There is Unrest in the Urban Forest

Porto+Alegre%2C+Brazil+ +CC+license+by+Caroline+Ferraz

More recently, Sarasota native Nathan J. Robinson, founder and editor of Current Affairs magazine, caused a Twitter firestorm by posting a thread lamenting the effects of House Bill 1159. He accompanied it with a photo of a live oak slated for removal on a future home site. The response was an enormous pile-on of mockery and verbal attacks on Robinson for, ostensibly, elevating his own aesthetic preferences over people’s dire need for housing. Many of the most critical replies came from pro-housing and/or YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) advocates.

I try not to write many posts that have their origins in Twitter drama. The site’s culture is notoriously toxic, and this entire incident embodies the worst of it. Robinson is a popular punching bag (for many reasons), and it doesn’t help that he made his point in maybe the most shallow, partisan, and trollish way possible. I feel I have to link to the thread, but all I will say is that it and the replies embody the worst of Twitter, and you are better off not reading it.

So why bring it up at all? Because this sort of online discourse does tend to bleed into real life, when its participants are also out seeking to shape real-world housing policy. I consider myself a YIMBY, and so, I know, do a lot of my readers. To that group, I say: It matters how we talk about this stuff, online as well as at public meetings. Our neighbors are listening.

And when they’re listening, I fear what they increasingly hear is the monomania that has taken hold among some—certainly not all—housing advocates. By monomania, I mean an obsession with one goal to the point that you think the best policy is that which optimizes for that one goal, and to hell with every other consideration. In the case of housing, monomania looks like the belief that the enemy of good cities is every single regulatory or cost barrier to the production of more housing units. (An urban planning term for “homes” that, to my ear, evokes assembly-line widgets.)

This is a naïve and self-defeating way of approaching the problem. We don’t get any closer to solving our housing crisis—which is real, and is harming real people—when, in the poisoned air of zero-sum politics, well-meaning people with tunnel vision make dismissive statements like “It’s just a tree. You can grow a new one.” Try sitting under a hundred-year-old oak and say that with a straight face.

You will not win your fight for more housing by trivializing or mocking the legitimate things that concern people about new development.

Reject False Choices

Yet let’s be fair here. Underlying the common YIMBY skepticism of tree ordinances is an actually very legitimate concern: that public policy will elevate the aesthetic preference of well-to-do, securely housed individuals for a verdant neighborhood over their actual neighbors’ need for stable, affordable housing.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Trees are often invoked by the opponents of new housing as a sticking point. A “tree murder song” sung by activists at a Seattle public hearing made the viral rounds in 2020—though it should be noted that actual data largely refute the notion that Seattle’s development boom has come at a cost to its urban canopy.

Somewhere between the zealotry of the “Halt all development now before another tree is lost!” crowd and the zealotry of the “It’s just a stupid tree” crowd lies a reasonable approach that rejects the false choice between trees and homes.

The truth is that high urban density and abundant housing are entirely compatible with a lush tree canopy. And not just with creating one from scratch. We can and should retain existing trees that are valuable in terms of the ecosystem services they provide: shade, beauty, clean air, erosion control, birdsong. 

Not just trees but large, old trees are really important to a quality urban environment. Not least in Florida, where these trees are virtually the only thing that makes this place habitable for half of the year. Walking down an unshaded sidewalk in Sarasota in July is a reasonable approximation of hell. We have plenty of suburban neighborhoods with no trees older than 10 or 20 years, and trust me: you don’t want to walk in them. And when nobody wants to walk, everybody drives, and a whole slew of negative consequences domino from there.

Housing advocates might imagine that a misguided, rigid rule about trees could be the principal thing preventing the construction of hundreds of apartments on a large infill site, but that’s profoundly unlikely. I’ve never seen it happen. In reality, the most common scenario is simply that of a developer deciding whether to work around existing grand trees on a single homesite, like this:

You May Also Like