Even in the Elm City, trees are often seen as a backdrop for the architecture of the Yale campus and New Haven’s urban landscape. But in reality, they shape the daily lives of students and townspeople in unexpected ways.
Nearly 400 years after it was first established on the heavily wooded Connecticut coast, New Haven retains a robust tree cover. Forty-one percent of land in the City of New Haven is covered by tree canopy, compared to 20-30% in most major Northeastern cities. About 30,000 trees line its streets, and many more occupy the 3.6 square miles of park land in the city. Yale University makes a significant contribution to New Haven’s tree population— a 2012 inventory counted 2,618 trees on Yale’s downtown properties, representing 128 unique species.
An invisible force seems to draw Yale students to prominent trees on campus; especially in this fleeting window of beautiful autumn weather. These days, the trunks of Cross Campus’ trees are study spots as sought-after as the private rooms in Bass Library underneath their roots.
But these trees offer opportunities for recreation, too. Scott Casleton, a junior in Morse, frequently turns heads on Cross Campus when he sets up a slackline between two trees and makes his way across it with near-perfect balance.
“The trees are probably something you don’t think about a lot unless you slackline,” Casleton said, bobbing slightly as the line bent beneath his foot. Slackliners are always on the lookout for good spots to practice, which require two sturdy trees, adequately spaced apart to accommodate the line. Most lines are 50 feet long, but Casleton has moved on to a more challenging 80-foot line. Urban slacklining, he said, prompts “an interaction with trees that you’re thankful for…the trees themselves make you feel like you’re not in the city as much.”
“They’re almost like friends,” he mused, taking another step forward.
Although Yale’s trees can offer a pleasant escape from the bustle of downtown New Haven, similar opportunities can easily be found in the city itself. The main avenues of the university, all lined with trees, lead to the New Haven Green, where stately sycamores, elms and oaks grow within 16 acres of green space. “We’ve got nice trees, all different types of trees,” Brandon Moore, a New Haven security guard, said proudly while he waited for a bus at the center of the Green. “You get to see the seasons change here.” Moore thinks New Haven is a more tree-friendly city than others he has visited. He’d like to see more apple trees planted in the city, so he and others could harvest some free fruit on occasion.
Although New Haven’s street trees yield few edible offerings, the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences estimates that they provide the city with $3.6 million in economic benefits from energy savings, increased property values, improved air quality, and more. But their full contribution to the city may be far greater. Studies have found that an increased density of trees in urban neighborhoods correlates with lower crime rates, improved self-discipline in children, and even healthier birth weights. “We’re just starting to see these relationships,” said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, URI’s Director.
URI’s Community Greenspace and GreenSkills programs plant hundreds of trees in New Haven each year. The latter program gives high school students and ex-offenders the opportunity to acquire job skills while connecting to nature as they respond to tree-planting requests from New Haven residents. To receive a tree from URI, the beneficiary must sign a three-year commitment to water and care for it.
“I find it rewarding to be able to work with people where they live and have them be an actor, taking care of the nature around them,” Murphy-Dunning said. She added that planting and tending to trees can help people form personal connections to global environmental issues, like deforestation and global warming.
Some forestry experts would find fault with the New Haveners’ planting decisions. Katie Beechem, who manages GreenSkills, said that the program receives and fulfills more requests for cherry trees than any other species; although they produce beautiful pink blossoms and are favored by birds, their lifespan and canopy size pales in comparison to those of other species, like oaks.
“Opportunities to plant larger trees are important. But people are connected to the flowers and the colors,” she explained. “It’s not necessarily about environmental health. It’s about beautifying the block, making it safer and more welcoming.” Cherry trees, Beechem said, are well suited for this purpose.
“It’s special to see how happy people are when their trees get planted,” Beechem said. “It feels like a small thing to us [at URI], because we plant so many trees. But this person will see this tree every single day.”
Although New Haven’s overall tree population is impressively large, the city’s arboreal wealth isn’t distributed evenly. Residents of Yale’s campus and New Haven’s most forested neighborhoods may, at times, be jaded to the constant presence of many trees. But the hundreds of planting requests submitted to GreenSkills are proof of how strongly the absence of trees is felt in other areas of the city. Through URI and other efforts, Yale and New Haven are working together to make the whole city greener, even as it grows.
In a famous song about a town that “cut up all the trees and put them in a tree museum,” music legend Joni Mitchell warns listeners: “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Fortunately, New Haven and its most famous university both know that they’ve got a lot of trees— and they also know how important it is to keep them around.
Josh Mandell is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Images by Josh Mandell.)
Revision: A previous version of this post misspelled Scott Casleton’s name.