Jul 29, 2014

The Green Downtown

Trees and landscaping are a pivotal part of our downtown.

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This week, with spring rapidly approaching, Earth Day just passed, and Arbor Day just ahead, our thoughts turn to the greener things. Trees and landscaping have long been an important part of our historic city. Des Plaines's earliest park land straddled either side of the Chicago & Northwestern tracks downtown. At the beginning, this was little more than a mass of scrubby trees and shrubs and a lawn.

In the 1910s, efforts by the Des Plaines Women's Club transformed the land around the old library with help from landscape designer Ransom Kennicott. Soon after, the park around the tracks began to transform into a more designed landscape, with trees evenly spaced and concrete walks added. In the 1930s, the Des Plaines Business Men's Association planted a procession of stately Elm Trees along the Miner Street side. However, this green belt at the heart of the city was gradually eliminated starting in the 1950s, as park space gave way to parking space. The addition of a bus depot with the 1986 train station ate up the last of this park space.

The conflict with cars has long threatened our green infrastructure. As roads are widened, trees often stood in the way. Once cleared, they were frequently not replaced, dramatically changing the character of the streets. This happened even early on; when Miner Street was paved in the 1910s, the trees in front of businesses had to go. Trees would not again appear in front of the buildings until a streetscaping plan was implemented in the late 1980s.

The city's neighborhoods, too, benefit from trees. New subdivisions have requirements for tree coverage, and subdividers even early on appreciated the value of tree-lined streets. Unfortunately, in many older neighborhoods the tree line has eroded, with irregular patches where trees have not been replaced. Matt Tarver of the Des Plaines Public Works Forestry division explains that when Public Works must remove a tree, they determine if there is room for a replacement tree to be planted the following spring. The homeowner is responsible for only 50 dollars of the cost of a new tree and gets to select a tree from a list of approved species. Homeowners should not plant trees themselves, as there are regulations on species and placement so that trees stay healthy. Des Plaines is a member of the Suburban Tree Consortium, a group of municipalities which works together to have greater buying power for trees and maintenance.

Looking at these before and after pictures helps to illustrate the role of street trees and landscaping. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that a single street tree provides $90,000 in direct benefits over the life of a tree. They help to define and break up the spaces downtown, transforming a wide gulch into distinct zones for businesses, pedestrians, cars, and trains. They provide shade and make a more inviting place to walk. Drivers pay more attention on tree-lined streets, knowing that pedestrians may be around.

There are less-obvious benefits, too. Trees soak up water, reducing flooding. They soak up pollution and produce oxygen. They lower temperatures, help keep asphalt from deteriorating and lower cooling bills. They help drivers focus on the road. They add value to real estate. And they provide a connection to nature in a downtown environment.In the past few years, Des Plaines has stepped up its downtown landscape efforts, utilizing landscape architects to design attractive planting beds downtown. Some local businesses like K-mart, Pesche's, and Lurveys have contributed plants. This year, additional landscape is being added at the train station.

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