The giving tree


Recently around the corner  (at 2nd Avenue and 23rd Street North), two street oak trees were summarily razed by the City without warning. Their raw stumps may be seen above, surrounded by fresh concrete poured under a City sidewalk initiative. The trees appear to be about 35 years old if you count the rings.

What they used to look like

Above you see the next tree moving south down 23rd St., which is exactly what the fallen two looked like. Why were two healthy trees axed? Who makes these decisions? Many of us in the neighborhood are pretty upset since, of course, we feel like the trees are the community’s.

I’ve heard that Mr. Baldone, owner of the 2-story building at the corner and the eponymous tailor shop, requested the trees be torn down because they were making his gutters too hard to clean. Whether this is correct or not is beside the point; what is troubling is that there appears to be no proper coordination at the City regarding such requests. I understand after talking to sources at the City that essentially the Public Works Department does not speak with the Planning Department, so the guys deciding to cut trees down (Public Works) are doing so without the knowledge of the guys who designed and installed them (Planning and Horticulture). A call placed to Horticulture confirmed this sad fact: the staff person fielding the call could only say “we plant the trees, we don’t tear them down” but could offer no other explanation. Because he’s not privy to it.


A street that was a couple weeks ago beautifully shaded with nice mature trees now feels naked. This is a western exposure–smart idea to include shading devices like trees for comfort and energy savings. And this building front is not exactly lined with storefronts; a common complaint of shopkeepers downtown is that trees, for all their good intentions, excessively hide the stores.

In the best urban places with strong traditions of public space, one can find trees that are not only well-tended and considered an inalienable part of the cityscape, but are the correct species both for longevity and for height/bulk in relation to adjacent storefronts. They are properly pruned to provide visibility at the street while maintaining canopies to shield from sun and provide protection in rain. Witness Paris with its elegant plane trees:

Properly pruned and cared for

Regardless, if anyone has more information on the loss of these trees, or any insight into how the process could be more public, please share it with us. At the very least it would be nice if Public Works posted a “To be Cut” sign on the trunk a week in advance, to give people time to question/protest. The public needs to be reassured that all the work of the Planning Department can’t be quickly dispatched at the stroke of a Public Works’ employees’s pen, or at the lone behest of a single property owner. These trees give us shade, clean our air, and beautify our neighborhood. They deserve more respect.

We all know what happened in the end

[thanks to hansn for the Paris pic]

21 responses to “The giving tree

  1. That is terrible! Thanks for reporting this. Two steps forward and then one step back. Frustrating sometimes.

  2. All these trees were planted under a master plan by Nimrod Long & Associates back in the 80’s. It was a smart plan: Repeated species the length of a street to get the architectural effect, but different ones for different streets to they would not be subject to the same blight. Each street gained character from the repeated species. All that has been lost. There was once a responsibility for streetscape assigned to a division. That was cut maybe 15 years ago. So it is now no-mans-land and it shows. There needs to be a new master plan and proper management so it is the street and district that rules, not the building owners. The streets and sidewalks are public, not private!!!!

    • Thank you for explaining the initial good planning and the current lack thereof. Can we recreate the atmosphere of the early’80s that could spawn a new master plan and management plan? What needs to happen?

  3. Trees are an often-ignored but precious and vital part of the community eco-system. Thank you for bringing attention to this problem. Thirty-five years is a long time. What happened to the lovely row of oak trees in front of the downtown post office? That ugly structure is now fully exposed.

    • Yes–those trees went a long way to softening the bleak facade. My understanding is that federal regulations about visibility on federal buildings played a role there–but I’m not positive.

  4. I am really confused about the trees. A couple of months ago they came and cut all the limbs from those trees that were hanging over the sidewalk. Why was it necessary to now cut them down completely. We need all the green and shade we can possibly get in the city!

  5. I’d be curious to know the CORRECT way of planting these trees. I suspect they end up removing them because of the way the roots interact with the sidewalks and other flatwork (root heave). Jeremy, I completely agree – there must be some way of planting/species of tree that takes that issue out of consideration and some process for maintaining them and determining whether they should be removed and then REPLACED. We need the trees – otherwise, B’ham will simply become one large heat island. Thoughts?

  6. Man, what the heck!? Maybe Birmingham needs a tree ordinance, requiring lost trees to be replaced to an equivalent diameter of new trees.

    • Sometimes I feel unless there’s clear interest from the very top of a city administration, policy drifts until its no longer effective. But there’s no motivation within the bureaucracy to fix things. It’s unclear whether we’ve had an administration in years that would understand the importance of the public streetscape in a holistic way. It’s easy to “fix potholes” or “repave sidewalks”, but supporting well-designed, integrated planning and follow-through is entirely different.

  7. Is there ANY way to demand a system that involves the Planning Dept’s “approval” BEFORE Public Works get to work? I’m not suggesting we stall processes, but wish with the lack of ownership/management that presides over the all-too-important natural appearance of our city had, at the very least, some sort of checks and balances. I will write to our city leadership and demand attention/answers. I hope others will, too.

    Will we be resigned to tree sit-ins to save our shade?

  8. Well I loved the post today, I sent the article around the office, and as a local Landscape Architect in Birmingham, I wanted to share a few links with everyone,

    The first is an upcoming workshop on tree planting and the urban environment hosted by the RPC at the BBG this spring

    Click to access Trees_Workshop_Agenda+Registration.pdf

    The second is an article that came back to me in response to sending this around the office – Trees can promote safety among their benefits –

    And thirdly the cooperative extension agency is a great resource on finding out about the right tree in the right place, care and maintenance –

    • Ben–thanks for this great information and for sharing the post. If anyone at your office has ideas about how to lobby the City to overhaul how the City plans and maintains street plantings, please let us know.

  9. Bill Tankersley

    It seems like time for a specific tree ordinance, in addition to much better and more enforced planning as frequently discussed here. In Austin, trees over a specific diameter can’t be cut without individual evaluation. Public works has to share the responsibility for the decision with the city horticulturist. A request by the tenant can be considered, but can’t be allowed to be the ruling issue. Nim did a good job on this, too bad it’s allowed to be discarded on a case by case basis.

  10. Why is this still such a big issue?

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