Trees in Cities

What are trees, exactly?

Are they architecture? The entire field of landscape architecture might think so. Trees are used in many ways as a detail for a landscape, with local species deliberately chosen to reflect the culture, water needs and design requirements. Cities look to infuse specific kinds of trees onto streets on purpose like overhangs or dividers, to create shade and accent the street scene. Most importantly in some ways, trees also add color to an otherwise gray and bleak cityscape.

Are they utilities? One could very legitimately argue that the infusion of trees in cities actually provides two necessary requirements. First, they turn carbon dioxide into air we can breathe (and one would assume that it’s a pretty important and necessary utility). Second, they provide both color and shade. Although that second point might seem trite to the layperson, there is such a thing as an Urban Heat Island effect that trees actually negate. In a nutshell, Urban Heat Islands are areas of the city that are just condensed concrete and dark grayness that only serve to capture sunlight and heat. This effect can increase the temperature of a dense urban area to something significantly higher than the temperature of the surrounding rural or suburban area. Planting trees in cities actually serve to disperse or cancel out this heat island effect. As a necessary element of city cooling, trees in this case have a real utility to the public.

Are they publicly-owned? Who does a tree in the open area of a city actually belong to, aside from the ubiquitous “city government?” We would assume that trees planted in public spaces, such as parks or on streets, are part of the public, but at the same time we know that a tree planted on private property that leans too far into that domain still somehow belongs to private owners. Let me explain it this way: if you park your car under a tree in front of a house and a branch falls and smashes your car, do you sue the person or the city? The immediate assumption is that you sue the person because the tree was planted on “their property,” but you parked your car in public space: the street. Does that mean that the tree branch you parked your car under was—in reality—in a private space or public space? Who actually owns the tree and should pay for the damage?

Are they public services? This may seem like a silly or redundant question to ask following the last two, but with the advent of international environmental accountability (, it would be interesting to consider one place’s environmental impact versus another’s. An example on a very microcosmic scale: think about two neighbors. Neighbor One powers his house by burning coal. If it took 15 trees to negate Neighbor One’s environmental impact, the Neighbor Two decided to plant 15 trees. The trees, in this case, then become a service that cancels out the negative impact of burning coal. However, what if Neighbor Two—who planted trees on their property—decided to charge for each tree he planted? Though this is just a thought experiment, the point will become more pronounced as time goes on. Once having clean air becomes a valuable commodity of its own, won’t the cost of organic, bio-degradable machines that miraculously turn carbon dioxide into air skyrocket? Much like pricing clean water, how do you determine how much clean air costs? Better yet: what if the neighbor with trees decided to enclose his property in a bubble? How much would the coal-burning neighbor pay for a few whiffs of delicious, fresh and clean air? Can trees (and clean air, in turn) belong to a single person or entity, or are they free utilities meant for the public?

Are they public goods? The city of Madrid recently paid the Los Angeles-based collective, Fallen Fruit, ( a commission to plant 60 fruit trees throughout the city as part of a contemporary art fair, ARCOmadrid. ( Just as Fallen Fruit were about to begin planting fruit trees, they got a call from the well-respected wife of the former president effectively shutting down their project. Obviously, the ACROmadrid people were clearly (and rightly) pissed off to have been shut down by a single person of power. It’s especially worse when you really sit and think about how often we walk past our neighbor’s homes and see lemons or oranges hanging there, ready to be plucked for hasty consumption here in Los Angeles. A single phone call killed Madrid’s potential for that in one fell swoop. But if we are willing to reflect for a moment, most of those trees we see with tempting, low-hanging fruit are on private property… our or our neighbor’s homes, in most cases. One might immediately think they were living in a utopia if all public trees, on streets, in schools or in city parks, were laden with fruit for the taking. But if something were to go wrong (and something always does), who could you blame? If walking down Figueroa toward USC on a sunny day, plucked a public apple, wiped it on your shirt merrily, took a carefree bite, and became sick for some reason or another, should you blame the city for the maintenance of public food quality or yourself for trusting public food? For those who answered “you only have yourself to blame,” I charge you with this question: what if every apple in the city suddenly became diseased and it infected a massive population at once? Should the city begin to regulate the public fruit quality then?

Or are they commodities? In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx accused the culture of capitalism of something he called “commodity fetishism.” In a nutshell, commodity fetishism means placing value on something without it having to necessarily do anything. For example, an apple tree is just an apple tree. You can pluck its apples and eat them, because they are edible. Marx would argue that capitalism as a system has the immediately tendency to place a monetary value on them. A tree isn’t just a thing growing from the ground (which, in reality, is all it is)… it has a price attached to it. Marx believed that capitalism was obsessed with pricing things provided freely by the world in a sick and obsessed way, which is why he used the term “fetishism.” This then begs the question, do we—individually—place monetary value on our trees? Whether they’re public or private, do we as capitalists actually equate trees to money? Are we so obsessed with the value of things that trees, which were there long before we got to them, absolutely have to have a price attached to them to be correctly utilized?

I guess that all depends on what you think trees actually are: architecture or utility, owned by the public or private sector as services or goods. Maybe they are all of these things, maybe they are none of them. But one thing is certain: we’re going to need them a lot more than they need us if the world’s carbon dioxide levels go from bad to worse.