Helping Hands Dig In to Plant Trees, Survey Saplings in Neighborhood

Ari Deligianides vividly remembers the stretch of Beachcroft Street in front of his Boston home: a barren span of asphalt where dust hung thick in the summer air. For 15 years, the passing of the seasons on the treeless block was hardly noticeable from his window in this city's Brighton neighborhood.

But two years and 25 signatures later, Beachcroft has burst into bloom. With a petition in hand for city tree planting and a "please-sign-here" attitude, Mr. Deligianides knocked on his neighbors' doors and spurred some action.

Lindens and lilacs now line the street, and public apathy has been transformed into enthusiasm for the local environment.

Last Saturday, Deligianides and about 75 volunteers catalogued trees on public property in Brighton. The city-sponsored inventory was the first stage of what will ultimately become an atlas of trees in Boston.

Environmentalists say the increased investment of energy into neighborhood programs around the country points to an attitude shift to local issues. Concerns such as the clear cutting of Amazon rain forests and global warming are not as pressing to the average citizen as the street, the backyard, or the local park.

"Street trees do seem to have struck a chord," says David Dologite, assistant program manager of the Allston-Brighton Community Development Center, which organized the Boston neighborhood tree-survey outing. "Such projects encourage neighbors and community groups to band together."

Dozens of cities across America have initiated - or completed - tree surveys. In Brighton, volunteers identified tree species, estimated the size of the trees' canopy, studied their health, and recorded the information for a computer database. The volunteers were provided with a special manual, and had a one-day tree orientation class.

Deligianides, who maintains a small forest of Douglas firs in his yard, is encouraged by his neighbors' enthusiasm for the environment.

"People want beauty," he says. "One of the things we're trying to do is raise people's appreciation of trees."

Last month, the city sliced through the pavement and planted 25 saplings. Now, it's a trendy landscaping of lindens and lilacs. But like a broken tooth in a smile, a couple of gaping spaces stand out in front of homes where owners refused permission for trees.

David Nowak, an expert on urban forestry, says such objections are a result of wrong choices made by early city tree wardens. Trees such as cottonwoods and large maples damage sidewalks, curbs, sewers, foundations and even endanger pedestrians and parked cars with falling limbs.

Arborists now are selective in their choice of trees. They look for trees that have good growth habits, and those with high branches and resilient limbs, fall foliage, and spring blossoms. Magnolias, sugar maples, and scarlet oaks get high marks.

Urban trees directly and indirectly affect the physical, biological, economic, and social environments in a city, says Mr. Nowak, director of the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station in Syracuse, NY. Their presence helps increase real estate prices, reduces noise levels, improves air quality, and lowers energy bills if planted in the right location.

Back on Beachcroft Street, it's a critical time before the small trees start filling out. Deligianides and his neighbors are working with the city, taking turns to water the lindens and lilacs. Some day he hopes Beachcroft will be a station for sparrows. "It's a very great thing to be awakened by chirping," he says. "I already have signs up for the birds: 'Trees for Rent.' "

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