‘Streets should have trees’

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

THE geometric design of our roads should follow the rule of thirds: one-third for trees and landscaping, one-third for pedestrians and bicyles, and one-third for moving vehicles.

Urban designers, landscape architects, environmental planners and good road engineers know that roads can be designed around trees, without needing to uproot them.

For many people, trees are the most important single characteristic of a good street. Streets moderate the form and structure and comfort of urban communities. In a very elemental way, streets allow people to be outside.
The people of cities understand the symbolic, ceremonial, social, and political roles of streets, not just those of movement and access.


Urban trees

There’s an interesting and very informative book on streets called Great Streets by Allan Jacobs. In it, Jacobs compared hundreds of streets in 50 cities around the world to determine the design and other elements that make some of it great.

One thing is clear when you read the book: most of the “great” streets mentioned celebrate streets with great tree lines with separate realms for traffic and slow-paced vehicular-pedestrian movement.

Jacobs laid out the criteria for great streets: First, a great street should be a desirable place to be, to spend time, live, play and work. Second, a great street is physically comfortable and safe, cooler and shady on a hot summer day and should not provoke a sense of confinement.

Physical safety is another matter. One should not worry about being hit by a car or truck. Light, by all means, to see the way and to see others is quite important as well.

The best streets encourage participation, allowing people to be passive participants. The best streets are those that can be remembered, leaving strong positive impressions.

Very few

Here in the Philippines, I can only think of a few areas where trees, streets and people are in harmony: The wide streets of UP Diliman, a haven for joggers, bikers, and pedestrians—a respite from the cacophony of accident prone Commonwealth, and the magnificent tree-lined Rizal Blvd. in Dumaguete City, where writers have been inspired to create poems and soliloquys under the very canopies of its age-old acacia trees.
Rockwell Drive and the streets of Ayala Alabang and Ayala Heights also come to mind.

In the Philippines, concerned citizens who have grown up seeing century-old trees on an everyday basis as they make their daily commute are battling with their own battles against road widening projects with clearance to cut down their beloved trees.

More progressive countries in Europe and America, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore have been successful in protecting their natural heritage, but in the Philippines, more often than not, they end up watching in horror as bulldozers and chainsaws cut down the trees that they’ve grown up with.


The road widening being constructed along MacArthur Highway is expected to cut down 1,829 trees. Sadly, 1,200 have already been cut, despite protests by many groups and 600 more will be cut before the year’s over.
Fr. Robert Reyes said the government plans to cut down 3,000 trees overall.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Public Works and Highways have come to a consensus that for every tree they cut down, they will have to plant 100 trees to compensate the loss.
Road widening projects should respect mature trees and create an island of trees. Instead of cutting trees down, add new lanes instead on the right side of trees for slower moving traffic.

The replacement value of a 50-year-old tree is estimated to be P9 million for the oxygen it gives planet earth and the aesthetic beauty it provides.

Trees provide an essential role in heat reduction. Studies have found that trees can reduce the urban temperature by four degrees by modulating the sun’s rays, water retention and flood control.


They also provide traffic calming as the color green is psychologically a restful, agreeable color. They help streets work functionally by separating pedestrians from machines, machines from machines, and people from people. To be effective, they should be reasonably planted close together.

In the US, trees on streets help increase house prices and can even reduce crime rates.

Elsewhere in the world, trees in urban streets and highways are given high importance. In Dubai, where I worked as an architect and urban planner of the city in the 70s, date palm trees and other trees are incorporated into the street design, along with other greeneries.
Under the National Parks and Tree Act of Singapore, when new establishments are constructed, project proponents get tax deductions in the first five years if they plant trees or preserve trees on their properties.


Japan holds the record of the longest tree-lined road in the world. The Nikko highway, which runs through Nikko, Aizunishi and Reiheishi boasts of 37 kilometers of 27-meter tall Japanese cedar trees. These trees are more than 300 years old.

Road design need not compromise government standards for safe and wide roads. In many of our projects requiring provisions for road design, the urban designers, engineers and environmental planners in Palafox Associates and the architects of the Palafox Architecture have managed to come up with plans of 20-, 30- and 40-meter-wide roads that incorporate existing trees, or plan tree planting/landscaping in the road design.
In Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture, we take our commitment to the environment very seriously. In 2009, we gave up US$1 million in architect’s fee to save 366 70-year-old trees in Subic.

For our rehabilitation project of the 150-hectare Eco Park at La Mesa Watershed, a collaboration between Palafox and ABS-CBN Foundation, the firm donated 70 percent of our professional fee and came out with a masterplan to revitalize the watershed.

Trees should be part of urban development instead of becoming victims of it, and the recent MacArthur highway tree-cutting tragedy, with hundreds of century-old trees reduced to stumps is a wake-up call to all of us just how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of progress.

The word “street” contains the word, “tree.” So why should actual streets be without it? Think about that.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 27, 2014.

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