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Trees - The Real Issue 

by Robert Herold & r & & r & "Under the regime of zoning, and professional overspecialization that it fostered, all streets were made as wide as possible because the specialist in charge -- the traffic engineer -- was concerned solely with the movement of cars and trucks. In the process, much of the traditional decor that made streets pleasant for people was gotten rid of. For instance, street trees were eliminated. It is hard to overstate how much orderly rows of mature trees can improve even the most dismal street by softening its hard edges and sun-blasted bleakness." -- James Kunstler, author of Home from Nowhere





"Other than lawyers, traffic engineers have screwed up more of America than anybody else." -- Donovan Rypkema, real estate and economic development consultant





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & ur citizen's advisory "commission" -- the group tossed together by our deposed mayor, Jim West, for the purpose of rubber stamping whatever plans the traffic engineers concoct to use the street repair money we all provided -- announced that the Bernard Street project is a go. As proof positive that consistency truly is the hobgoblin of small minds, all 22 trees have to come down because their instruction manual says so.


Residents living in older neighborhoods across town hear the chain saws coming their way. Today Bernard, tomorrow -- well, let the asphalt flow and the denuding begin.


The commission has determined that alternative proposals can't be considered because, "Bond money cannot be used to redesign a street (such as narrowing it)." Really? According to the ballot item, the city can take all steps "deemed necessary by the Council" to the success of the project.


The traffic engineers do their commission friends one better. They tell us that our streets couldn't be narrowed anyway -- that instruction manual thing again. Moreover, they say, it costs more to move the curbs. About narrowing, they might want to read up on experiments (now there's a novel idea) done in Portland, which show that most city streets are unnecessarily wide. These experiments demonstrate that even the longest and widest fire engines only need only 18 feet of roadway. And about cost? Some with experience say that pouring less asphalt while moving a curb makes the cost tradeoff a wash. But even if it isn't quite a wash, wouldn't it be better to get the worst streets done right and then just fix as many potholes on other streets as the leftover money will fund?


Bernard could easily be narrowed, as the Portland experiments so clearly demonstrate, providing medians with the necessary width to sustain the right kinds of trees and avoid taking down the healthy ones now standing (and improving safety as well). This action would be supportive of the Comprehensive Plan, which promises citizens that urban design policy will drive public works projects.


The decision-making process that Mayor West created to administer his street repair program actually does just the opposite by effectively marginalizing those who are most knowledgeable and inclined to support the Comprehensive Plan. I refer to those working in planning, urban design, historic preservation and design review. The result has been that our traffic engineers are transformed into ersatz urban designers, something they know absolutely nothing about. Of their plan, Kunstler might point out that anytime you cut down a mature, healthy tree that provides canopy for any street in our city, you are degrading streetscape thus altering urban design, thus you are in violation of the Comprehensive Plan. The trees (or maybe half of them) on Bernard aren't the issue. It is the project plan and criteria that is the issue because it goes to the larger question of urban design. If the trees, especially throughout our older neighborhoods, are critical to our urban design -- and all knowledgeable urbanists would agree that they are -- then this street project should have begun with that objective in mind: Whatever we do, we can't take out healthy, mature trees.


Research and analysis was required to answer the question: Do we presently have medians throughout the city wide enough to accommodate the species of trees called for in the Comprehensive Plan -- trees that provide canopies and serve to calm traffic? Well, obviously there are many streets -- most of the streets in our historic neighborhoods, north and south -- that right now lack medians with the necessary width. So our first objective should have been to identify those streets and inquire whether or not we might narrow them so as to accommodate wider medians so that tree planting programs in the future can give us the desired effect.


The traffic engineers' plan to replace the right kind of trees with smaller trees picked because their root system will work in the narrow medians is no solution at all. And the idea of planting on side streets insults the public.


We are challenged to construct medians that are wide enough to accommodate the kinds of trees called for by the Comprehensive Plan. Accomplish this, and we set the stage for a dramatically improved streetscape. Let the traffic engineers have their way, and the streetscapes throughout the city will not only be degraded, but future improvements will be made impossible.


Those who are actively opposing the project as planned are good stewards of Spokane's City Beautiful heritage. And what they know is that were a traffic engineer asked about all this, he would probably respond: "City Beautiful heritage? What the hell is that?"
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