If you got to have a problem, this is one of the ones you want to have.
Most would agree, downtown Columbus is a special place. Decades ago, it was a special place. Then it wasn’t. Now, it is again.
Through the good and bad, the constant has been the trees.
One of the things that makes downtown Columbus special is Broadway, the signature street in the city. What makes Broadway special, one could argue, is the median and the oaks and magnolias that call that city dirt home.
Some of those trees, thought to be close to 80s years old, are beginning to show serious signs of age. A large oak in the 1200 block was removed a couple of years ago. One in the 1000 block is facing a date with a chainsaw sooner rather than later.
It’s a mixed bag, and one of those people who sees it is Kathleen L. Wolf, a research social scientist from the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. She has been in Columbus this week at the invitation of the Coalition of Sound Growth preaching the gospel of the trees to the choir that already gets it.
As she stood in the 1000 block median Friday morning, her words mattered.
“You have used the term some people are expressing here about ‘loving these trees to death,’ ” Wolf said. “And I see the signs of that. We have been talking about it a bit as we have been touring. But we are seeing the decline of the trees. There are symptoms that show the decline of the trees. When we look at the ground, we see soil compaction, which is a common signal or affect on trees that leads to their decline in health.”
Loving them to death?
We love them for sure. We hold concerts under them and there is a large stage under the most majestic of the 1000 block oaks. We walk under the trees, taking the short cut across Broadway rather than using the crosswalks.
Those trees are a part of our daily routine. And, like most things we see daily, we tend to take them for granted.
But before we can approach the problem, we all need to agree that there is a problem. George Barker, a certified arborist with Natural Resource Consulting in Tallassee, Ala., makes the case, saying the condition of the trees varies from tree to tree. The four largest trees in the 1000 block Broadway median are Laurel Oaks. Barker estimates they are between 70 and 80 years old.
“It’s not just one facet,” Barker said. “The use and the foot traffic underneath them hasn’t helped. But these trees are also old and they are starting to break down, just as we humans start to do as we get older. There are enough here that are growing well that is probably more use that has caused an early demise.”
Baker knows the Columbus trees well. Wolf was seeing them for the first time. Like any good expert with an opinion and a round-trip plane ticket from Seattle to Georgia and back, Wolf has ideas on ways to continue to use the space for community good, but to protect the trees and prolong their lifespan.
“No. 1, look at that placement of this stage,” she said pointing to the event stage on the northern end of the 1000 block of Broadway. “It encourages people to concentrate and focus right here in the median on top of the trees. The one thought is, if these trees are closed for the musical events, why not move the stage? Why not move the stage with an awning. Maybe take this space not for the primary concert crowd, but for cafe seating, some impervious pavings or pads could be put down that protect the ground and distribute the weight after the soil has been treated.”
What I heard Wolf say was, don’t don’t stop what you are doing, just rethink it. Be more deliberate.
“Moving the focus of people’s attention to a place that is a little less destructive,” Wolf said. “Perhaps, in this intersection, there is a way to set up the music venue in a way the crowd is focused more on the streets or within a more contained area. ... The way this is designed, it is saying, ‘This is where we should all be, and perhaps, it’s happening to the detriment of the trees.”
Barker is also a realist.
“Most of these trees, to an arborist, shouldn’t even be alive today,” Barker said. “And they all continue to grow and do pretty well. ... It is always amazing to me what trees do. If we don’t love them to death, we will lose that space and lose that opportunity.”
When Wolf and Barker leave town, it will be up to Uptown Columbus Inc. President Ross Horner and Trees Columbus Inc., Executive Director Dorothy McDaniel to figure out how to turn the analysis into a plan. To their credit, they are already working in that direction. The new pocket park in the 1200 Broadway median with six news trees is an example of that.
“Trees have value and they have value to the uptown area,” Horner said. “We need to be able to work collaboratively and plan for the future. Not only this kind of tree canopy, but what the medians are going to look like.”
And that could mean rethinking how some of the events are done, such as the popular Uptown Concert Series in the spring and fall.
“This past year, in talking to Trees Columbus, has opened our eyes to how we can continue to have our events, but do them in a different way, but have less of an effect on our environment,” Horner said.
No one is ready to say what that will look like.
“What I see here, is these trees are really the heart of the city,” McDaniel said. “This is where people want to gather. This is like Columbus’ living room. Whether people know that’s because we have this beautiful tree canopy or not, it’s just the feeling of this space that people love. They want to be here. And they want to gather under these trees. And that is a great thing.”
She’s right. We just need to make sure they are here for our children and grandchildren to enjoy them, as well.