November 23, 2012 7:24 pm

Trees face a growing menace

There is a need to restore foliage as part of the urban fabric to save us from dead cityscapes that lack beauty and humanity

It’s been a while since we’ve played The Fast Lane Saturday Morning Quiz, so why don’t you settle in with a bowl of muesli, some fluffy toast and a flat white while I fire a few questions your way.

With Osama bin Laden at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, arms dealer Viktor Bout in an Illinois penitentiary, Kim Jong-eun busy with his new wife, and Ugg boots finally on the way out, can you name the world’s biggest public enemy?

Tick-tock, tick-tock ... Do you need a hint? No, he’s not resident in Tehran. And, no, it’s not something mundane like the flu.

Tick-tock, tick-tock ... In fact, the potential threat posed is so serious that many governments have set up special teams to hunt down and destroy this menace. While I’ve had my suspicions for some time that a clandestine war is being waged in urban centres around the world, a walk around London last Sunday revealed the scale of the operations being deployed against this threat.

Tick-tock, tick-tock ... Any guesses? You might think that armed gangs of hoodlums from Albania, drug dealers in hoodies from the suburbs, or radical Islamists from the Maghreb are in the crosshairs of security services from Whitehall or Quantico – all of these are far too exotic.

The real enemy of the state, dear reader, is that tree rustling beyond your front window.

As absurd as this might sound, one only has to do a quick scan around your city (pretty much any one will do) to see how much governments, and their agents, hate trees. For a few decades now we’ve been given the sense that we’re all going green and any company with a responsible approach to the environment has employees volunteering to plant little maples at the weekends. But, in the real world, the opposite is the case. Just as well-intentioned hordes go out with tiny saplings and shrubs to prettify roadsides and parks, many more people armed with chainsaws and diggers set out to hack, shred and uproot unsuspecting birches and magnolias. To many at city hall, or in the planning departments of large development companies, trees are evil because they’re high-maintenance, dirty, dangerous and, above all, expensive.

My weekend tour around London revealed just how dire the situation has become for both the deciduous and coniferous families alike. Unfortunately, trees seem to have fallen out of favour in most cities this paper is printed in.

For all the talk about greener communities, trees are a luxury left off most business plans. In the heart of London, one would have thought that the Crown Estate’s recent redevelopment of the streets behind Piccadilly Circus might have involved some cherry trees being moved from their land and transported to Glasshouse Street to create a welcoming boulevard for walking under the blossoms in spring. No such luck.

Instead, a once grotty street that smelled of piss is now a bald, bland wind-tunnel that still smells of piss, without a shrub or a stretch of greenery to soak it up. How planners looked at such a scheme and allowed it to move forward without the planting of mature trees is a mystery. Then again, one must consider the dark forces of the health and safety and bean-counting brigades who have much greater authority than anyone charged with creating healthier, more beautiful cities.

One can hear the protests against helpless elms and chestnuts in city chambers and boardrooms, and the sound of fat marker pens crossing trees off planning documents. “Oh no, no, no. We can’t be having trees here. Think of the leaves and public liability. People might slip, you know,” would be the view from the person in the high-viz vest.

“Yes, and then there’s the expense – all that trimming and pruning and the cost of cleaning. No, no, no. Trees are not in the budget,” would be the view of the little man wearing a greying easy-iron white shirt while holding a calculator.

PR teams employed by public sector agencies and private sector firms might be talking a good game about green roofs and meadows for children to frolic in, but don’t buy a word of it. Take a spin around the new development happening near London’s King’s Cross. Even the impressive new home for Central St Martin’s (one of London’s hubs for creative higher education) is free from trees or greenery – just a wide-open forecourt with neither shade nor shelter.

Farther east, the Westfield development at London’s Olympic Park is another barren vista. Keep going, and the same story plays out in new projects in Poland, Sweden, China, Australia, the US, Canada ...

Trees are not the public enemy. It’s miserly developers and short-sighted public officials that need to be the target of a campaign to restore foliage as part of the urban fabric and save us from dead cityscapes that lack texture, beauty and humanity.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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