Confining cities: a giant falls

Cedars covered with snow

Snow flowers on cedars.

There is a hole in my garden this morning. When I look out the window in front of my desk, missing in the scene are the strong arms of the old cottonwood tree. It was felled this past week.

It was not an easy departure for this giant; It took two days and six people to bring it down, but at last it surrendered with a heart-felt thud as the huge trunk hit the ground. You could feel it all through the house which shook with the impact. It was only 43 years old.

Sadly, that’s the way with hybrid cottonweeds. They grow quickly, live vigorously and die early. Out in the open, without the restrictions of city life, native poplar trees can reach 100 years or even more. But in the city, the hybrids face all sorts of impediments to their growth and they become susceptible to disease, soil compaction and limitations on their root growth. In the case of our cottonwood, it had vastly outgrown its living space; it was beginning to drop twigs and branches at an alarming rate and my husband had to make one too many calls to the roto-rooter-type people to clean the sewer lines of its adventitious roots.

We don’t look forward to coping with those live roots over the next summer as they will continue to spring up throughout our lawn, but that too is the nature of this wonderful tree. With a short lifespan, you need additional survival methods and, with a root system that sends up suckers even after the main stem has been removed, chances for rejuvenation are that much greater.

I don’t want to think how the birds will mourn him this summer, though.

Poplar being felled.

The poplar coming down.

Poplar felled.

The poplar comes down with a thud.

Nobody talks to the crossing guard

It’s a beautiful winter so far this year. White flowers of snow have fallen every other day, cleaning up the  landscape and hiding the dirty sand laid down by the City. Of course, we need the sand, especially after the ploughs have polished up the streets and removed the soft snow cushions at the curb edges that helped us to stop at corners.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s probably that I have a bias against high-density cities and I have never been an acolyte to the June Jacobs school of thought. Her anti-utopian vision of bee-hive living is in complete opposition to the Cities Beautiful way to which I am passionately committed. While proponents claim that the “economics” of high density living offer advantages, I have severe doubts about this over the longer term and I worry about the stress such an environment must ultimately take on citizens. I shudder to think what those towers of glass and cement will look like 50 years from now — but anyone who has seen the wasteland of downtown Detroit will have some idea.

And now there is a new threat to the City Beautiful concept: artificial claddings made of a styrofoam-type material that has a lifespan of about 15 years — what happens when this material gives out? The mental images are not pleasant.

As for me, I hug the edge of the city and would move outside if I had the choice, but businesses and personal economics keep me where the streets are paved. If it were up to me, I would spread the city out even further, with lovely parks and treed spaces to separate neighbourhoods — sort of like Charleswood, where I and my neighbours live in harmony with trees and breathing space. In my small subdivison built in the 1970’s, there are seven parks. People walk all the time and they get to know one another. They leave their porch lights on at night, a habit I find wonderfully warming and welcoming.

June Jacobs and compact cities fans claim that high density living promotes a sense of neighbourhood. Hmm. When my youngest grandchild was born in Toronto, I stayed for some weeks with my daughter while she was recovering from the birth. Every day I would walk six-year-old Julia to school and, when we crossed the Danforth, I would always say good morning to the crossing guard. She would say good morning back and one day even spent enough time to tell me that she was originally from Winnipeg.

But one morning, Julia floored me by asking in a six-year-old voice full of censure, “Why do you talk to the crossing guard, Grammy?”

“Shouldn’t I?” I asked, mildly amused.

“No,” she replied, emphatically. “Nobody talks to the crossing guard.”

It made me think about the alienating impact of population density where people seem to need to protect whatever diminishing space they have by not speaking with strangers.

I compare that with going to our local garden centre yesterday to buy a Christmas tree. Children were running about, admiring the plants and soaking up the atmosphere. They talked to strangers and strangers talked to each other. What a lovely freedom from fear.

Note: The above was written December 1, 2013, and just never got published. The hole left by the cottonwood is now filled with perennials on a temporary basis while I decide what new tree to plant. The promised sprouts did spring up and kept Glenn and I pulling them all season long. But the grass, no longer quite so out competed, is making a comeback.

And I still feel the same way about density in cities.