Parting with Trees to Save the Forest: Why Diversity Can’t Be an Afterthought

By Adam Bowen, Senior Application Developer at ej4, LLC

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I live in the Shaw neighborhood in South St. Louis City. Our area’s diversity is one of the qualities that drew me in five years ago and one of the biggest reasons I’ve felt compelled to stay. Every conversation with a neighbor is a chance to learn something totally new from someone who’s lived a life that’s different from my own.

Those who work and volunteer in community building spaces are familiar with the fact that diversity of all types strengthens communities. The ecological world, like the human one, thrives on it. Unfortunately, until recently, St. Louis’ failure to cultivate diversity among our urban street trees has gone largely unnoticed by most.

A few months ago, the city began destroying dozens of ash trees all over Shaw. They’re preparing for an inevitable environmental disaster, but knowing the purpose didn’t make the process easier for many of my neighbors.

For over a century in St. Louis, we’ve been trading our natural diversity for continuous urban sprawl. A tree’s aesthetic beauty is easy to understand, but many of us don’t realize that the trees outside our homes have immense structural and economic value as well. The more we build out our communities, the more turf grass (with its shallow root systems), concrete, and asphalt we layer into the environment. Our sidewalks, buildings, and parking lots prevent the ground from absorbing water, putting stress on the sewer system.

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) has a program called MSD Project Clear that’s tackling this issue from several angles. As they work to expand and renovate our aging sewers, MSD is educating homeowners and commercial landowners about the value of trees and native plants and incentivizing them to landscape conscientiously. Project Clear highlights one of a street tree’s most important roles in an urban landscape: its capacity to collect water and absorb it into the soil. Large shade trees like the green ash absorb up to 100 gallons of water after one to two inches of rainfall. A street’s shade trees can also provide energy savings to the structures around them as their leaves block sunlight and heat, reducing the need for air conditioning in the summer.

In 2015, St. Louis’ ash trees were confronted with a new threat: the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), an invasive wood boring insect that targets the entire ash family of trees. It kills every ash tree it infests and currently threatens 15,000 out of the City of St. Louis’ 80,000 street trees. As the population of the EAB grows, it can wipe out all of the ash trees in a region within 3–10 years.

With the clock ticking on our 15,000 ash trees’ remaining years of life, and the value of the city’s ash population calculated at $817,000 (you can explore the value of your neighborhood’s trees using this calculator), the City has to decide which trees to save and which to destroy. The EAB population can only be controlled with pesticide treatment of healthy trees and destruction of trees that are less likely to survive. We cannot let infested ash trees die on their own—liability from trees falling on property and people would be enormous—and we have a responsibility to the wider region to reduce EAB numbers as best we can.

The City has taken these complex factors into account and has determined it will need to destroy 14,000 of the city’s 15,000 ash street trees in response to the EAB. The plan is a costly one—both literally and emotionally. I saw firsthand the distress and confusion my neighbors felt as contractors cut down the first round of ash trees in my neighborhood this spring. The tiny replacement trees they planted were not much comfort when the shade on some blocks had all but disappeared.

But it’s important to remember that these replacement trees, which include dozens of species and should last for half a century or more, are a critical investment in the future. They point to the silver lining of our EAB crisis: it’s giving us an excuse to address our tree diversity problem. The EAB only targets ash trees, so the damage the EAB is able to wreak on our community is directly proportional to the number of ash trees we have in it. Although the City of St. Louis Forestry Division recommends a single species comprise no more than 10% of the city’s trees, 12% are currently green ash.

It’s too late for our green ash trees, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that something like the EAB will threaten our community again. Increasing diversity in our street trees will make St. Louis more resilient to disasters like the EAB in the future, just like fostering diversity in our neighborhoods on human and structural levels will produce groups of people with greater capacity to handle the challenges of our daily life in creative and compassionate ways.

I want to live in a St. Louis that values and benefits everyone. The destructive impact of the EAB should be a wake-up call: diversity can’t be an afterthought if we want our communities to be strong, safe, and resilient.


Adam Bowen is a software engineer and amateur gardener living in St. Louis City. He’s the organizer of the St. Louis chapter of Papers We Love, a meetup focused on notable papers in computer science, and a frequent participant in several tech meetups in the St. Louis area. He also serves as a member of Young Friends of the Ville and Young Friends of Urban Harvest STL.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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