JP Observer: Street trees are wonderful, except where they aren’t

Everyone wants to be a tree hugger. Trees are supposed to be good for us and look nice, too. But some trees, improperly located, can become eyesores and troublemakers, and we have examples in Jamaica Plain.

Some street trees, including those on wide sidewalks at Forest Hills and at Eliot Street across from the Civil War Monument, are attractive and flourishing. But the roots below tree pits (called “tree coffins” by some arborists) often suffer from obstruction from infrastructure and building foundations underground. The results are scrawny, struggling and even dead trees like the two in front of the post office and J.P. Licks plaza right now.

The metal grates around street trees in sunken tree pits can go missing or be dangerously tilted. A friend and I recently had to move away from a window inside a local business because it was too stressful to watch person after person trip over an uneven tree grate outside. Amazingly, no one actually fell.

The biggest issue by far with many of JP’s street trees is that they violate Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements by allowing too little space for people to pass on the sidewalk next to extra large pits. That threatens pedestrian safety and hinders strollers and wheelchairs.

Good luck to anyone trying to hold a conversation or a child’s hand while walking down standard size JP sidewalks with trees. In a random check of one Centre Street block last week, the Gazette found two tree pits that allow 31 and 32 inches for pedestrians to pass, where the minimum required is 42.

Mayor Marty Walsh has announced he wants to increase Boston’s tree canopy by 30 percent by 2030. As part of that effort, business owners and residents are being encouraged to request trees be planted on the sidewalks in front of their properties in existing or new tree pits. Conditions and requirements for installation, as well as the process for getting a tree, are spelled out in detail at

Boston Parks and Recreation Department Outreach Coordinator for Design and Construction Marchelle Jacques-Yarde answered questions from attendees at the JP Business and Professional Association board meeting on June 15 about the street tree request program.

The non-compliant tree pits here are grandfathered in and allowed to stay for now, Jacques-Yarde said in response to a question. As trees in improperly sized pits die or become diseased, they are not being replaced, she reported. And new street tree pits will only be installed where locations meet a list of requirements.

Fixing all the tree pits and sidewalks in JP in a timely way would take a major capital improvement effort. The City’s Centre and South Streets Streetscape and Transportation Action Plan that began in 2009 should be updated to include rebuilding sidewalks to place tree pits only where they are safe for pedestrians and as conducive as possible to supporting strong growth.

[Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.]



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