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In Praise of City Trees

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.

Oak, Khartoum Pl

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.

London Plane, Freemans Bay

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]:

Victoria St West

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.

Pohutukawa, St Paul St

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:

Pohutukawa Fort St

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]:

Nikau Queen St

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.

Nikau, Queen St

They’re very successfully up some of the side streets too, like Vulcan Lane and Darby St. Big feather dusters.

Nikau, Vulcan Lane

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.

Cabbage Tree, Queen St

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.

Ti Kouka, Britomart

Thinking about my favourite city trees there are three singular specimens around the Art Gallery that were among the first that came to mind:

Art Gallery

Again I’m not sure exactly what the varieties are of either of these, but they’re both survivors, and both make their places.

Wellesley St

And boom!

Oak, Khartoum Place

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.

Oak, Khartoum Place

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.

Customs St

Both these trees do a great job of anchoring their sites and helping to diminish the less than spectacular surrounding buildings.

Towards Customs St

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!]

Titioki Customs St

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.

The Northern Club, Virginia Creeper.

 

The Northern Club, with foreground London Plane Spring growth

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.

Art Gallery

And we so easily can.

Young Oak on the corner of Emily Pl and Customs St

47 comments to In Praise of City Trees

  • Good stuff Patrick, and great photography as always. In the last fortnight Upper Queen St has bloomed into bright green turning the gray traffic sewer into something much more bearable.

    “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”

    I disagree, it’s very useful as a transport corridor for intra-CBD travel. It is the major axis of the central area and *the* corridor for walking and PT shuttles. Indeed lets get cars out of there, and maybe dayling the stream, but I’d like so see room left for a tram too. It’s perfect for a tram shuttle between the waterfront and K Rd.

    So how about we have both, a 4m wide babbling brook, flanked by wide paved footpaths with inset tram lines.

  • Christopher T

    Patrick, the tree on Wellesley Street outside the Art Gallery is indeed a survivor; it’s an elm (Ulmus, not sure which species), so it’s one of the few survivors in Auckland of Dutch elm disease. There are a more along Symonds St and, of course, Appropriately, given that the gallery was originally designed by a Melbourne based architect John Henry Grainger – Percy’s dad, Melbourne is famous for its elms although they too have suffered from DED and, more recently drought.

    • Thanks Chris, that’s what I thought but didn’t want to just guess, and having no leaf form to check….

      • Christopher T

        Looking at the form I expect both trees on Wellesley Street, including the one outside John Leech, are elms; possibly the remnant of a row of street trees?Wellesley Street must have looked smart at one stage with Albert Park’s cast iron railing and a procession of elms, leading up to the lime trees (Tilia europa) at the southern end of Princes Street, Auckland’s very own mini unter den Linden (those on the east side were removed for the science block when it replaced the old central police station).

  • tuktuk

    Great post Patrick, and great photos too. Australia is an interesting model to look at for leafy trees. Over there are the issues of scorching summers to consider in street design, funny how everyone crosses to the shaded side of the street – in many cases under leafy green trees. Melbourne CBD – brilliant, as we know. Same also with inner city suburbs of Sydney such as Glebe which could really teach Auckland a thing or two in spacious and comfortable terrace-houses, and just a neat environment to work, live and play. The homes are generally all upstairs/downstairs, private garden at the back, small public garden in front generally with a feature tree and plantings, quite often a great mix of tropical palms contrasting with the English heritage of the townhouses. Gracious street frontages, footpaths all lined with large mature trees upon which perch the raucous local parrot colonies!

  • Logan

    A Third Reich reference (lebensraum) for roading expansion? I did Nazi that coming.

  • jonno1

    Brilliant! Thanks Patrick. I have a Pin Oak on each side of my driveway that have just come into leaf. They meet in the middle and form a fantastic canopy over the summer. Would attempt to post a photograph but the quality just wouldn’t cut it.

  • Harry McDonald

    I used to work in that building on the corner of Wellesley Street and Kitchener (25 years ago) and I was told the tree outside was a Japanese oak.

  • Dee

    Great post Patrick and beautiful photos. I’m going to Melbourne next week so now I’ll pay extra close attention to their treescape :-)

  • Rob Mayo

    Nice post Patrick! Yes, Auckland needs way more kerbside trees in the CBD than there are now. Trees lining the streets doth a city make.

  • Rob Mayo

    I also see Patrick that now Dr Seus has become a god, he’s carrying a lightning bolt…

  • Kevyn

    The reason the most impressive specimens are on traffic islands is because generally the canopy has the same diameter as the root zone because of the feedback created by the drip zone. Break that connection with tarseal or pavers and you end up with roots intruding into and blocking stormwater drains. The good news is nowadays there are some really clever approaches for pervious surfaces that can be used for footpaths, slow roads, cycle lanes and courtyards. So you wont end up with slow growing or stunted trees in CBDs. This tree at 185 Manchester Street was planted before the road or the yard were paved :)
    http://maps.google.co.nz/maps?q=185+Manchester+St,+Christchurch,+Canterbury&hl=en&ll=-43.532589,172.639482&spn=0.011994,0.032938&sll=-43.532558,172.639589&sspn=0.048225,0.13175&t=h&hnear=185+Manchester+St,+Christchurch+Central,+Christchurch+8011,+Canterbury&z=16
    then use streetview to get a closer look.

    • Yeah, Wellington has been very busy downtown using an Australian product called flowstone, that allows the “paving” of tree pits with a surface that appears for all intents and purposes to be “hard” but actually allows water to flow through to the root systems

      • Is that the little pebble looking stuff that must be held together by some kind of resin? I think that is what they have been using in the shared spaces in Auckland.

        • max

          They have started using it on street trees on Queen Street (upper section, just south of Mayoral) some years ago. I really loved it, but since then it has “come apart” in a lot of places, spraying the gravel all over the place that it was supposed to hold down. Obviously, it is not strong enough for areas where cars manoeuvre across it.

          • Only, Max, and look around this city, because they and others, planners, architects, citizens, deserve it. Do something great and I’ll be the first to laud it. It’s not out of flippancy: Big respect for your cycling infrastructure advocacy for example.

  • A R

    Really nice pohutukawas on Rutland and Fort Street. They will look amazing in summer. The Lime Trees on Princes Street are also very nice.

  • RHarris

    Love the psot. REally make the city. Love all the trees down Symonds St by the university.

    Waterfront could do with some more greening up.

  • SteveC

    there’s a big tree in front of the CIvic building on Aotea Sq and more down the Civic carpark entrance off Greys Ave, I’ve seen tui and rosellas in these trees at times, maybe more fruiting natives would bring more birdlife to the CBD

  • max

    My favourite trees happen to be right outside my window – looking up the southern part of Grafton Road, south of Park Road.

    https://maps.google.co.nz/maps?q=grafton+road&hl=en&ll=-36.860807,174.771066&spn=0.023623,0.052314&safe=off&hnear=Grafton+Rd,+Auckland&gl=nz&t=h&z=15&layer=c&cbll=-36.860793,174.766509&panoid=VEYxKw8HhVwtfkzkICoaNQ&cbp=12,190.79,,0,-4.43

    I am going to miss that sight when I move away from Grafton… it’s so… European… and while I love much of NZ nature, sometime I get homesick for those kinds of trees ;-)

    • jonno1

      Yes, beautiful trees – pity about the ugly flats opposite. The developer couldn’t even get them straight on the site! Not as bad as the L&Y flats in Newmarket though.

      • max

        I live in that building, which I think is the one you think so ugly. Ironically, it is one of the better apartment buildings I have ever lived in (and has a very, very high rate of owner-occupiers!) – but I agree that it isn’t the most pretty building.

  • Great snaps! What model camera are you using?

    My favourite trees in Auckland are the ones in the middle of the road in Herne Bay. They do a wonderful job of traffic calming and beautifying the streets of Albany Road and Wanganui Ave.

    All streets should have trees like these.

  • St Nick

    Nice post and thanks for highlighting trees. Wouldn’t it be great to see some rimu, kahikatea, rewarewa or totara in the central city too. They look great as young ones and after all represent us, but councils often go for exotics that can grow faster and are deciduous. Short sighted in my opinion.

    • There are Rewarewa on the southern side of Wellesley street, the AUT side, and in my view they’re really right. I’m not sure any of your list make great street trees in fact. Totara maybe, it can have a habit like an Oak if given space, and in fact makes a great hedge. I do really love those great natives and would love to see them in the city but probably not on the streetside. Kauri too deserve better than in that regimented prison opposite Britomart. Aren’t there Totara in on the Beach Rd side of the Scene Apartments. Also not a success, but then could anything work with such a vile neighbour?

  • Stu Donovan

    Titoki are the best native street tree in my opinion – beautiful slender trunks frondy and foliage with lovely little burgundy flowers. Titoki are like the quintessential NZ tree; but one of the less well known.

  • nico

    The Northern Club vertical garden always has been my most favourite scenery to few from my bus into town. I pass there daily with a smile. Awesome sight!

  • patrick

    thanks for the post, I am noticing the trees is the city more now and there are many pretty ones to see!!

  • Publius

    Was I dreaming or was the Northern Club void of its creeper a year or two back?

  • Bbc

    Trees are yet another area where this governments anti-urban view is beginning to destroy what is actually one of the unique aspects of Auckland – the large number of well-established trees. All of which until this year enjoyed protection and now can be cut down by anyone. I’m already seeing trees going for no reason other than someone’s dislike of a tree I suppose. It’s heartbreaking to see Auckland being destroyed in this way.

  • Hi there, I think your tree is a beech, but I will check

  • Hi there, sorry, I checked, it’s an oak, an american “red” oak. I’m unsure if they all have this curious shape though, could be a cultivar.

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