The East Side’s Sudden Tree Problem
February 3, 2023
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.