Atlantic Cities

Trees vs. Power Lines: Will We Have to Choose?

Trees vs. Power Lines: Will We Have to Choose?
Reuters

The notice of the hearing landed in my inbox from the High Street Hill Association, one of many neighborhood organizations on the front lines of local government here in the Boston metro area. The local utility company, NStar, wanted to cut down a dozen trees along the streets of Brookline, Massachusetts.

The condemned trees, mostly Norway maples and red oaks, were listed with the Latin names for each species: Acer platanoides, Tilia cordata, Quercus rubra, and Catalpa bignonioides. But I knew each one was likely a treasured urban asset, providing shade and greenery and, critically, each one a sponge for carbon dioxide. Was it really necessary to get out the chainsaw?

According to NStar and many other utilities around the country, it is. Recent severe weather, violent thunderstorms, hail, wind shear and tornadoes, the latter historically not common in New England but seemingly appearing with increased frequency, has been toppling trees all over. Limbs and entire trees come down on power lines, and customers are without power for days. Therefore: get rid of the trees, spare the overhead power lines; problem solved.

But it’s a classic feedback loop in the era of global climate change, like heat waves prompting greater use of air conditioners, which in turn ramps up energy use in the power grid, and makes the power plants work harder and pump out more greenhouse gas emissions.

Likewise, the severe weather of late, from funnel clouds in Massachusetts to the drought in the Midwest, is being seen as an early sign of things to come – volatile patterns linked to gradual warming. Trees are obviously not the answer for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions at this point, to try to slow the march of increased emissions. But they do their part. That’s why mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg have started campaigns to plant many more.

Like so many of the political and cultural dynamics that swirl around the climate change debate, however, there is the short term and the long term. Trees downed in severe weather wreak havoc and cause inconvenience. Get rid of them, and the short-term problem is addressed. But we eliminate carbon sponges in the process, leaving that much more carbon released to the atmosphere – and climate change goes chugging along, leading to more severe weather, and more downed trees.

Shamefully, I didn't do my civic duty and attend the hearing on the doomed trees in my neighborhood, scheduled as it was for 4:30 in the afternoon. But my neighbors did. "There has to be some sort of cost-benefit analysis," said Woodland Road resident Rob Utzschneider, quoted in some refreshing coverage of local issues from my former employer, The Boston Globe. Some residents said they would put up with power outages to save the trees.

The same dilemma is being played out in  cities and towns across the country. In the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Montgomery County residents who have been plagued by epic power outages each summer for the last several years were nearly as angered by Pepco's pruning of beloved cherry trees.

Urban planners confronted with this problem tend to say that it’s not killer trees, it’s killer overhead lines. Utility lines of all kinds are put underground in new developments – part and parcel of greener distributed energy systems – and they are of course safely stowed away under manhole covers in the central areas of major cities. Why not put the utility lines underground in cities and suburbs with good density? Boston once considered such a program, for neighborhoods where the poles and overhead lines grace the frontage of three-deckers. But that kind of infrastructure retrofit is fantastically expensive.

And so we’re stuck in the feedback loop. A few days after the NStar hearing notice, another message appeared in my inbox, from the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, a few blocks from my home. Turns out the National Park Service, in collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design's Witness Tree Project and the Friends of Fairsted, is putting on an exhibit of artworks produced from the wood of the historic Olmsted Elm that graced the landscape at Olmsted’s workplace. The tree succumbed to old age, a fungal infection, and exposure to Dutch Elm Disease in 2011.

Call me a tree-hugger, but this is the kind of honor and respect that urban greenery deserves.

Top image: Utility workers try to free up power lines after a huge tree fell across a major road in Falls Church, Virginia, on July 2, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

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Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City and This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America. His next book, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow will be published in the fall of 2014 by Amazon Publishing. All posts »

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