What Street Trees Tell Us About Our Cities – A Review of “Seeing Trees”

Dümpelmann, Sonja. Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York and Berlin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Sara E. Levine

Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York and Berlin by Sonja Dümpelmann is more than a history of street trees in two cities. It is about politics and culture. What is planted, where it is planted and by whom, and how well trees are maintained, all reflect the temper of the times. This is a distinctive and welcome approach to urban history. 

Dümpelmann, beginning with a focus on the late nineteenth century, takes the story through the Progressive Era to World War II and the present. Part one is about New York and part two is about Berlin, with relevant points about other cities and theories woven throughout. By choosing a city in the United States and another in Europe, Dümpelmann offers a fuller and at times contrasting picture of what we can learn by looking at street trees. 

The idea of planting trees to improve the environment is not new. To walk down a street with no trees on a hot summer day can be harsh and unpleasant. Trees help shade the street, lower the temperature, and filter the air of cities; they connect us to nature. In a tense town like New York or Berlin, they probably lower your blood pressure.

Dümpelmann is a staunch advocate of tree planting, but at the start she prudently points out the potential hazards of street trees and why tree-planting campaigns are not always greeted with enthusiasm. Trees can block light from streetlamps, making an area feel unsafe. They can obstruct traffic signals and signage and make it hard to see shops and residences. Tree roots can cause uneven sidewalks, and weak or damaged limbs can be extremely hazardous to people and property. Fallen leaves clog drains, which can lead to flooding.

A magnolia tree stands next to a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York. Jim.henderson, “Magnolia Tree Center Bk jeh.JPG” (2009), Wikimedia Commons.

This book considers a number of important themes, but what stood out for me were accounts of how the advocacy of tree-planting testified to the physical, metaphorical, and political power of the tree. Tree-care contributed to the empowerment of women and minorities. In the 1890s women, often marginalized in city politics, were able to join a New York City Association with men to advocate tree planting––seen by men as a safe “extension-of-home” issue. In the 1960s African American women in Bedford Stuyvesant, then considered in serious decline, planted trees to reclaim the narrative about their neighborhood and to assert their pride of place. In Berlin during World War II trees were enlisted for protection of the motherland. Explosives hidden in trunks and limbs were triggered to knock over trees to slow the Allied advance. In the 1970s and 1980s planting trees in East Berlin signaled opposition to the regime. During the fall of the Berlin wall, re-planting trees symbolized the unification of the deracinated city. The re-planting of the lindens on Berlin’s famed Unter den Linden, along with some of Washington’s cherry blossoms and that city’s famous tree canopy, demonstrate how trees manifest urban pride.

Seeing Trees is well researched and documented. Although I have worked for the New York City Parks Department for a number of years, this study filled gaps in my knowledge of the evolution of forestry management in New York City. I highly recommend it to urban foresters, environmentalists, historians, policy makers and yes, flaneurs out for a stroll.  

Two recent articles in The New York Times with the revealing headlines “Since When Have Trees Existed Only for Rich Americans?” and “To Measure Inequality, Just Count the Trees,” highlight major issues of equity raised by Dümpelmann. As more cities plant trees to combat climate change, it is increasingly important to have some historical perspective on those who, over the course of a century and a half, contributed so much to the field. Along with providing necessary historical perspective, this book also reminds us that although most street trees are planted individually, they are connected to other trees, the urban forest, and reflect and define the cities where they are rooted. The tree, as much as a tall tower, stands for the city triumphant.

Sara E. Levine works for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and is interested in urban history. The opinions expressed in this review are of the author not the NYC Department of Parks or the City.

Featured image (at top): Unter den Linden, Berlin. Steffen Zahn, “Under den Linden 2” (2006), Flickr, (CC BY 2.0).

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