“If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be—community-building places, attractive for all people —then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city directly and will have had an immense impact on the rest.”
–Allan Jacobs, author of Great Streets
The geometric design of our roads should follow the rule of thirds: 1/3 for trees and landscaping, 1/3 for pedestrians and bicycles, and 1/3 for moving vehicles. Urban designers, landscape architects, environmental planners, and good road engineers know that roads can be designed around trees, without needing to uproot them. For many people, trees are the most important single characteristic of a good street. Streets moderate the form and structure and comfort of urban communities. In a very elemental way, streets allow people to be outside. The people of cities understand the symbolic, ceremonial, social, and political roles of streets, not just those of movement and access.
The role of streets in urban life
There’s an interesting and very informative book on streets called Great Streets by Allan Jacobs. In it, Jacobs compared hundreds of streets in 50 cities around the world to determine the design and other elements that make some of it great. One thing is clear when you read the book: most of the ‘great’ streets mentioned celebrate streets with great tree lines with separate realms for traffic and slow-paced vehicular-pedestrian movement.
Jacobs laid out the criteria for great streets: First, a great street should be a desirable place to be, to spend time, to live, to play, to work. Second, a great street is physically comfortable and safe, cooler and shady on a hot summer day and should not provoke a sense of confinement. Physical safety is another matter. One should not worry about being hit by a car or truck. Light, by all means, to see the way and to see others is quite important as well. Moreover, the best streets encourage participation, allowing people to be passive participants. The best streets are those that can be remembered, leaving strong, long-continuing positive impressions.
Here in the Philippines, I can only think of a few areas where trees, streets, and people are in harmony: The wide streets of UP Diliman, a haven for joggers, bikers, and pedestrians—a respite from the cacophony of accident prone Commonwealth, and the magnificent tree-lined Rizal boulevard in Dumaguete where writers have been inspired to create poems and soliloquies under the very canopies of its age-old acacia trees. Rockwell Drive and the streets of Ayala Alabang and Ayala Heights also come to mind.
Trees mark the route
In the Philippines, concerned citizens who have grown up seeing century-old trees on an everyday basis as they make their daily commute are battling with their own battles against road widening projects with clearance to cut down their beloved trees. More progressive countries in Europe and America, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore have been successful in protecting their natural heritage, but in the Philippines, most often of times, they end up watching in horror as bulldozers and chainsaws cut down the trees that they’ve grown up with.
The road widening being constructed along MacArthur Highway is expected to cut down 1,829 trees. Sadly, 1,200 have already been cut, despite protests by many groups and 600 more will be cut before the year’s over. According to Father Robert Reyes, the government plans to cut down 3,000 trees overall. But the DENR and DPWH have come to a consensus that for every tree they cut down, they will have to plant 100 trees to compensate the loss.
Road widening should respect mature trees and create an island of trees. Instead of cutting trees down, add new lanes instead on the right side of trees for slower moving traffic.
The replacement value of a fifty-year-old tree is estimated to be P9 million for the oxygen it gives planet earth and the aesthetic beauty it provides. Trees provide an essential role in heat reduction (studies have found that trees can reduce the urban temperature by four degrees) by modulating the sun’s rays, water retention and flood control, and provide traffic calming. Moreover, the color green is psychologically a restful, agreeable color. They help streets work functionally by separating pedestrians from machines, machines from machines, and people from people. To be effective, they should be reasonably planted close together. In the US, trees on streets help increase house prices and can even reduce crime rates.
Elsewhere in the world, trees in urban streets and highways are given high importance. In Dubai, where I worked as an architect and urban planner of the city in the seventies, date palm trees and other trees are incorporated into the street design, along with other greeneries like flowers and shrubs.
In Singapore, even a taxi driver will tell you that a fifty-year-old tree is a heritage tree. Under the National Parks and Tree Act of Singapore, when new establishments are constructed, it’s tax deductible in the first five years if they plant trees or preserve trees in their properties.
In Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Rua Goncalo de Carvalho Street is completely blanketed with more than a hundred Rosewood trees. It stretches a span of 500 meters, and was planted in the 1930s by German officials. There have been plans to remove some of the trees for development, but the active community won over. In 2006, the road was officially declared a Heritage Environment, the first time an urban street in Latin America was given honor.
Japan holds the record of the longest tree-lined road in the world. The Nikko highway, which runs through Nikko, Aizunishi, and Reiheishi boasts of 37 km of 27m height Japanese cedar trees. These trees are more than 300 years old.
Road design need not compromise government standards for safe and wide roads. In many of our projects requiring provisions for road design, the urban designers, engineers, and environmental planners in Palafox Associates and the architects of the Palafox Architecture have managed to come up with plans of 20-, 30-, and 40-meter-wide roads that incorporates existing trees, or plan tree planting/landscaping in the road design.
In Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture, we take our commitment to the environment very seriously. In 2009, we gave up one million dollars in architect’s fee to save 366 70-year-old trees in Subic, and even joined a protest with the local Aeta community. For our rehabilitation project of the 150-hectare Eco Park at La Mesa Watershed, a collaboration between Palafox and the ABS-CBN Foundation, the firm donated 70% of our professional fee and came out with a master plan to revitalize the watershed and develop areas where the natural flora and fauna can be better appreciated.
Trees should be part of urban development instead of becoming victims of it, and the recent MacArthur highway tree-cutting tragedy, with hundreds of century-old trees reduced to stumps is a wake-up call to all of us just how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of progress.
The word ‘street’ in itself contains the word, ‘tree.’ So why should actual streets be without it? Think about that. Save A Tree, Save The Country.