The East Side’s Sudden Tree Problem


PROVIDENCE — When I chat with landlords who live near me on the city’s East Side about why they had trees removed from their property, “squirrels,” “bird poop,” “I hate raking,” or “I want grass or concrete instead,” are the most common explanations.

Seldom is it a dying tree, safety, or a pressing issue; they just want them gone. Frustratingly, I ask myself, why does this keep occurring, especially recently? What I wager is that the crux of the issue can be broken down as such: the constant rotation of new landlords, many of whom don’t even live in these buildings (and thus don’t have to live with the consequences), who have new standards of beauty and different wants, often at the expense of trees and other vegetation.

Put into context, in just the past few years, this has led to parts of the East Side, specifically around the North Main Street area, to go from having an abundance of flourishing flora to a stumped, barren wasteland. Previously, these neighborhoods were a place where people would walk their pets and enjoy the outdoors with their family. Housed under the shadows of trees, backyard parties were held daily, providing an ever-lingering BBQ aroma that blanketed the area. Locals, and even those not privy to this area, came to enjoy the nature and wildlife that thrived. It was genuinely, truly a homely experience.

Now, instead of chirping birds or hearing parents loudly arguing over who forgot the hotdog buns, the last few spring seasons have started with the roars of chainsaws and the smell of diesel-fueled wood chippers. These sudden changes have already posed noticeable detrimental effects. In short, these once thriving communities are no more.

Left instead are neighborhoods and backyards that are uninhabitable during the sun-scorching summer months. With families and children no longer around outside, motor traffic zooms. Local pollution has increased. The diverse wildlife and insects that once roamed about have all but disappeared. Monetarily, property value has been needlessly lost and now yard and basement flooding is a common event. Further, more minute effects are observed such as increased AC usage, noises from the streets no longer being dampened, and forget about privacy — that’s out the window.

Despite this, we, the locals, don’t want this. Contrary to the landlords’ answers, every single resident I’ve spoken to has expressed interest in what we once had. Some articulated their powerlessness, having mentioned how their landlords care little about these wants. Indeed, for whatever reason, landlords don’t seem to fully grasp how important greenery is from both a monetary and, more importantly, a community well-being perspective.

You may wonder then whether it’s still technically within one’s rights on their property to mostly do as they wish. It should be noted that Rhode Island’s laws around this are quite overwhelmingly lax, arguably nonexistent. If a tree is 32 inches in diameter or larger, the city forester must be consulted, otherwise, the ax can be brought down without much thought unless it’s on undeveloped land, which, coincidentally, most of Providence isn’t. Spelled out, on this already developed land which makes up most of Providence, effectively, any number of trees and foliage can be removed without any consideration or repercussion.

I have a suggestion, although it warrants the city to take on these landlords, many of whom likely have appreciable capital. Giving due care to private land ownership and rights, the city and state must enact stricter regulations, especially in the advent of climate change and — not hyperbole — the ongoing mass extinction event. If this results in building owners becoming wary, we must recognize and embrace that what one does on one’s property often affects others. How much leeway then can we give owners? Surely, at the very least, the current laws aren’t up to snuff.

Additionally, the city doesn’t make an effort. On top of these subpar laws, Providence does absolutely zero outreach. You may find some random guides and studies about how our city is severely behind when it comes to greenery on unmaintained forestry and tree-related websites, but almost nothing about actually making a difference. What’s offered are a few, mostly volunteer-driven programs such as the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program and the PVD Tree Plan. You’ve likely heard of neither because they’re buried on the city’s website and their funding is obviously limited.

Landlords have to reach out and work with these programs, the city, and possibly a forester to plant a single tree should they want a chance of subsidization. A sidewalk tree alone will set you back $250! If landlords have to spend that much time and money to plant a tree, why would they? Better yet, why is it so much easier to take them down?

Lastly, in creating change, it may be most helpful to see nearby businesses take a lead. By showcasing how attractive a well greened-up property and sidewalk can be, local businesses can become inadvertent educational hubs and hangout spots for the community. Unfortunately, every business along North Main and even many on Hope Street appear to get their landscaping advice from big-box stores. Ultimately, if these businesses and property owners continue to make haste eviscerating nature, it will be an uphill battle that will need to be fought by steadfast legislative leaders and local council members.

Victor Martelle is a resident of Providence’s East Side.


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  1. This article gets to the heart of the matter but let’s not limit the discussion to the privileged East Side of Providence. This is a city-wide problem encompassing all neighborhoods!

  2. I love the trees and listening to the birds in my neighborhood in Providence. My issue is the lack of tree pruning from the city. The trees are pulling up sidewalks and overhanging houses and resting on wires. On my street 3 box trucks driving down the street were ripped opened from a low hanging tree. I am on a 5 year wait for tree pruning when I reported the issue to PVD311.

  3. Thank you, Victor, I wholeheartedly agree with your appraisal of how money trumps nature and common sense; particularly as global warming can no longer be contested – well, there are always the myopic members of our society. The crux of this dilemma could well be as simple as education and city planning. The question is how does our RI culture improve education, that stubborn, entrenched elephant?
    Perhaps the answer lies in supporting ECORI to expand its reach to greater venues. I would appreciate ECORI’s publishing its plan to move beyond this grand newsletter to become a more effective organization. Yes, it will take money…, but getting money requires greater foresight, planning, communication, and indeed, money.

  4. Thanks for this important article Victor.
    This problem is city-wide and state-wide. Last year a resident near me clear cut his 1 acre property of all trees. Complete disregard for the natural world. Citizens and businesses need to show up at town, city, state meetings and voice their concerns and push for tighter regulation of cutting donw trees. The town of Warren RI now has an ordinance against cutting down trees on private or public property. Citizens help enforce this ordinance. Such ordinances/laws need to be in place everywhere around the state. Start a petition on Change.org and show the results to town/city/state government and business officials. No one else will do this work for us. It’s needs to be individuals and small groups taking consistent efforts.

  5. After years of the City of Providence and community members planting dozens of trees each year through the Providence Tree Planting Project, it is very sad to read that other trees are being brought down around the east side. The research on the impact of trees on health, to say nothing of the aesthetic aspects of neighborhood trees is very clear. The city has been working hard to increase its urban forest, so to read that trees are being taken down on the whim of a landowner is pathetic.

  6. Yes, thank you for printing this timely article, a new oversized home was slivered into a small vacant lot on Wayland Ave, east side and all trees – but one – were cut down. My tree wizard attest that one remaining tree will die from the construction soil compaction.
    So not only do we put up solar panels on old growth- contiguous forest land in our remaining woods, (cutting our nose to spite our face), but we destroy the very reason -we like the ‘green’ east side. No more. its the wild wild west out there. Cut it down, seems to be the MO.

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