The Life (and Death) of Urban Trees

Urban trees live in symbiosis with human habitation. Often for centuries. Their lives are entirely different to that of forest trees. Over their long lifespan, urban trees witness generations of people come and go. They offered shade to historic events and human buzz, they also see cities grow, develop, and expand.

City trees are mainly endangered by urban development activities and construction work. There are only a few exceptions where trees enjoy a somewhat privileged status as part of the human environment:

  • Special areas of human recognition

Parks and protected green spaces, as well as recreational areas in cities are places that would not provide the same atmosphere to people without trees and bushes. Alleys and promenades like the Paseo del Prado in Madrid or the Ramblas in Barcelona are areas where trees are relatively safe to lead a long life and grow old, even in the city centre.

Figure 1. Urban trees at the Paseo del Prado, Madrid

  • Trees of symbolic importance

Some trees’ history is intertwined closely with a city or a people. They often have mystical powers attached to them through legends. One such example is Merlin’s oak in Carmarthen, South Wales, which has been connected to the survival of the Welsh culture and language in a legendary prophesy of the famous magician and seer. The inhabitants of Carmarthen even preserved the remaining stump of the famous tree in the local museum after the original tree has fallen.

More modern representatives of symbolic trees are, for example, the Tree Circle of Life in Vienna, which follows the Celtic tree oracle. This compares to the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Figure 2. “Tree Circle of Life” in Vienna

The dark side of tree life

Not many urban trees are lucky in this way by being protected due to their symbolic value to the human inhabitants. Despite their proven importance for climate control, many trees fall victim to urban developments and expansions. Climate activists all over the world, therefore, have made it one of their agendas to protect forests and trees, very often under great personal danger as this leads to direct confrontation with the authorities.

Figure 4. Protesters against felling of trees to build a new motorway in Vienna.