For Ald. David Ahrens, the perfect Downtown blends both natural and man-made beauty, with large canopy trees spotting the walkways in front of glass-plated high-rises.
But more and more, trees have given way to concrete, said Ahrens, 15th District. He refers to the parts of East Washington Avenue where new high-rises have replaced old canopy, which “creates an oven for vehicles,” he said.
Concerns over tree loss in Madison have led to the creation of an Urban Forestry Taskforce, which seeks to craft recommendations for the city to better protect and encourage the growth of trees in Madison. The task force, an outgrowth of the Sustainable Madison Committee, brings together Madison residents and city department heads to continue a conversation about policies that affect the city’s trees, said Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp, who helped draft the resolution to create it.
The task force, whose nine members were appointed last week, will provide recommendations and strategies to both the city and private landowners by next summer. The group will establish a goal for tree coverage for the city, review existing policies and practices, and develop long-term best practices for a healthy urban forest.
Ahrens said that trees offer much more than just a pleasing sight — they cool down steamy streets in summer, filter the air, provide homes for birds and animals and absorb stormwater that would otherwise run off into local lakes and streams. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, trees in and around Wisconsin’s urban areas provide $78.9 million worth of energy savings to residents, and remove air pollution to the tune of $47.8 million.
Trees can even bring more customers to stores, increase property values and prevent crime in neighborhoods, said Leslie Schroeder, a member of the task force and Madison Canopy Street Trees, which advocates for preservation and planting of shade trees.
Madison’s neighborhoods face different concerns regarding their canopies, Schroeder said. For older residential neighborhoods centered around the Isthmus, where above-ground power lines can get tangled in trees, the canopy is threatened by city initiatives to replace trees with shorter shrubs — or “Q-tip trees” — that are cheaper to maintain but don’t provide the same benefits.
Elsewhere, the increasing width of streets and installation of sidewalks can also reduce the potential area for trees to grow.
For newer neighborhoods — those developed in the 1970s or later — the need is for greater tree diversity to combat problems such as emerald ash borer, Knepp said. The lack of tree diversity in Madison has become especially apparent as the removal of thousands of ash trees has aesthetically “devastated” many neighborhoods, he said.
Downtown faces its own challenges. With developers looking to maximize the size of apartment buildings, for instance, there is little room left on the setback for large canopy trees, Ahrens said, leaving an “urban heat island.”
Schroeder insists that trees need to be considered a “nonnegotiable,” particularly when the city deals with developers.
Often, developers cut down trees to construct their buildings, then wait until the end of the development — when there often isn’t enough space left — to consider where canopy trees should go, said John Harrington, a professor of landscape architecture at UW-Madison who is a member of the task force.
“We have to figure out from the beginning where trees are going to go, instead of waiting (until) afterwards to figure out where to put them,” Harrington said.
Developers are fined for cutting down trees to make larger buildings, but not enough to deter them, Ahrens said. Part of the task force’s goal is to ask: “What’s the price, then, where they say, ‘ouch?’” he said.
Ahrens cites the trees in front of the Madison Public Library as a perfect example of how to fight the concrete jungle. They were installed using underground frames that hold soil, allowing tree roots to grow under paved surfaces. The modular units are known by their trade name, Silva Cell Systems.
Knepp said Silva Cells cost about $10,000 each, with usually one tree per cell, plus the roughly $300 cost of the actual tree. State Street’s trees are planted in a cheaper alternative — sidewalk vaults, which cover the soil with the engineering equivalent of a concrete bridge, but can be more expensive to repair, said Chris Petykoswki, the city’s principal engineer.
“Canopy trees provide a bunch of benefits,” Harrington said. “But, of course, a lot of (those) benefits aren’t things you can put concrete costs on.”