What Would Harold and Maude Do?

I remember the first time I saw Harold and Maude. It was here in San Francisco, in Dolores Park, on one of their movie nights. I’m sure it was freezing cold and foggy.  There is a scene, for those of you haven’t seen it or saw it years ago, where Harold and Maude liberate a tree from its urban constraints. That scene has stayed with me for many years.

As a refresher:

Maude: [gesturing to a sick tree growing in a sidewalk] Harold, we have *got* to do something about this life.
Harold: What?
Maude: We’ll transplant it. To the forest.
Harold: You can’t do that.
Maude: Why not?
Harold: This is public property.
Maude: Well, *exactly.*

I like the issues this scene addresses: environmentalism, urban planning, and social responsibility to name just three. Maude makes the astute point that the tree is public property and thus accessible to her if she wants to make a change. But what kind of changes do we really want to enact?

I appreciate Maude’s guerilla environmental activism, yet actions like this feel fruitless. Do we really want to take the tree to the forest, or do we want to make our cities places where trees can thrive? (Admittedly, this is not the question Maude was tackling). As I see it, this is part of the problem with projects like the Million Tree initiatives, which make for good politics but not necessarily for great urban forests.

It is easy to say “I want lots of big trees!” but much harder to lay the groundwork – proper growing conditions, good stock, maintenance — for making that outcome possible. Having said that, the thought of taking action and ‘saving’ something is powerful and invokes very visceral feelings. It’s easy for people to understand and support. (Plus the scene where Harold and Maude drive the tree to the forest is just hilarious.)

 

So how can we save our urban forests? It is incumbent on us to provide urban trees with spaces to grow and flourish. We encourage cities and states to view trees as the utilities that should be valued as part of their green infrastructure. We’ve discussed many reasons why trees benefit the urban environment – aesthetics, property value, traffic safety, public health and wildlife habitat to name just five. But our public spaces need to accommodate their needs in order for this to happen.

Sure, municipalities that require soil volume amounts do not get flashy write-ups in newspapers, but they are enacting actual change that has substance and will make a difference. We have a responsibility to leverage our investment in public spaces, and trees are an important way to do that. A few places that have enacted soil volume standards are the City of Emeryville, CA, Charlotte, NC and & Mecklenburg County. Others, such as New York, Philadelphia and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are committing to overall green infrastructure plans to make their cities more sustainable and functional places (particularly with regard to stormwater).

It is exactly this type of innovative thinking that will usher us into an age that I think Harold and Maude would have approved of. After all, as Maude says, we shouldn’t “back away from life.” In this case, that means that we must advocate for a participatory public space that people can really participate. Rather than taking life out, we bring it in.

Maude: [gesturing to a sick tree growing in a sidewalk] Harold, we have *got* to do something about this life.
Harold: What?
Maude: We’ll go to the city council and demand higher soil volumes for this tree and all other trees planted after it.  And we will insist that they use green infrastructure to deal with excess storm water
Harold: You can’t do that.
Maude: Why not?
Harold: This is public property.
Maude: Well, *exactly.*

Image: Ken’s Blog

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