TREES: Cost-Benefit and Arlington’s Future (May 22, 2018)

Dear County Board Members,

Infill and increased density (in single-family, medium-density, and urban areas) will continue to erode Arlington’s valuable tree canopy. Many of the density increases (not all) are necessary for Arlington’s longer-term fiscal health, but there is still much that can be done to preserve existing canopy, and especially to mitigate tree loss and add healthy trees in urban (and urbanizing) areas. In the densest areas, where trees are mostly on commercial or county property, this investment needs extra support.
There’s no free lunch, as the saying goes, but you can help raise consciousness of the cost-benefit picture. Be honest. Acknowledge the canopy loss is happening, talk about what can be done that’s positive. Explain that there are costs, but big long-term benefits. Educate about by-right development, market incentives, and tree loss in single-family areas.
Educate, educate. Promote resident contributions and tree education of all kinds:
• What to plant, where and why it matters
• What else residents can do, like pruning away strangling ivy and choosing different ground covers; educate about invasive species
• Biophllic cities membership – a good goal
• Create a tree TED Talk (Vincent Verweij, Nora Palmatier, many others can suggest content, but it needs to be good to be effective)
I believe quality of life for suburban and urban residents has a cost, but ultimately a benefit. I’m personally willing to pay higher property taxes if they are invested in thoughtful urban forestry and biophilic results.
Susan English


Additional comments from Susan English:
“It is hard for County Board members to ‘be honest’ with us residents, when they know we don’t like to hear reality, or believe it isn’t true. Arlington relied for too long on a premise that densely developed corridors would guarantee single-family neighborhoods could always be “preserved” and their services paid for through commercial subsidies. It did not invest enough in quality-of-life and diverse uses in the dense areas, and was unprepared for the loss of federal government and defense tenants, combined with recession and the collapse of the office market. We must be willing to accept much more density, and plan it better, if we expect the revenue for schools, streets, transit, parks, playing fields—and trees—to be there. If the Board tells us there are costs, we need to hear it. The market—and land value—is what drives residential infill patterns.”
Greater density will need to be in many places, but thoughtfully done
• The already-dense areas (for example, balanced redevelopment of Crystal City)
• The edges of dense areas and multi-family areas: redevelop for affordable housing as well as greater density
• Accessory dwellings (hopefully with detailed tracking of how it is playing out and affects footprints and trees)
• Within some single-family neighborhoods, as the land value of existing houses makes it uneconomic to ‘protect’ them.
• Do more with less land, where the economics work.
• Trees will get sacrificed, but others can be planted, and overall more thoughtful urban forestry can be done. There is a cost, is my point.
We still need service retail of many kinds, light industrial, parks, more schools, all the things people usually need. Fortunately there are some models for how to do this urban planning, and how to engage residents in the process. Some of these efforts are described in The Well-Tempered City, by Jonathan F.P. Rose. There’s a whole section on ‘suburbs,’ which have been around as long as cities have, by the way (539 BCE, suburbs of Ur). Even some libertarians get this. I’m just an amateur.