Commentaries Health & Environment

Downtown View: DPW’s Plan to Deforest the Downtown

Go out and measure your sidewalk. Is it less than seven feet wide?

Measure the distance from your building to the tree pit. Is it less than 36 inches? Have the tree roots in front of your building heaved the sidewalk?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, your tree will have to go.

That’s what the Department of Public Works has decreed without consulting neighborhoods that will be affected. The DPW proposed an unsuccessful, ugly plan for creating ramps that deface Beacon Hill’s brick sidewalks at a meeting in December. Eradicating the trees in downtown neighborhoods is the flip side of the ramp plan.

I’m predicting it’s never going to happen. Residents will climb into their trees just as they laid down on the bricks in 1947 on Beacon Hill.

Nevertheless, we’ll have to pay attention because crazy ideas like this get legs and city leaders are often blind to the ramifications. (For example, at the hearing in December, a representative from Mayor Walsh’s transition team said Marty was all for it. Better read the document more carefully, guys.)

This is a situation in which DPW has decided that the Americans with Disability Act trumps historic preservation legislation, tourism and the environment. The conflicts are unnecessary. We can achieve the desired goals in all those spheres if we work together.

First, though, let’s look at the narrow sidewalks, which are mostly located in the North End, Bay Village and Beacon Hill. North End sidewalks now have few trees, and this plan will make sure they never get any.

It’s as if DPW didn’t come out to see the conditions in the field. If they chop down the trees, there is still no way individuals in wheel chairs will be able to manage the sidewalks. To do that, the gas lamps on Beacon Hill will also have to go, since they are often too close to the buildings. Mailboxes blocks access too. On some streets, especially the steep ones, DPW will have to remove the first granite step into many buildings, because those steps jut into the sidewalk. That will make it impossible for residents to enter their buildings.

And that isn’t even considering the bricks, which DPW dislikes also. On Beacon Hill the slope is too steep for non-motorized wheel chairs anyway.

Reading the proposal makes you crazy. You can find in this document (pdf).

First of all, it can be contradictory. It’s hard to figure out which directive applies. Then there are the many different kinds of brick. There is verbiage about how the Parks Department will determine if a tree can stand having its roots severed—I guess that will be so we can watch the tree die slowly. The plan describes “sand-based structural soil to help aid and improve tree growth,” as if good soil will shut down the objections. If the soil is successful in helping the tree grow, new roots will probably heave the sidewalk and have to be destroyed. There is talk of planting new trees, but this just isn’t going to happen in most places because there is no room.

The whole piece reads as if it is punishment for those who like quaint, historic details or greenery. Its message is to heck with a sense of place. Its result would be to eradicate characteristics that draw people to these neighborhoods in the first place. No mention is made of the streets that cars enjoy. It’s the people only who must suffer. The piece declares that historic preservation and environmental benefits of trees can be dumped in the interests of accessibility.

That kind of thinking is so 1950s. If my solution sounds like something dreamed up in the Harvard Negotiation Project suggested it, it’s true.

If the environmental sustainability folks, tourism boosters, historic preservationists and the handicap accessibility advocates decide they are partners not opponents, they can come up with a solution in which everyone wins.

Remarkably, DPW has come up with a close approximation of such a solution with their proposal for redoing lower Joy Street. It involves raising the street to the level of the sidewalk, sharing that street with cars, bikes and pedestrians, discouraging fast driving and making our neighborhoods safer and more usable for everyone.

In the North End, Beacon Hill and Bay Village, cars have no business going fast anyway. There is too much going on.

Another option could be widening the sidewalks. Currently pedestrians cannot walk two abreast on many neighborhood sidewalks. On most sidewalks in my neighborhood, folks seeking shelter from rain can’t raise an umbrella because it won’t fit between the gas lamps and the side of the building. The solutions for each street might be different.

I urge all people with these supposedly conflicting goals to sit down together and make our environment better for all of us. Whatever the solution, I’m predicting right now it’s not going to be chopping down trees.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

3 Replies to “Downtown View: DPW’s Plan to Deforest the Downtown

  1. This DPW’s proposal is a classic example of a government ageny putting on blinders to avoid seeing anything that would stand in the way of of it accomplishing its goal. It reminds me of a head custodian I encountered in my teaching career who felt the best way to keep the school clean would be to eliminate the students. To chop down the trees that keep our city from being an ugly urban desert would truly be a shame. I hope our various neighborhood associations take a strong stand on this issue. Thanks, Karen, for bringing this potential disaster to our attention.

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