re falling short of their goal.

The ordinance also states that Street Trees –– healthy, existing street trees of appropriate species located alongside rights-of-ways –– should be provided protection from trimming, utility construction, etc.

Of the area’s 617 trees, the number of violations is minuscule in comparison, and council plans may seem promising, but towering beasts of oak trees, along with other tree species, still fight tough odds for survival.

“The urban environment presents a whole different type of stress from how trees would naturally be found,” Saunders said. “They’re typically required to deal with significantly higher heat loads which increases the amount of water they need, put into soils that are nothing like forest soils that tend to be tightly compacted, low in nutrients and not very well aerated. You combine that with human use where you have people damaging their roots, hanging on branches –– it just is a stressful place to be a tree.”

Although downtown Athens might be a stressful place to be a tree, they are still important figures from a consumer perspective.

In November of 2010, Saunders presented information to the Georgia Urban Forest Council concerning consumer behavior in central business districts.

After analyzing data compiled from a study by Kathleen Wolf of The University of Washington, Saunders said people are more likely to spend money in areas with a mature tree canopy.

“In Athens, what they did, they presented survey participants with different scenes, different levels of tree canopy in them, asked them to rate how they would enjoy shopping in these scenes,” Saunders said. “They randomly assigned participants one of three scenes — one with no canopy, one with small trees, one with mature canopy. They gave [participants] a scenario of how long you think you’d shop here, then compared that to some baseline statistics, and what they found is that with mature canopy you see an increase in time spent downtown, money spent, willingness to pay for parking.”

Of the three randomly assigned scenes in Athens, participant data for the category of dominant buildings showed low approval ratings with a mean of 1.98 ––according to the Likert Scale where a score of 1 equals not likable, and a score of 5 equals very likable –– falling under “likes a little.” With the second category, concerning buildings buffered by trees, the mean rating was 3.13, sharing that participants “liked the scene somewhat.” The third and final scene offered to participants was described as Green streets with mature canopy, where a mean rating of 4.0 concludes the individuals “liked the scene quite a bit.”

Saunders said the approaching street scape revitalization plan is on hold while the county waits to improve the district as whole. He said the coming improvement will be better for shoppers and better for the trees.

“I believe people are naturally drawn toward these semi-wooded environments,” Saunders said. “That’s a lot of what Dr. Wolf’s research provided — people would just prefer to have the rough edges taken off the urban environment.”

Second year graduate student in the University of Georgia’s Landscape and Design program, Taylor Ladd from Athens, Georgia, said that trees living in an urban environment suffer.

“They’re competing with storm drains and electrical conduits,” Ladd said. “They get replaced often, and urban areas are just not an ideal environment. They never have enough growing space– they don’t have anywhere to go. We have these trees, these iconic, old, incredible specimens that end up being hazards to the surrounding environment.”

While gnarled and aging branches creak under their weight above the heads of simple bystanders and economic consumers downtown, the Athens-Clarke Tree Council bides its times as they wait to start a district-wide revitalization process for the dying giants.  The question is: how much longer can the giants stand the wait?


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