At the end of my Urban Forestry internship for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, one of my supervisors took me to Tierra Colombiana, a restaurant in North Philadelphia. As we ate, I asked Mindy how she climbed to her leadership role in the Tree Tenders program. She had briefly mentioned majoring in Social Work at Temple, and it seemed like a big jump to go from social work to urban forestry. Not only that, but Mindy is the founder of Tree Tenders, one of the oldest grassroots tree planting organizations in the United States. Dozens of American cities have followed suit and adopted Tree Tenders principles.
Mindy’s answer was simple: “Trees have more to do with social work than you’d think.” And it’s true. Like our Catalan friend Ildefons Cerdà thought, urban planning is an interdisciplinary field. Social welfare goes hand-in-hand with the mapping of a metropolitan area. In fact, there is an entire subset of geography that looks at cities as containers for capitalist society, segregated by race and class. It makes sense that poorer neighborhoods would lack both parks and vegetation, and wealthier neighborhoods enjoy a higher quality of life. And, as I learned during my internship, residents of marginalized areas are often fearful that their neighborhood is gentrifying.
For this reason, it’s hard for tree planting organizations to find support in the places that need trees the most. Tree Tenders worked through this by enlisting local volunteers as community leaders and focusing on the non-economic pluses of planting trees. I came to Barcelona with a background in urban forestry, so I’ve been curious to unravel the politics behind street trees in this city. Is urban forestry as deeply political in Europe as it is in American cities?
There are approximately 1.4 billion trees within Barcelona’s municipal boundaries. The Ajuntament de Barcelona, or Barcelona City Council, is responsible for 310,800 of them. Other official branches, like the Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia) and the Diputació de Barcelona (Barcelona Provincial Council), host plantings in their facilities. And private owners take care of the rest. According to a recent report, any loss of vegetation must be compensated for, so maintenance is expected. Historically, the district with the most street trees is Eixample, which happens to be where I live.
However, the distribution of street trees in Barcelona is fairly even. From Sants-Montjuïc to Nou Barris, roadside vegetation is not as selectively scattered as Philadelphia, where some neighborhoods have more vacant lots than street trees. Barcelona’s exception to this is the Gothic Quarter, where there are narrow, winding streets, high volumes of pedestrian traffic, and little room for pits. This is only a generalization for street trees, as there are far more open green spaces near the mountains; for example, the upper-class neighborhood of Sarrià.
Observing the streets of my neighborhood, L’Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample, it’s clear that most of these woody plants are identifiable as Plane trees. They exist in handfuls across Philadelphia, and they’re a common choice for street plantings because they’re hardy enough to survive the harsh conditions of a metropolitan area. However, they’re susceptible to pests, and having a lot of them in one location can cause a quick, fatal spread of disease.
I found a good number of wounded trees in my walk around the block, but it looks like this issue has been recently addressed by the Ajuntament. In 2016, another main concern of the City Council was the return of palm trees, which disappeared due to the red palm weevil plague. Pests are a big problem here, exacerbated by a lack of diversity in the species of street trees formerly chosen. Fortunately, this is elaborated in the City Council’s plan to increase the variety of foliage in Barcelona.
Another point in the report is to improve soil quality. At first, I was shocked and intrigued by the soil used for street trees here. It looks dry, and pits for young trees never seem to be mulched. Mulch keeps roots moist and protects them from extreme temperatures, hot or cold. And Barcelona can get boiling in the summer! In the United States, it’s a known fact that our cities are more or less comfortable based on where you can afford to live, since vegetation is directly tied to temperature. Barcelona doesn’t have as many central parks as Portland or Philadelphia, but it has spread out its heat-absorbing street trees very well.
Despite its need for more parks, Barcelona does a lot to maintain green space where it exists, and it does so with equanimity. In combination with its plazas and newer superilles, the Ajuntament is fostering a progressive, inclusive attitude towards environmental issues. While I’m learning plenty from Barcelona’s creative outlook towards sustainability, I do feel proud of the moves my own home cities are making towards the same goal. It’s fascinating how much urban forestry projects can overlap in different places across the world. I take away the same question from Barcelona that I have from Philadelphia and Portland — how are residents going to be impacted differently by environmental issues based on socioeconomic class?