We saved some trees!

Somerville regularly hosts update meetings branded as “ResiStat.” On May 22, Mayor Curtatone announced that the city has requested that four of the remaining six trees are to be “preserved and protected.”

This is a great move, and I’m deeply grateful to the Mayor and his staff for the time and energy they put into making this decision.

Almost immediately, stakes and orange plastic mesh went up around those trees. We had hung prayer flags and informational signs on the trees. It suddenly felt as if the city had joined our team. The barriers are a daily visual reminder that resident voices and experience matter, even in the midst of Somerville’s construction zones.

Along with gratitude, I also feel regret that the city waited as long as it did to engage with this process. Four trees out of six is impressive. Four out of a hundred is a disaster.

New Trees on the Way

We’ve got some new trees going in! The first wave of saplings have been delivered and planted. The North end of Beacon no longer looks quite so barren. Apparently our one-person department of urban forestry has been engaged with selecting healthy stock to be installed, and also supervising to be sure that the trees are well planted.

Bureaucratic Doublespeak

A few of us got additional details by email:

I’m pleased to report that due to several unique circumstances on Beacon Street, the City has requested that MassDOT direct their contractor to protect and preserve four of the six remaining trees on Beacon Street. MassDOT has acknowledged and issued that directive to their contractor.

As you know, stakeholders have had numerous concerns related to tree removals that were part of MassDOT’s construction contract ....

This framing – of the city semi-helplessly requesting favors and consideration from the state and its contractors – comes up frequently with Beacon, with the Green Line Extension, with the Union Square Redevelopment, and with other projects.

Here’s a fact: Somerville commissioned the plans for Beacon Street from a local design firm. The state is paying the contractor, but this clear cut was planned and approved by the city.

That plan, by the city’s design, did not include the beautification measures we see on other streets in town. Somerville decided to cut down all the trees. It also decided to not burying the power lines, or even include basic beautification measures like decorative hooks for planters and holiday lights.

Apparently the city is now fighting a rear-guard action to put in a few features – but for the most case it’s far too late to make substantive changes.

Even worse, the details of the plans were kept effectively secret for nearly two years. Newport Construction’s “scheduling mistake” in October was a surprise to residents, to city staff, and even to our Board of Aldermen. That, plus freedom of information act requests, pushed things into the open.

They didn’t even do the basics required under state law: No notification or hearings were held, nor were permits issued, for any of the nearly 100 street trees removed in 2016 and 2017.

Plain and simple, Somerville didn’t live up to its own standards or follow state law on this project for more than two years.

Now What?

The city should hold itself accountable for the process failures on Beacon Street, should take a hard look at how this came to pass, and should make a course correction in how it engages with similar projects city-wide.

We should also track the data on tree removal and planting:

The Boston Globe recently published an article describing Boston’s failure to live up to its promises of re-forestation. While it was depressing, one paragraph caught my eye:

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2017, the city planted 9,809 street trees and removed 5,815 — a net gain of fewer than 4,000, city records show.

Somerville has not even been keeping count. We have no idea how many trees we lost in 2017, and we have no idea how many we plan to cut down in 2018.

We can and should do better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.