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Trees: an important emblem for urban transformation

Chicago's Michigan Avenue
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Chicago’s lush, tree-lined Michigan Avenue.

Leaves are dead and gone for the winter, but trees are not forgotten. Two major projects in Minneapolis aim to bring the city’s mostly drab downtown sidewalks up to date by adding rows of trees. The result should make segments of downtown – namely the Marquette/Second corridor and the North Loop – not only prettier for pedestrians but livelier for business and friendlier for the environment.

Compared with other economic development tools, planting trees “is a relatively inexpensive strategy,” Mayor R.T. Rybak told a gathering of the North Loop Neighborhood Association recently. “But, boy, does it pay off.”

Shady, tree-lined streets have become the norm in successful downtown districts across the country for a number of reasons: They moderate extreme temperatures, reduce storm water runoff, increase property values, create a superior walking atmosphere, calm auto traffic and lend a sense of pride and identity for workers, residents and visitors.

Now, as cities suffer severe budget constraints, officials are looking for cheaper ways to “add value” to prepare for the flurry of development activity expected when the economy eventually recovers. “Now is the time to work on infrastructure projects big and small – including trees,” Rybak said.

Trees had major effect in Chicago
Trees alone can’t match the power of, say, tax increment financing or transit investments, in helping to revive older cities. And they can’t provide the stimulus of street-repair projects that many cities hope to begin. But they’ve become an important emblem for urban turnaround. Chicago’s aggressive landscape ordinance resulted in the planting of tens of thousands of downtown trees, for example. The green atmosphere gets major credit for that city’s dramatic transformation over the past 15 years.

Minnesotans’ strong cultural tie to the natural environment makes greenery an important element in city life – even subconsciously. Rybak noted that Minneapolis’ pioneers considered wooded lakeshores and parkways important quality-of-life attractions. Indeed, they assured that no resident would live more than six blocks from a public park and paid a lot of attention to boulevard trees in residential neighborhoods.

But they neglected downtown.

Only recently has the outcry for greener downtown streets been heard. Aside from the two projects mentioned above, the City Council is expected to vote next week on a long-debated plan to, essentially, turn over management of downtown sidewalks to a consortium of private-property owners whose task would be to maintain consistently cleaner, greener and safer public sidewalks. Such an arrangement – usually called a business improvement district – is common in major downtowns. The object is to elevate public space to a level of quality that city government cannot afford, thus allowing downtowns to compete with lush privately-owned lifestyle centers and office parks in the suburbs. (See this MinnPost story for more details.)

Project launched by frustrated residents
The North Loop tree project was launched by residents frustrated over local government’s lack of attention to green space. When Hennepin County rebuilt Washington Avenue a few years back, it neglected to add trees, reportedly citing objections from the State Historic Preservation Office. “Trust me, if they went far enough back in history they’d find trees in the North Loop,” Rybak told the assembly.

<strong>Minneapolis' North Loop District: Nice buildings, dreary sidewalks.</strong>
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Minneapolis’ North Loop District: Nice buildings, dreary sidewalks.

Now the neighbors have staked out locations for 475 trees along Washington and adjoining streets. They’ve raised $25,000 privately and hope to find public and private partners for the other $75,000 required to plant the first 30 trees. Altogether, $1.5 million must be found to plant all 475. It’s not the trees that are expensive ($400 apiece). It’s the digging up of existing concrete, preparing the soil bed and installing the grate that pushes the total cost per spot to between $2,500 and $3,500. That cost would have been far lower – perhaps a quarter as much, according to estimates from one developer – had tree beds been part of the original street and sidewalk reconstruction.

David Frank, president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, said that rather than treating street trees as an add-on, the city should automatically include them whenever streets and sidewalks are rebuilt or repaired. “As public policy, the city should insist on it, demand it, and build it,” he said. “If it then has to assess property owners for the cost, so be it. The benefits are significant.”

About 200 trees included in Marquette/2nd Ave. project
Minneapolis has come close to doing that with its reconstruction of Marquette and 2nd Avenues. The project is part of the $133.3 million Urban Partnership Agreement, a federal-state-local project aimed at improving bus and auto flow along the Interstate Hwy. 35W and Cedar Avenue corridors that connect Burnsville and Apple Valley to downtown Minneapolis.

Marquette and 2nd Avenues are being rebuilt to move more buses faster through downtown and to enhance the walking atmosphere. About 200 trees have been included.  That’s not many for a 24-block span, but it’s far more than the existing handful. More trees would have been possible had the project included the moving of underground utilities, a task that time and cost prevented. Trees are particularly difficult to plant in downtown Minneapolis because underground utilities are located beneath sidewalks and because many basements extend out beneath the sidewalks.

When finished next year, the project – with new trees, pedestrian-scale lighting, porous paving, transit shelters and real-time bus-arrival information – should set a considerably higher standard for downtown sidewalks.

“It will take a lot of little things over a long time span,” Rybak told the North Loop gathering, being careful not to promise an instantly green city. “But we’ll see a transformation in our lifetimes.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Laurie Zelesnikar on 12/04/2008 - 10:14 am.

    To appropriate Soul Coughing, downtown Minneapolis “is not Chicago.” I am a walking commuter/downtown worker. Priorities people! 1. Our sidewalks are narrow — look at that photo of Michigan Avenue — likely 4 times wider that any in DT Mpls. There such clutter already there is barely enough room for pedestrians, especially when the weather is nice and/or at busy times. 2. I walk 5th Avenue every day, and watched the trees planted outside the court building wither and die of dessication over the course of last hot dry summer — no one waters, no one maintains. 3. Do we want nicer walking? I sure do. How about first we keep it CLEAN (and yes at this time of year — SHOVELED and SAFE). We have a habit of walking downtown on Sundays to see a Block E movie, and the filth and the trash on Hennepin are disgusting. Always. Let’s make Minneapolis as nice as it can be and not look to unworkable “models” like Chicago that just do not apply.

  2. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/04/2008 - 02:27 pm.


    I understand and share your frustration with the status quo in our downtown, but we must invest in comprehensive long term improvements or we’ll be left applying the enforcement and clean-up band-aides in perpetuity.

    Once seen as highly problematic for many reasons, street trees are proving to be a great value to people living, working, shopping, sharing, walking and motoring in and through urban places.

    For a planting cost of $250-600 (includes first 3 years of maintenance) a single street tree returns over $90,000 of direct benefits (not including aesthetic, social and natural) in the lifetime of the tree. Street trees (generally planted from 4 feet to 8 feet from curbs) provide many benefits to those streets they occupy. These trees provide so many benefits that they should always be considered as an urban area default street making feature.

    Dan Burden provides 22 compelling arguments for adding trees to improve the economic value and livability of our streets.

    You can download and read Dan’s arguments at Twin Cities Streets for People:

  3. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/04/2008 - 04:02 pm.

    If anyone tried to get Dan Burden’s document, I just discovered the the link has been changed. I’ve updated the link and attached the document to the post accessible at the url I provided in my previous post.

    My apologies for the bad link.

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