Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Peds on Weds: street trees as eye candy

Street trees/urban trees improve the urban fabric and increase property values. The shade they provide in the summer softens the pedestrian experience.

These ideas are generally taken for granted among urban planney-types. It is these positive associations that get trees sprinkled into architectural drawings such as this one for the building under construction at 150 Elgin:

This little stand on Preston and Louisa, even without the blooms Eric found, make a pretty solid aesthetic case for landscaping over vanscaping.

More often, however, they go in looking like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, like these three installed on Metcalfe back in 2010:

When the Garden of the Provinces and Territories was built in the early '60s, it too had tiny trees, as seen in this photo via Urbsite

Half a century on, these trees have grown considerably, giving the park a much different (though not necessarily worse) feel. The canopy provides a low green ceiling to the park, making it a more private and reflective space to appreciate the grass and water features.

Street trees have a harder time than those in parks or front yards, due to the smaller area of land for rain to fall into and the increased exposure to salt, but they do sometimes make it. This row is on the north side of Place Bell, 160 Elgin at Gloucester. At the far left you can just make out Grant House (Friday's) and the construction site for the 150 Elgin office tower, mentioned above. The tree canopy has grown higher than the artificial canopy surrounding the building, but there is still much light coming through.

Closer to Elgin, the trees are noticeably shorter. There may be many reasons for this, but I suspect the tower of 160 Elgin blocks a lot of sunlight, stunting their growth. (Indeed, you can see in Google Street View that the one at the Elgin end, which would get more morning sun, is taller)

On the Nepean Street side of Place Bell looking west toward Metcalfe, the story is a bit different. The condo towers at 18 and 22 Nepean Street block out much of the light that would fall on the North sidewalk, the awning blocks out the sky immediately above, and the tree canopy blocks out the sliver of sky that remains. At eye level, there's little sunlight, and nothing but concrete, bare glass, and tree trunk to look at. The view on the North side will soon resemble this as 150 Elgin climbs toward the sky.

While we can't remove the buildings that are already there, we can make sure that as new towers are built there is sufficient space between them to let light through. The 27-storey tower approved for 91 Nepean and its identical siblings at 70 Gloucester and 96 Nepean, were approved by City Council on lots barely wider than the towers themselves. That sets a nasty trend: if the lots next door are allowed to be built the same way, we'll have a wall of building as dark as the one across from Place Bell, only twice as tall and closer to the street. There are trees shown on the drawings for 96 Nepean, but this is mostly eye candy on the drawings; we (and the future residents of the building) would be lucky if anything green grows at all.

It's actually fairly impressive how well these rows of trees surrounding Place Bell have survived in what looks like such small plots of ground*. And that's not a bad thing—removing these trees would certainly make this scene even worse—but the trees were originally added to soften the view at eye level, and now that they have grown beyond that height, something else is needed to fill this role so that this stretch of sidewalk can be more hospitable again. Maybe not a Zen pond, but something.

For now, the trees on the opposite side of the street at 150 Elgin will probably have to suffice.

(*See the street tree-related posts in my series on the reconstruction projects for Bank Street and Somerset Street)

[Tune in on Wednesdays at noon for a new pedestrian-themed blog post. View the Pedestrians label for previous Peds on Weds posts]

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