top of page

“A vigil for a willow tree at a community garden”—the cultural importance of trees

Muir Woods, California

Central Park in New York City is perhaps the best-known international example of an urban park. Photographer Daniel Arnold spent much of the summer of 2017 photographing the interaction of the city’s urbanites with the natural landscapes offered in New York’s many urban parks. The resulting photographs, published recently in the New York Times, show a “very different pulse of the city.”

Today, the natural ecosystems and the manufactured park landscapes embedded in societies around the world have expanded to include urban canopies that help cool densely populated cities as well as documentation, registration, and preservation of historic heritage trees, and the potential for expanded forests to help offset the increase in atmospheric carbon that leads to global warming.

Urban Canopies

In 2001, an organization known as Casey Trees was founded in Washington, DC to protect and increase the urban tree canopy in the city. The philanthropic gift that funded this organization followed a report by American Forests that documented the dramatic reduction in tree cover in DC since the 1970s. Since then, Casey Trees has had tremendous success, increasing Washington’s tree canopy dramatically through a partnership with the city’s urban forestry program and numerous community organizations and volunteers. In 2011, San Francisco transferred responsibility for trees on public property to private citizens, in a highly unpopular move that led to the ultimate destruction of some notable city trees. Now, the city has reversed course and is taking back responsibility for its trees.

Heritage Trees

Many societies recognize specific tree specimens as iconic representations in nature of their own socio-cultural history. Numerous trees in cities and towns across the US, for example, are known as “liberty trees” which, because of their age, were standing during important points of American history. Singapore developed a “Heritage Tree Scheme” in 2001 to protect their heritage trees, and other countries have followed with similar programs. One researcher has compiled a list of such efforts around the world. And new research in England has identified a group of previously unknown oak trees that are as much as 1,000 years old, giving England a larger collection of ancient oak trees than the entire continent of Europe.

In the United States, numerous kinds of historic trees reflect the nation's history. Many communities have Liberty Trees, so designated because they were standing during important historical events, such as the American Revolution. The non-profit America Heritage Trees propagates seedlings and cuttings from trees from a large inventory of historic trees. This volunteer at Mount Vernon is working diligently to produce offspring for the last four trees surviving from George Washington's time at the estate.

Climate change and the challenging of managing the landscapes of national landscapes

When Central Park was created in New York City in 1857, the parks landscape designers—Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux—chose the picturesque style popular in England at the time for country estates. Subsequently, the development of a conservation ethic during the last half of the 19th century—Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and Yosemite National Park was established in 1890—greatly influenced landscape designs for public parks. By the end of the 19th century, the prevailing landscape style had evolved from the “picturesque” to one of “wilderness.”

Just north of Boston, Massachusetts, the City of Lynn underwent rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution primarily as it became a center of shoe manufacturing. The resulting population growth led some civic-minded individuals to call for the establishment of a public park to provide the city-bound factory workers with access to the benefits of nature. In 1881, a group formed the Trustees of the Free Public Forest and purchased 2,200-acres of land in the northwest portion of the city—which at the time represented approximately 30% of the total land area of the city—for a public park. Consulting with Olmsted, who realized the park land already contained many of the “natural” features sought out by landscape designers, the Park Commissioners decided to adapt the prevailing wilderness style to the design of what became known as Lynn Woods Reservation.

In Washington, DC, the US Congress in 1890 designated a 2,000-parcel of land abutting Rock Creek (a tributary of the Potomac River) as an urban public park, the first urban national park created by the US Congress. In 1913, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was created to provide for pleasure driving for the city’s inhabitants through the “natural” landscape encompassed in Rock Creek Park.

While the goal of protecting natural landscapes as “wilderness” is indeed laudable, many of these wilderness areas are actually the result of heavy human intervention and are not “wild” at all. For example, Everglades National Park is undergoing the largest ecosystem restoration program in US history. Now, environmental effects from climate change are providing national park managers with a conundrum. How to balance human eco-management with the goal of protecting national parks in their so-called “natural” state?

bottom of page