It’s Spring! And in many places the city is looking its best, especially some of the recently upgraded places. Also some of our old friends are coming back to life too. I love city streets, and buildings, and the spaces between, but often the most wonderful things in a city are the trees. Of course there are the great city parks, and in Albert Park Auckland has a fine example of this kind of Victorian public mindedness, especially glorious now the trees are mature. But areas set aside for nature are not what today’s post is about.
My favourite city trees are the survivors on the streets, those tough or lucky examples that somehow have braved all the insults of the urban environment to offer us their shade, shelter, and oxygen, but above all their beauty. So I thought I would share my favourites. I started with very tough criteria; no parks, no groups, just the exceptional loners, but I only ended up with six! And one isn’t even a tree [you'll see]. So I broadened it out to include some of the recent planting by the Council that I really like.
Just to be clear what I love in a city tree is its relationship with the built environment, its urbanity if you like, not how less built it can make a place, but more the juxtaposition that emphasises both the treeness of the tree and the builtness of the buildings. I see them as an intersection of culture and nature where human construction has the upper hand. In parks and of out of the city we look more for this relationship to be reversed.
First up a stunning example of arguably the best suited street tree: The London Plane. Especially good in those Victorian avenues like Franklin Rd, Greys Ave, and in remnants on Symonds St and Grafton Rd. This one is a member of one of the most vulnerable typologies, the Traffic Island survivor. It just made it through the Vic Park Tunnel project but it lost its partner. While the land hungry road is the biggest treat to these trees it also can give them light and air to spread out away from buildings, so if they can survive the automobile’s endless urge for lebensraum Traffic Island Trees can become stately and symmetrical.
Planes hold off their Spring growth allowing that welcome early Spring sunlight through. Below; a little more recently and here it is getting on its Summer look even if the weather wasn’t:
A little further into the city is another Traffic Islander, not sure what the variety it is as it too was still in its winter garb when I was there [please comment if you know the varieties I've missed]:
It’s not only deciduous trees that work in the city, although I do love that combination of sun and shade at just the right times of the year. Here is a wonderful Pohutukawa at the top of St Paul St looking out on the that poorly designed intersection between the city centre’s two universities on Symonds St. Almost certainly a wilding tree, that is to say not planted deliberately into the little herbaceous border of the elegant brick town house, but a natural interloper. So even more respect. And just goes to show that we can be a little too prissy when it comes to where we think we can fit a substantial tree.
There are more Pohutukawas now down on the vastly improved shared space of Fort St, which does, amazingly, bring a sense of the plage to this former beach front place:
These will grow into fantastic specimens. The Nikau is our only native palm and rightfully is the one for the difficult habitat of the Queen St gully [Here's a plan: Let's get the cars out of this place and daylight the Waihorotiu stream, and why not? It's little use as a transport corridor, and could really do with something dramatic going on]:
Planes are being tried here too and they are not working out well, all leggy, no room to become their umbrageous selves. It is a strange environment, gloomy but also never dark; lots of artificial light pollution: the Nikau can handle it, used as they are to a tricky niche in the wild. They are also the right form; narrow, vertical, yet expressive.
They’re very successfully up some of the side streets too, like Vulcan Lane and Darby St. Big feather dusters.
Here’s another Queen St survivor: A venerable Cabbage Tree or Ti Kouka, in front of the Guardian Trust building; wispy, on the shaded side of the street, but been there for years. Wonderful.
More recent Cabbage Trees down near the harbour. I love the humble Ti Kouka, we take them for granted but I remember returning from a few years overseas and being surprised by seeing them afresh; ubiquitous yet idiosyncratic; as if designed by Dr Zeus.
Thinking about my favourite city trees there are three singular specimens around the Art Gallery that were among the first that came to mind:
Again I’m not sure exactly what the varieties are of either of these, but they’re both survivors, and both make their places.
This tree is all the better for being solitary. I prefer them when paved right up to their trunks and not walled off with the suburban tidiness that this now suffers, but it’s still magnificent.
And look at that, the moment you extend the pavement; out come the cafe tables; civilisation advances with each parking space removed.
On opposite sides of the eastern end of Customs St are a young Oak and an older deciduous specimen that will one day, if we let them be, become gateposts to this important entry point to the city proper.
Both these trees do a great job of anchoring their sites and helping to diminish the less than spectacular surrounding buildings.
Almost the only other trees on Customs St are these two Titoki, surviving pretty well in a tough environment. And as we work to improve the quality of pedestrian life on Quay St and the connection to the harbour there this street is bound to become an even busier environment.
Not that the seven traffic lanes were being over-worked when I was there [nearly 5pm on a Friday!]
But now we come to arguably everybody’s favourite tree in Auckland City: The Northern Club. It is a Virginia Creeper, our city’s Vertical Garden avant la lettre. A botanical event of such scale and theatre that to my mind at least means it qualifies for this list, even in a Spring shower.
Its great that we are at last getting more of the city streetscape back from total domination by cars. And using this rediscovered space to thoughtfully add to the built environment by planting great trees for future generations is one of the most important tasks ahead of us. This is something that we have not been nearly as good at as our forebears.
We really ought to work at becoming better ancestors.
And we so easily can.