Downtown Trees


In many of our towns and cities, downtown improvement associations, city governments, and interested individuals have joined together to plant trees. They look nice, and many of them cover up some unsightly architecture. But do trees in downtown provide other uses? How about wildlife habitat?

Let’s take a close look at downtown trees.

First, let me say that my hometown, El Dorado, has a master plan for downtown tree planting. The year by year implementation of this plan has resulted in over 1000 trees planted. My comments here are being written as I look into a downtown that is literally full of trees.

El Dorado’s downtown trees are a mix of Ornamental Bradford Pear, Live Oak, Red Oak, Sycamore, and Sweet Gum extending out over a twenty block area.

As the trees mature, they rise above the mostly two story buildings in the downtown, and as they have gotten larger, their use by wildlife has increased. Numerous downtown trees are now roosting areas for a wide variety of birds. Granted, not all of our downtown birds are the most desirable of the species, but on the whole, the cumulative effect of several thousand birds in a downtown is positive. As the trees get larger, nesting occurs. On a recent trip to Houston, I passed a mall with several Pear Trees planted in a parking area. In one tree, I counted six nests. In several major cities, the downtown trees which attract a general mix of smaller birds, have brought in hawks and falcons which prey on these birds. Several falcons have even nested on building ledges, adapting to tall buildings as if they were mountains. Recently in Chicago, one of the most popular public television programs was a still television camera trained on a falcon’s nest.

Spring comes to my downtown with the Pear Trees in full bloom. Honey bees by the thousands invade the city to work the pear blossoms. In the fall as acorns fall from the numerous oaks, birds feast on the acorns crushed by cars or pedestrians. At night, when the cities numerous opossums, raccoons, and skunks roam our back alleys, our trees serve as a place of refuge or as a spot to prey on the roosting birds.

Just the presence of hundreds of trees in an otherwise sterile downtown setting is conducive to wildlife. Birds crossing from one area to the next pause in our trees.

Across the country, thousands of trees have been planted in downtowns. Each one of these trees is looked upon by wildlife as either a source of food or shelter. When the tree planting is supplemented by the addition of shrubs or other low bush planting, the wildlife usage jumps. Vacant lots or even parking areas can be mini wildlife corridors by merely planting trees, shrubs, and grasses along their back edges. As more and more habitat is lost to urban development, these city trees and shrubs become more and more attractive to wildlife.

And finally, one more good reason to plant downtown trees; lower utility bills for your downtown merchants. No, it’s not only because of the shade of the leaves, it’s more complicated than that. When our first satellites carrying heat sensors scanned the country, they immediately detected hot spots in every town and city of any size. If you have ever walked across a blacktop highway barefoot, you understand how asphalt, concrete, and other building materials hold heat. The average downtown is sometimes 10 degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside. When the satellite data was closely analyzed, certain areas within a city would stand out as cooler than other areas. It became very clear that cities with parks and downtown trees were substantially cooler than a city without trees. A downtown with good tree planting can have midsummer temperatures as much as 10 degrees cooler than a comparable city without trees. Translate that to your electric bill and you can have as much as a $50.00 to $100.00 a month reduction.

So the next time you look at your downtown, try to imagine a beautiful tree every 25 feet along every street. What a difference it would make. A difference not only for wildlife, but as a beautiful addition to a bare street and as a cooling agent for those hot Arkansas summers.