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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

Solidity and Permanence—With or Without Trees

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I bought a history book about the Park Hill neighborhood, where we recently moved. In looking at the photographs of the houses on our block when first built, I was struck by how different a place it was circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Probably the thing that is most striking about these pictures is what is not in them—trees.

image, Craftsman bungalow illustration.

In the high, arid plains of Denver, Colorado, there were not many trees native to this land. This was a problem. In addition to the aesthetic charm of trees, they also serve several functional purposes, including the provision of shade. In a place that sees sunlight about 300 days a year, shade is particularly important. So when the Park Hill neighborhood was developed, trees were imported and planted in front- and backyards as well as alongside the curbs up and down the streets. Over the course of almost 100 years, the neighborhood has attained a feel of solidity and permanence. While the mature trees that dot the blocks are not the sole reason for these feelings, they are a big part of it.

When we put our condominium up for sale earlier this year, we set our sights on buying a house in this neighborhood. We had rented a house in this neck of the woods several years ago, and there were many things that we liked: residential architecture, diversity of the residents, handful of shopping areas within walking distance, and, of course, the trees. At the home that we purchased, there are two trees in the backyard and three in the front yard, plus several others rising behind and in front of the surrounding houses.

image, Craftsman bungalow illustration.

In the slowed but still healthy housing market in Denver, where the average price of a previously owned home is now hovering around $300,000, we had choices. Many of those options were located in the booming suburban developments that spread all along the periphery of the city. In addition, there are several urban redevelopment projects underway in the city itself.

In fact, one of the most significant urban redevelopment projects in the country is located in Denver: Stapleton. On the whole, this redevelopment of the site of the previous Stapleton International Airport, just east of downtown, is an interesting combination of the old and the new. Most of the streets are laid out in the traditional grid pattern of the surrounding neighborhoods. The density is also similar, plus single-family and multi-family housing are integrated throughout. There are also parks and shops designed into the master plan, with some developments on both fronts already beginning.

Stapleton’s houses, though, are more similar to current design trends—from the materials used to the size and layout. Plus, like most new developments in Denver and like my neighborhood over 100 years ago, there are no trees. A friend of mine who lives there speculates, however, that when his daughter goes away to college in 18 years, the trees will be maturing and his block will start to have the kind of feel of the surrounding older neighborhoods.

He may be right. The difference between the “then” in those pictures and the “now” on my block is stark. While the “then” brings forth feelings of exposure and transience, the “now” calls forth feelings of protection and permanence. Maybe such a transformation will happen in Stapleton, as well as the many other new developments popping up across the metropolitan area.

image, Craftsman bungalow illustration.

Then again, maybe it won’t. Besides the lack of trees in those old pictures, the other thing that strikes me is the hint of solidity that is evident. The houses in these pictures—mostly brick Tudors and bungalows—look like a formidable stake planted in the ground, ready to face the harsh elements of the high, arid plains. In thinking about it, the trees arose as almost a fortification. At the core of these kinds of neighborhoods, there is a foundation of solid housing structures, meant to endure—trees or not.

The funny thing, though, is that we know that they ultimately won’t endure—at least not in the same condition as they are now. The feelings of solidity and permanence are illusory, for nothing is truly solid and permanent in this life. Not the trees outside your window, not the brick bungalow you inhabit. Notwithstanding the comfort that such places provide, things change. What will this old, tree-lined neighborhood look like in 100 years?



Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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