By Michelle Werts

Yesterday, Katrina talked about working Christmas tree farms, where the farmers work hard to make sure that they are planting as many trees as are being removed from their farm, but what happens when trees are removed in cities and towns to be replaced by new apartments, shops and other developments? That’s the very dilemma facing James Island in South Carolina.

James Island County Park near Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: Reellady/Flickr

A developer has plans to cut down 60 grand trees in the area to make way for adult retirement apartments. What is a grand tree according to Charleston? It’s a tree with a trunk at breast height of 24 inches or more, excluding pine trees. The 60 trees at the heart of this discussion are a mix of live oaks, laurel oaks, magnolias and others. Trees that help purify the city’s air, filter its water and cool the individuals, animals and even machines that lounge beneath them. Not surprisingly, some residents are disheartened by the plans, but the matter is complicated, as the development is proposed as a “gathering place” project.

According to Charleston zoning and land-use information, a gathering place is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a mix of buildings that provides walking and biking opportunities and includes open spaces for community use, such as parks. Basically, it’s the type of development that is generally encouraged by conservation groups, who recognize that developments are important to communities and the economy, but also want to preserve as many trees, parks and natural areas as possible. The James Island project has also designated “tree save areas” (don’t ask me what exactly that means, as I’m not sure) to protect the remaining 47 trees on the property. Trees versus development versus active communities. Which interest should win?

Before you begin think that conflicting interests when it comes to trees in urban environments is unique to South Carolina, think again. Earlier this year, Baltimore found itself in an environmental peccadillo when the Baltimore Grand Prix (BGP) came to town. Approximately 30 trees were removed from the area surrounding the race route to make way for grandstands and other race needs despite an attempt by a local resident for an injunction against the removal. What made this removal okay with the Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, Downtown Partnership and Waterfront Partnership? The BDG plans to replace many of the trees that will be removed and add more than 100 new ones, as part of its “Green Prix” initiative. But will they?

In a new twist to a story that was originally thought wrapped back in August, the Grand Prix organizers are behind on their bills. Big time. To the tune of at least $1.5 million, leaving the question of whether there will even be funds to plant the new trees as promised. So, 30-plus mature trees were removed, lots of pollution entered the air from some powerful automobiles flying around the city and there may not be any new trees. Big environmental fail.


  • Urban trees remove approximately 800,000 tons of pollution from the air every year.
  • Urban trees slow flooding and help filter water; they reduce storm water runoff by approximately two percent.
  • Well-placed trees around a residence or business reduce energy needs by 20-50 percent.

That’s why. Urban forests don’t just make our cityscapes beautiful; they make our cities, and us, healthier. That’s why every time a tree might be cut down in a city, everyone should take a step back and figure out the true costs of such a decision.