Let’s fill our streets with trees

We generally don’t give our street-trees much thought, unless our council is threatening to chop one down, or a tree is starting to cause us problems, maybe overhanging into our garden. But imagine a what your street would look like without any trees –  bare, grey, and rather sad.

Street-trees have so many benefits:

  • They make our streets look wonderful – they green the grey
  • Capture pollution, store CO2, and give off oxygen
  • They make us feel better – improve our mental well-being
  • Increase house prices by making our roads more desirable
  • They have a cooling and shading effect in summer – important for cities
  • Mitigate heavy rain by capturing some of it in their roots, leaves and branches
  • Provide a welcome connection with nature
  • Create a natural habitat for many creatives
  • Reduce road traffic accidents by encouraging cars to slow down

That’s quite a lot for something we take for granted. All these positive impacts are actually well accepted and well evidenced, but probably not that widely considered.

Councils under pressure

Councils are responsible for maintaining our street-trees and replacing those lost to natural attrition. A street is a harsh environment for a tree. Most trees if asked would much rather be planted in a nice wood. There are exceptions of course, the London Plane Tree is one that seems to thrive in our polluted city environments, and can handle lots of abuse. Sadly, as we know, council budgets have been cut to the bone, and it’s no great surprise that those non-statutory expenditures, like trees, are the first to suffer. So, we get a picture of the natural street-tree attrition rate exceeding the rate of new planting.

It’s encouraging to see that some councils are associating an asset-value to their street-tree inventory. This is easier said that done, but we need to consider the actual value that street-trees and other natural assets offer us. How much value would you place on the Amazon rainforest’s ability to produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, prevent drought and form part of the global weather system. By ignoring the asset-value of natural resources we are creating costs elsewhere.

The risks from a grey street-scene

A grey housing estate with few trees and little green space can feel oppressive. It won’t lift the soul, but it will play its part in creating an environment ripe for social problems. If a neighbourhood feels loved, people tend to look after it more and they tend to feel better about themselves. Nature is good for our health – and that’s a fact.

Walking along a naked street with little tree cover on a sweltering hot summers-day, with the air rising off the sticky tarmac, isn’t a healthy place for the elderly and other vulnerable residents.

Without the green of nature around us, it’s possible to start disconnecting from the natural world. A world we depend on for life itself. This lack of connection reinforces a lack of understanding, and a then lack of focus and and finally a lack of action.

So, there’s lot of knock on consequences of not investing in our street-tree inventory.

The power of a tree

This diagram above is at the start of a local council’s tree strategy document. It beautifully describes the sheer power of one mature tree.

‘They’ should sort it out

At Start with Local we don’t see life as a matter of them and us. We think that we’re all in it together. We see empowering people to be able to do ‘their thing’ in their own immediate neighbourhoods – outside their homes – as part of a process of creating more empowered communities. Small wins leads to bigger wins, and more community engagement. More engagement simply leads to greater well-being. We see sorting the street-tree problem as a collaborative effort between residents, their councils, corporations both local and national, charities and central government.

Street-trees can be expensive

Planting trees in streets can be expensive. Funnily enough, the tree is itself the cheapest component – a 3-4m high tree should cost your council £60-70, depending on species. The initial watering of a street-tree over 3 years is a massive £200-£250. Planting a tree in a grass verge may cost £100 but do so in a hard surface and you may be looking at £250, and more if you then get into engineered trees pit and tree guards. So, on average Defra estimates it costs about £600 to plant a street-tree. No wonder we’re not seeing a renaissance in street-trees, quite the opposite.

How to create a step-change?

At Start with Local, we’re working on a scheme to support the mass planting of street-trees – Trees for Streets. If you think that half the cost of the street-tree is the cost of the tree itself and the watering, you can see that an sponsor-a-tree scheme, where residents pay the £100 for the new tree outside their house, and agree to water it, means you halve the overall cost of planting these trees. The other half can then come out of the councils own planting budget, supplemented with local volunteer effort, corporate sponsorship, charity funding, central government and metropolitan council funding. It’s a lot easier if we see delivering a step-change in our national street tree programme as a partnership, rather than leaving councils on their own to deal with the problem.

So, in partnership with the charity Trees for Cities we’re working on a programme to bring together all these groups, offering residents the opportunity to adopt-a-tree to go outside their house or other nearby location.  They take on the responsibility of watering it during the summer – far from being a hardship this offers opportunities to connect with their neighbours – often the only time you meet your neighbours is when you’re out in the front garden clipping a hedge or tinkering with your car.

The programme will be made accessible by creating an online ordering platform where you simply go and order your tree. All the hardwork will be done in the background to set up schemes on a council by council basis, supported by external co-funding arrangements.

TFL and healthy streets

In London, as in other cities, the GLA (Greater London Authority) and TFL (Transport for London) have a Healthy Streets policy, which is all about increasing walking and cycling, decreasing car use, and car domination. We simply cannot keep increasing car use as urban populations rise, we can’t tolerate the level of pollution that this level of car use creates. It’s also well known that a big threat to our health is our sedentary life styles. Healthy Streets embraces the importance of street-trees in mitigating pollution, and making streets more attractive for walking and cycling.


More of the land in our cities is getting paved over, hard surfaces such as driveways are reducing the area of land that can act as a sponge when we get deluges of rain. These deluges increasingly overwhelm our drain systems and cause localised flooding. This is only predicted to get worse with climate change. One way to mitigate this with strategically placed trees located in engineered tree-pits. These pits act like giant water tanks, holding water during a deluge, and then releasing it gradually into the ground and into drainage systems. Kind-of doing natures job for her.

Connecting green-spaces

Our green spaces can often be hidden away, isolated by busy brutal roads, and therefore we don’t use them. Creating green corridors can raise the prominence and accessibility of these spaces. Street-trees form a vital structural component for these green corridors, bringing the green out of the open spaces and inviting us in.

Our cities as parks

The London National Park City Project  seeks to view London as an interconnected green-space made up of parks, open land, rivers, town-squares. Viewing it in this way supports thinking and actions which seek to connect these green spaces, overcoming the slicing and dicing effects of roads.

Community engagement

At Start with Local we believe in the power of ‘small wins’. If residents start engaging with their street-trees, helping to green the grey, this has the potential to open up a broader conservation conversation. A conservation minded community is an essential element in improving the local environment. Seeing each ‘local’ environment as part of a patchwork that makes up our overall environment gives us hope that our local efforts can have global consequences. That’s why we say start with local.

So, let’s fill our streets with trees

Imagine how amazing it would be if ALL our streets were literally filled with trees, if every available space in our pavement verges had a tree. One tree every 10 metres. An urban forest if you like. We’d hear the sound song-birds, we’d feel the dappled shady light of trees in summer cooling us rather than the sweltering tarmac weighing upon us, we’d avoid those mini-floods, cars would drive more slowly, we’d be more inclined to walk, we’d bump into our neighbours more often, and our street would become nicer places to be.

Get involved

We’d love to hear from you, drop us a line at hello@startwithlocal.org.uk

Simeon Linstead

Founder and CEO of Start with Local. Simeon@startwithlocal.org.uk

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