>The Courtier Interview: Bringing Back the Urban Canopy in Dallas

>Michael FitzGerald is a good friend and a member of the Urban Forest Advisory Committee in Dallas, Texas. Like many American cities, Dallas suffered from post-war development booms that often focused more on the automobile than on the human scale and livability of the neighborhood, and green spaces suffered accordingly. Recently I spoke with Mike about his thoughts on bringing trees back to Dallas:

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William Newton: So Mike, tell me about the organization in Dallas that you are working for.

Michael FitzGerald: The Urban Forest Advisory Committee is a volunteer group that was organized in 2005, so we are a little over 3 years old. It’s comprised of tree professionals, city officials, and citizens, and it advises the Dallas City Council on tree-related matters. In addition to being an Advisory Committee to the City Council, we also lobby for tree-related issues, conduct public education, organize tree plantings, and raise our own funds.

WN: And what got you interested in joining the Committee?

MF: Being from the Northeast, I missed having tree-lined neighborhoods. I noticed that Dallas and Waco – where I went to college – had the potential to be as tree-lined as any place back east, but they failed to take advantage of it. I had often thought about how nice it would be to have Dallas be tree-lined. When I found out about the Committee I immediately joined.

WN: I suppose I’d have to ask why Dallas and Waco don’t have tree-lined neighborhoods, unless they just weren’t designed for them.

MF: This is a good question that requires some history! As I’ve only recently learned, Dallas and Waco were in fact more tree-lined 100 years ago. Disease and neglect left many of the neighborhoods tree-less. Also, more importantly, most neighborhoods built after World War II were designed radically differently than those before the war, and in ways less friendly for trees.

WN: I’m assuming that had a lot to do with cars.

MF: Yes, some roads were widened eliminating the large easements, the grassy areas between streets and sidewalks that used to hold trees. Also, land values increased, decreasing the incentive for easements.

WN: Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that Dallas, which I assume was just surrounded by lots of open land, would have to get so built up around its neighborhoods that there wasn’t room for trees?

MF
: I guess the land was there, but after WWII, due to costs perhaps, the neighborhood focus changed from the front yard to the back (or inside the house.) It was symbolic of the disappearance of the public realm and not based on land issues. In fact many Texas houses have good-sized plots, but no sidewalks.

WN: Did Dutch elm disease make it down there as well?

MF: Not as much. We had some bugs that affected the elms. Incidentally, Dallas used to have many streets lined with large American Elm trees. It really looked Northeastern from what I’ve heard.

WN: Besides beauty, what are some of the positive aspects of tree canopy cover that your Committee has been describing to Dallas officialdom? I would imagine greater canopies cut down on air conditioning bills.

MF: Yes, mature and tall trees can cut down on energy costs by protecting the home from the hot Texas sun.

WN: And that must give a radical change to the measurable temperature as well.

MF: Yes, the temperature difference can be quite stark. Sometimes 10-15 degrees cooler!

WN: If the difference is so measurable, and Dallas is so hot for much of the year, what’s taken so long for people to realize the benefit of bringing back trees?

MF: A generational focus on other priorities. With air conditioning people didn’t have to worry about it as much. Also many people think North Texas is like North Africa — totally treeless.

WN: So there are in fact native species that could be used in Dallas and Waco to recreate shade cover.

MF: Absolutely. In fact, Texas is home to the most tree species in the United States. We have somewhere around 265 species here. Unfortunately, most landscapers only use 4-5 tree species, which aren’t the best for shade.

WN: What types of trees are better suited to the Dallas metroplex than what was planted previously?

MF: Its not that the trees planted aren’t suited here, but it’s been more of a mono-culture of Live Oak Trees and Red Oak trees. Texas has some great trees like the Pecan Tree, Chestnut Oak, Burr Oak, Walnut, and even some maple trees that can have good fall color.

WN: Fall color is something I know you’re particularly interested in.

MF: Yes. I never expected Dallas or Waco could have fall colors, but using the right tree species, it can happen. Unfortunately, the mono-culture of trees (especially Live Oaks) prevent this. That’s why species diversity is key.

WN: How do you explain this fascination with Live Oaks?

MF: I’m not sure where it came from, but it seems out of place in the Southern Plains. In fact, Dallas is in a region that could get cold enough to kill off the Live Oaks, and most neighborhoods built after 1950 have lots of Live Oaks in them. It’s also strange to be in a neighborhood like that in the winter knowing the trees should be barren and they are not.

WN: I think too many people were reading Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell.

MF: Perhaps there is an Old South memory. All I know is, Live Oaks are native closer to San Antonio, and grow large, but nothing compared to how they grow in the Deep South.

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William Newton: Now I have to ask you, since you are someone who is currently working in the legal field, and before that was in politics and communications, why trees?

Michael FitzGerald: I’ve always had an interest in walkable neighborhoods, and Dallas is looking to restore and create new walkable communities. Trees are essential to this if anyone is going to walk outside between May – September. Its the basic building block to pedestrian life in Texas.

WN: When you first moved to Texas in…what year did you get there?

MF: 1996.

WN: And you grew up in the Greater New York City area.

MF: Yes. I was blessed to have grown up in a very beautiful tree-lined town. I never realized how much it meant to me until moving down here.

WN: Was it a shock for you when you arrived in Waco and realized you wouldn’t have much of an autumn, for lack of trees?

MF: It was shock because it was so industrial, which is something not typical of the Texas stereotype. Then I accepted the landscape. But a year or two later, I started realizing that this industrial landscape wasn’t natural and in fact it naturally had been tree-covered. I started taking photos of large trees, and tree-covered areas, and proved to myself that Waco (and later Dallas) could be fully tree-lined.

WN: The question then becomes, if you plant the trees, will people actually go walk under them? We’ve become so turned in on ourselves in our communities.

MF: People are seeking something more than just a boring commute. In fact, even in car-centric Dallas, many communities are now trying to convert back to pedestrian zones. That says a lot about the potential for people to go outside.

WN: I remember reading an article some years ago about the problem of street-facing garages. The idea was that they encouraged people NOT to talk to their neighbors, so developers started mandating that the garages not face the street. It didn’t make any difference.

MF: No. There are many reasons why garage corrections alone didn’t make a difference. First a front porch is key. Second, the sidewalks need to be close enough to the front porch. Third, the streets need to have easements so as to have a tree-lined street which encourages pedestrian life. Fourth, you have to have people who are willing to engage their neighbors instead of watching TV in an air-conditioned home.

WN: Is it fair to say that you see more trees as a way of making an effort towards re-humanizing the neighborhood?

MF: Ideally, yes. Trees can have a beautifying aspect in urban life.

WN: More than that, though. There’s something about being around growing things. Things that are alive, and change.

MF: Very true. Man is designed to be in and around nature. Part of the problem with modern cities is that they are devoid of nature. It is possible to re-integrate nature into the city.

WN: Well let’s be fair. Medieval cities probably had a lot of nature. It was just of the bubonic variety.

MF: Speaking of illnesses, I’ve heard some studies indicate people heal faster in hospitals if their windows overlook trees/tree-covered areas. It would be interesting to the full studies about human psychology & trees/nature. Are treeless areas more prone to certain conditions than tree-lined areas?

WN: It’s ironic that DC, which is such a transient place, has far, far more trees in its neighborhoods than does Dallas, where I presume the general population must be a bit more stable and permanent. You’d think it would be the reverse.

MF: Dallas and Waco have some incredible potential that has gone unrealized for decades. In fact, Dallas can have 4 seasons like many other parts of the country. It’s time that this great city of Dallas live up to its potential. By doing so it can lead the way for many other cities struggling with the same problems.

WN: So you think this is an opportunity for developers, not a criticism of new development.

MF: Absolutely. Its not difficult to create a tree-lined street. Developers in the 1910s did it wonderfully, and with today’s technology it should be easier. Also, no one is advocating eliminating automobiles, but there is a way to integrate roads with natural beauty. I think ultimately, people want to live in beautiful places. Many are not aware that they can have it.

WN: Nicely stated.

MF: Thanks.

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William Newton: You mentioned earlier that part of the problem has been a lack of easements in residential neighborhoods, and a lack of education overall.

Michael FitzGerald: Part of the Urban Forest Advisory Committee’s job is to help in this effort. Our Fall Foliage project is prime example.

WN: Tell me about the Fall Foliage project.

MF: This was the Committee’s showcase proposal. Having watched autumn in Dallas for years, I was convinced that if we got the right trees together, we could put on a spectacular show for Dallas residents and convince them that Dallas *can* have an autumn. So on January 10th, we planted 27 large trees in a median, that will hopefully have beautiful fall colors in November. One of the best of these trees are Caddo Maple, which is an drought-resistant version of the Sugar Maple. It typically has nice color.

WN: Now are these trees you anticipate having this display for you this coming autumn, or will you have to wait a bit?

MF: Its always tough with mother nature. We have to have decent rains, and cooler temperatures around the time of decreasing daylight. Up north, it happens easily. Down here, those conditions can be fickle.

WN: I guess it’s a question of patience and a bit of luck this year.

MF: yes. So far the weather hasn’t been cooperating. January and February were very dry. Hopefully the spring rains will allow these trees to settle in just in time for November.

WN: While that’s taking shape, what else are you and the Committee working on right now?

MF: Currently we’re taking our trees into the electronic world as we overhaul our website and improve our web presence. Part of the Committee’s challenge is that many Dallas residents aren’t aware of who we are and what we do. Also our website is going to feature some very beautiful photos of tree-lined Dallas neighborhoods. I think if can subtly convince them, they might join the cause in some small way.

Also we are planning the city’s first tree inventory. It’s hard to protect and manage the city’s existing tree canopy if we don’t know what’s there. We are using some cutting-edge technology to do this.

WN: How does that work?

MF: We hired an aerial photography service to take pictures of a tree-covered location. Next, we partnered with UT-Dallas and had one of their professors using advance imaging technology to build a digital/aerial fingerprint of many tree species. Once this research phase is complete, we think we can identify lots of trees in Dallas, and determine not only their species, but perhaps their condition, and other factors too.

WN: Wow: amazing technology.

MF: To do this on a manual level would be labor, cost and time intensive. We need to know what Dallas’ tree canopy has before we really can develop full plans to preserve it. Our project is very much foundational in nature. While we are planting trees, our long term goal of a tree lined Dallas can’t happen with out the inventory. That forms the basis of what we do.

WN: What do you see the Committee doing in the next 3-5 years?

MF: A lot will depend on our funding (we rely on private funds, not taxpayers.) We’d like to expand our Fall Foliage project to more areas. We also plan to expand our Adopt-A-Median program and encourage neighborhoods to adopt these barren areas and flip them. The tree survey is critical too. And expanding our Citizen Forester program, which is in its 3rd year. The program trains citizens with basic tree care skills so they can help plant and advocate for trees. The more citizen foresters we have, the better our city will be educated about the importance of trees.

WN: We have a good core of people in Georgetown who look after trees, I know, and it’s not easy with city budgets stretched so thin in this economy.

MF: Exactly. Let the neighborhood groups and individual residents take up these tasks and save the city some money.

WN: If my readers want to learn more about the Committee, get involved, or donate, what should they do?

MF: They can visit www.Dallastrees.org and learn about the Committee and its ongoing projects.

WN: And these projects benefit everyone, so that the environmental benefits are an added inducement, just as the lowered costs of air conditioning, etc. are for others, and even just the beautification of the cityscape.

MF: Right. I think the benefits of trees cover people across the spectrum. Some like the beauty, shade, coolness. Others may like that it helps sequester air pollution. Others may appreciate it because it helps alleviate storm water run-off and flooding. The list goes on.

Photo of Munger Place, Dallas
Courtesy of Michael FitzGerald

>Hurricane Ike

>Although my blog is not intended to be a forum in which to ask the prayers of my readers, I do ask that you keep the people of coastal Texas in your prayers as Hurricane Ike comes ashore. My grandmother, as well as my aunt and her family, are among those who will have to flee from this storm. Many thanks.