I have an announcement to make: my book, ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest’ will be published by Safe Haven Books at the end of May.
This book documents my own journey of discovery, not just of the great variety of London’s street trees, but also their fascinating stories. I’m extremely pleased to include a Foreword from London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who will face the challenge of improving our air quality during his term in office, I’m sure that planting many more trees in the city will be part of the solution.
Londoners need only walk a few minutes from their front doors to encounter a hugely diverse and endlessly fascinating urban forest. My book is a celebration of the forest, its diversity and its beauty. It is a guide to the many unexpected, even improbable, species to be found around the capital, from Anerley to Walthamstow, and an attempt to shed light on things many of us never knew about the trees on our streets.
Most people will be aware of London’s own eponymous street tree, the London Plane – in itself unique among cities – and no doubt many could recognise one, but according to the London i-tree eco project report, Plane trees account for less than 3% of London’s street trees. I hope this book will go some way to helping you identify the other 97%.
Here’s a few spreads from the book to whet your appetite:
You may want to read more, if so, you’ll have to wait until the end of May, but you can pre-order on these sites:
Some months ago I heard rumours about a London Street Tree map being prepared by the GLA at City Hall. Excitingly, that map is now live and has been for a couple of months. For those who haven’t yet poured over the fascinating insights into what trees can be found on London’s streets would be well advised to stop reading this and get over to the map now!
Underlying the map interface there exists a vast database of information, no doubt hard won, wrestled from individual boroughs. Each borough is responsible for the trees on their patch and each has a team dedicated to their management. Perhaps not surprisingly then, each borough holds their own records for their part of the urban forest, and each borough uses different ways to gather and store this data, not to mention what data it actually harvests and holds. Therefore the feat of wrangling data from these various sources into a single dataset providing consistent information should not be underestimated – makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.
There are some black holes – for instance, Hackney and Haringey are two of seven boroughs that have yet to provide their data, but 25 of the 32 boroughs, plus the City of London and TfL have done and even with gaps, the potential of this map is becoming clear. Knowing what is planted on our streets is not only of interest to those who manage the tree inventory, this information can start to inform planning decisions, provide environmental insights and help shape policy to improve air quality. If there’s a correlation between levels of pollution and mature Plane Trees for instance, then this map could be a tool in that investigation right across the city. For me though, the most exciting possibility is the potential for public engagement.
The street tree data including location and species information is in the public domain and is released under an Open Government licence. It can therefore be used by third parties to exploit both commercially and non-commercially. And this is where the opportunities lie: imagine an app that can tell you what the tree is outside your front door, or the tree you walk past on your way to work? All possible with the data. Imagine walking up to a tree and discovering through your smart phone that it is a 150 year old Plane tree, it’s 33m tall and it’s one of 253,751 Plane trees in London, one of the most frequent trees in the city. This Plane tree stores CO2, soaks up pollution, moderates temperatures and has a financial value too. Imagine another app, this one educational, telling kids about all the minibeasts that make their home in an Oak tree outside their school or a Rowan tree on their street. It could tell them that an ancient pollarded Black Poplar tree in the local park was there long before the park and that it is a rare native tree that needs protecting. Another app could guide users on tree trails around Hampstead, Putney or wherever, it could allow the users to add comments about the trees on the trail, even add their own trail or check in at the Wembley Elm on Facebook.
And then of course there are more practical or nerdy applications, want to check out where all the Kentucky Coffee Trees are in London? Want to let your Local Authority know about the broken branch on a tree in your street? Want to see where the empty tree pits are? Want to get involved in community street tree maintenance?
So, what do other cities do about mapping street trees? New York appears to be leading the way with their recently launched map. It is worth noting that New York is in a very different position to London in that one city-wide body manages the street trees ensuring the data wrangling issues faced in London just don’t exist, so they have the luxury of focusing on visualistaion and functionality. New York’s data is real time, users can register and once logged in, favourite individual trees and get involved with community street tree activities like planting and maintenance.
Melbourne’s map, like New York’s, allows users to zoom in almost to street level, but it only covers a relatively small area of the city centre. As reported in media around the world, users can email trees in Melbourne which while possibly a bit odd has clearly caught the imagination of many.
The London Street Tree map and especially the data underpinning it are tools that could help us understand, appreciate and value the trees in London which in turn could make our lives richer and healthier. I can’t wait to see it show all the street tree data, and with more detail too – exact species info would be great to see.
“I can’t understand why anyone would want to buy a house on such an awful street.” These words, uttered by a passer-by 15 years ago, acted as a red rag to a bull for Wharfdale Road resident John Ashwell. A typically busy inner London street of multiple building styles and ages, Wharfdale Road connects York Way with Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. 15 years ago Kings Cross was a by-word for drugs and prostitution and was a very different place to the developed destination it has become.
Kings Cross forms an arc spanning two London boroughs from Pentonville Road to Marylebone Road with York Way at its apex. The Islington half was the crime hotspot while the Camden half was the dereliction centre of London. Now the Camden portion boasts a transformed St. Pancras station and the new Granary Square ‘quarter’ around Central St. Martins. Without the dubious benefit of a masterplan, landscaping and massive new developments the Islington half has had to make do with piecemeal private developments and community initiative. And this is where John, the original Kings Cross residents and the local authority came in.
John, a landscape gardener by trade, fired up by the throwaway remark overheard outside his front door, set his sites on no less a task that the beautification of Kings Cross starting with the planting of street trees on Wharfdale Road. Planting started after John raised money from local residents and the council released S106 funds enabling one half of a Cherry tree avenue. Over the next few years more money was released through public and private funding allowing the completion of the avenue planting. This second phase involved the narrowing of the road through incorporation of parking bays separated by tree islands transforming the street into the urban equivalent of a hollow way. All this has been achieved in the remarkably short time of 15 years.
Over this time a strong partnership has formed between the community and the council who all had the same goal of planting more trees and cleaning up their part of Kings Cross. In Wharfdale Road they planted a cherry avenue of Prunus avium ‘Plena’, a double white flowered variety of the common cherry and Prunus maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ a golden trunked Manchurian cherry with single spiked flowers (much better for pollinators). Within this corner of the urban forest over 300 trees have been planted including Islington’s first Olive (Olea europaea) grove on Fife Terrace and, something I’ve never seen elsewhere – Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) on Caledonia Street.
Of course, the trees on their own have not transformed this once scary corner of London (it would be foolish to ignore the presence of CCTV cameras and the millions of development pounds pumped in), but they certainly make the environment pleasanter and they have definitely helped calm the traffic on Wharfdale Road. Perhaps too they have contributed to making the area more hospitable for people which has in turn resulted in a proliferation of cafés and restaurants who don’t need to think twice about opening onto the street.
The community partnership allowed residents to get involved with street tree selection and planting giving them a sense of ownership of the trees in their neighbourhood and, coincidentally or not, Islington has recorded the lowest rate of sapling destruction in this part of the borough.
And here’s the street view of Bay trees in Caledonia Street, bizarrely the restaurant they shade is called ‘Thyme’:
How exciting – next week, Saturday 28 May – Sunday 5 June, is London Tree Week! I’m sure this fantastic initiative from the Mayor will prove to be a great success.
There are a whole raft of activities organised by City Hall’s environment department to check out on the London Tree Week pages.
Not to be outdone by Saddiq, I have also put together a somewhat taxing itinerary of a selection of London’s more unusual and overlooked trees like this thrilling Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis) on St. Peter’s Way, N1.
I’ve listed 22 trees worth checking out all over London from Finsbury Park in the north to Croydon in the south and from Chiswick in the west to Canary Wharf in the east, the app will use your location to tell you where your nearest trees can be found.
Once you have the app downloaded, follow these steps to find my listings:
There are lots of maples, but the most commonly planted street trees are The Norwegian or Norway (Acer platanoides) and the Sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus), both are handsome species and at first glance difficult to tell apart. They have a lot in common, they are similar sizes and have similar native distribution.
The differences are subtle, Norway’s leaves are spikier than Sycamore’s, their flowers are produced in distinctive fresh green clusters before the leaves appear in spring, Sycamore on the other hand produces a long pendulous flower spike or panicle. Norway’s bark is lighter coloured and grooved, compared to the darker and scalier Sycamore.
The charms of large Maples are not lost on urban tree planters – the Norway Maple especially is a popular street tree – and nurserymen realised the merits of this species early on and set to work creating a myriad of varieties. Look out for Norway Maples of various leaf colour from gold through to deep purple, fastigiate and columnar trees and the inevitable variegated variety. Significant among these charms is Norway’s ability to cope with many soil types and it’s toleration of ‘hard surface’ urban situations where it may be exposed to extremes of temperature, air pollution and drought.
Despite the Norwegian soubriquet, Acer platanoides is native over much of Europe as far west as Belgium and France. If it wasn’t for post ice-age sea level rises, a few additional centuries of continental connection may have seen both species arriving in what is now eastern Britain under their own steam. As it is, the introduction of Sycamore is lost in the mists of time and records of Norway maple in cultivation date from 1683 (according to the BRC). No doubt practical and ornamental planting of Maples has played a part in their ‘invasive’ distribution, but, as the structure of our ancient woodlands testify, ever since we needed reliable timber supplies we have controlled tree planting.
Norway maples, like Sycamore, thrive and regenerate freely in our climate and I welcome them. Among the conservation community there is a view that both species should be weeded out but I believe this is flawed. In our age of massive human environmental intervention, extinction threats to common species like Ash as well as climate change, I think we need to embrace nearly-native, vigorous large tree species that may become important components in future woodlands.
You’re never far from a Norway Maple in London, here’s a row including a purple leafed variety near Finsbury Park station:
I grew up with a huge Beech tree at the bottom of my garden. It was actually in the wood beyond but I regarded it as our tree – it protected our house and shaded our garden; it’s leaves and mast fell on our lawn and it’s scions appeared in the spring, sometimes in great abundance. Our giant didn’t have a name; there were many other specimens in the wood – presumably relatives, but this was the principal, The Beech Tree.
How lucky I was to live with such a magnificent companion. It was so vast I couldn’t detect annual expansion, it’s shape and size appeared constant. It was instead the seasonal variations that made their impact. Of these the winter and spring were my favourites. The Beech Tree protected us from winter’s storms bellowing through it’s high top and as the hoot of owls gave way to a more temperate cooing of wood pigeons the best bit was about to happen.
In mid-April it started, brown leaf buds would swell and turn russet orange, they would start to unravel until the first fissures of brilliant green popped. There was no going back now and for a whole week the air would be filled with cast-off bud casings and the green riot would let rip.
The vivid green of fresh Beech leaves is, like Yves Klein’s International Blue, the truest expression of a colour I think. I love this leafy explosion above all the other gems of spring’s cluster bomb.
Beech is less familiar in London, and as street trees, they are very rare. Many London Beeches are cultivars – the copper beech being favoured in bosky suburbs. This metallic cousin of native European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a splendid tree and in spring delivers delicate magenta leaves.
I wonder why there are so very few Beech street trees? Maybe London’s clay soils do not favour them, perhaps the roots are too shallow, or perhaps they are too shady. I think we should reconsider them – as appears to be happening with conifers – they are a majestic species that could add a lot to London.
Is there a tree officer out there who might like to try them in place of Planes or other large trees on a broad avenue somewhere?
Have you noticed how rare coniferous street trees are in London? Take it from me, there are very few of them. Evergreens seem outnumbered by deciduous species, although more do seem to be appearing (such as the Strawberry Tree).
So what are the reasons for this coniferist state of affairs; are pine needles seen as dangerous by over zealous health and safety types? Perhaps conifers have been deemed too Christmassy, or do they just not fit in somehow?
I can think of lots of good reasons to plant more evergreen trees – broadleaf and coniferous:
Year-round rainfall soaking-up
Year-round pollution reduction
Greater screening potential
Better noise muffling
These ‘ecosystem services’ are useful but we should not overlook the benefits of greater diversity and therefore interest in London’s urban forest if more conifers were present…
The fascinating, beautiful and deciduous Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is one conifer that does get planted with notable specimens outside Olympia, behind the High Courts and around the bottom of the Gherkin.
And then only a couple of weeks ago I bumped into a small Black pine (Pinus nigra) holding it’s own near Haggerston Overground station.
That encounter was followed by the discovery of a whole Pine micro forest in Dalston – a groupplanted on a broad paved area at the corner of Dalston Lane and Graham Road. The trees are young and doing well, adding character to this otherwise bleak corner. Conifer identification is difficult, but I will tentatively say these are Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris).