Tag Archives: urban

Being Tankful

tank pairHaving been a city dweller most of my life, for me fuel delivery was never an issue. It was just there on a need-to-have basis. For a spoiled westerner, fuel for heat, hot water and cooking appeared magically from a pipe in the street. When natural gas arrived on the scene for central heating in the early 20th century, I can recall my grandparents talking about how nervous people were to have it piped into their homes and it took some convincing for them to welcome it. A hundred years later, it is a fact of life, and people are asking for more of it to be harvested. More and more, invisible energy to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed.rusty tank

Recently I have decided to chuck the annoyances and unpleasantries (I mean, how much are we supposed to put up with for the ideal of convenience?) of the city and go to a more natural, rural area. In this new environment, one detail that strikes home right away is that you are now responsible for storing your own fuel. What an instant lesson in energy usage; you can get it but not easily, and in getting it, you have to keep it on hand on your property in a tank – a hulking, sometimes rusty container about the size of a buffalo. Well sure, you pay for it either way and if you don’t pay, you don’t have heat. But your consciousness about fuel just increased to the tenth power by having to confront this tank on a daily basis. The alternatives for energy are similar whether urban or rural, except that if you go with gas in the country it comes in a bottle, not a pipe.

tank in field

At first, it seems like an inconvenience, having a behemoth storage tank in your yard. Shouldn’t it be out of sight/out of mind like it was before? As much as I don’t like looking at it, it acts like Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder, whispering in our ear about our dependence and our usage. It keeps things real, making a large physical statement about energy consumption. You can monitor the gauge, you can lower the thermostat, you can try an alternative, like burning wood. A number of the neighbors do all of these things to reduce consumption, but the fact remains that we need heat.

rusted out tank

However, maybe not as wastefully as when we don’t see it. I am thinking of a single apartment building in New York City that takes up an entire block. My brother lives in this particular building, and it has a power plant in the basement that cranks heat up to a point where the tenants open their windows in the winter because it is unbearably hot inside.

As careful as I have always been with energy use, I think that a fuel tank is going to be a constant reminder. Fill it up, empty it out. It is there, regardless. The process is exposed, and you are witness and victim and perpetrator. In this instance it is a placeness of consciousness, of awareness, of a presence of something that looks so out of place but is born of necessity for survival. Use it sparingly, keep it filled up like a family member but don’t overfeed, and let its appearance in the landscape keep us aware of our dependencies and our greed and the fact that this vessel is a solid object informing us that sources of energy are not limitless. And we are responsible for limits.

new tank

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Not Easy Being Green

long viewIt is – or, rather, was – just an ordinary, unremarkable stretch of sidewalk, emanating from the end of a bridge for a block or two down a busy city street; its one distinction, if it can be called that, is that this straight ribbon of pavement had, for the 30 years we’ve walked on or driven past it, been lined by jungle-like and uncontrolled growths of weed trees and bushes and grasses, held as if prisoners behind a low-slung metal traffic barrier which kept pedestrians and vehicles from tumbling down the steep cliff from which this wild flora grew. The wall of green wasn’t pretty, really – only once a year, when a popular bike race whizzes by it, does it get any attention and minimal trimming – but, for those of us living in a concrete-coated city, and to the people who live in the houses lined directly across the street from it, it was a wall of green, a respite, something like an oasis, a natural amenity. Something left alone to be itself, and give its gift, meager though it might be. And, yet, it was a length of urbanness that, if you were mapping the street from memory, you might forget to put it in – it was that personality-less, that undistinguished. It was just there, negligible but subliminally felt.

tree line

Careful readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the previous paragraph. Trucks with choppers and grinders and saws pulled in not too long ago, and by the time they left, every bit of green was sliced away to near ground level, leaving a rude and rough-hewn gash in the landscape. For the residents of the houses opposite, this must have been not only a shock but, actually, a bit of a pleasant one: for, though the greenery is gone, they now have, unobstructed, one of the best views in the neighborhood – the old town area laid out at the foot of the cliff, the canal and river beyond, and, past those, hills and an interstate highway in the distance. People pay a lot for that view and, suddenly, these folks on the street, after decades of gazing out at an impermeable green wall of leaves and vines, now have that great view, and on somebody else’s dime.

street view

viewEnjoy that view while it lasts, folks. People don’t just clear-cut a forest-y patch for no reason that doesn’t have to do with making money, and so it is here: Soon that gap will be crammed with a dozen or more new townhouses – the uninspired, same old/same old three-stories-and-a-roof-deck, stuccoed and sided ticky-tacky crap that every developer in this area seemingly tore out of a sample book and is stuffing into every lot and open space, and, in this instance, deforesting a swath for it. And, presently, that strip of road, once benefitting from a feeling of some openness, some connection with nature no matter how corralled and limited, will become somewhat more like a canyon, or, certainly, a hemmed-in byway.

And for the pedestrians, like us, who barely acknowledged the existence of this corridor that was the on-ground equivalent of a flyover, we will feel that even though this couple of hundred feet never had anything that one would define as placeness, and certainly nothing resembling art, its absence will generate a lost placeness in our memories. It will be different. It will feel unbalanced and missing an essential element, which it will. Though it was never exactly friendly, it will be decidedly less-so. The air will be different, blighted by the predatory parasitism of modern developers. The light will be different, too. What was undistinguished will now, by comparison, seem distinguished by its congesting mediocrity. We, who cared nothing for this piece of land, will now long for the past nothingness that it was and curse the something that it has been forced to become.

laid waste

You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, someone once wrote, and this applies even if you didn’t notice it when it when you had it. Sometimes, perhaps, even more so. I never cared if that piece of the world existed or not; now I am outraged that it is going and gone, taken and lost. Is that placeness, or what?


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Artless City

There is an art to cities – in the way they are planned, in the way they are built, in the manner in which they develop both intentionally and organically, in the way they respond to unexpected internal and external forces, in the way they confront and respond to age, in the way in which the residents live their lives in relation to these urban plans, changes and vagaries. Some cities become fine works of art, others do not; some become both, consecutively, alternately, moving forward or backward, often repeatedly so, as the fates, citizenry and city fathers allow. The art-ness of cities is fluid, and can vary from block to block, decade to decade, administration to administration.

It is hard to tell if Philadelphia is a work of art now, on the way up or the way down. For the most part, its central core has seen much construction and advance, and especially impressive and comforting growth of those things that attract tourists, young people and empty nesters: music, theater, museums and galleries, restaurants and shopping. It benefits from the great number of single-family homes and apartments right in the heart of the Center City area and immediate in-city surrounding neighborhoods; it is a place that never has suffered that deadness of a downtown that empties after work hours. There seem to be a lot of bars and bistros feeding off the disposable income or the credit-card debt of hordes of twenty- and thirtysomethings, as well as Boomers and expense-accounters.

It is also a city of staggering poverty, of disturbing and frequent violent crime, of acres of empty lots and decrepit housing in rundown sections out of sight of the more bustling and cosmopolitan center. There is the natural tension where the two worlds of Philadelphia – the poor and the better-off – meet, along borders, in rapidly gentrifying areas, pushing the edge of the inner edge city, where abandoned factories and remarkably cheap housing entice artists and pioneers and the brave, threatening the turf and tax bills of the longtimers. There are also places in the downtown area where that poverty and decline pop up and encamp, as a sort of movable blight, creating surprising and dismaying stage sets in a kind of street-theater conceptual art that lacks aesthetics but instead is deadly serious doings. Market Street is one of those stretches.


As one could safely guess, Market Street – or what has now been labeled as Market East – has been a commercial corridor at least from the time of Philadelphia’s earliest settlers, as their ships docked along the Delaware River shore and unloaded merchandise, which was then distributed on carts and in shops popping up and moving westward from the water, following the spreading population. Within living memory, the seven blocks of Market between 7th Street and City Hall were home to seven department stores, as well as dozens of shops of all sorts. Market was never the fanciest shopping street – parts of Walnut were more high-tone, sections of Locust were oddly exclusive – but it drew customers, and it was a family strolling street, going from Wanamaker’s to Snellenburg’s, Gimbel’s to Lit’s, Howard’s to Robinson’s, and to Strawbridge & Clothier. It was a street of rites of passage and city lore: here is where hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians went to see Santa, where they had their first grown-up restaurant meal, where they would go to the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s and hear the daily pipe-organ concerts and meet at the Eagle. It was more than a shopping street, or a destination – it was the stage set, a place of memories and where one became part of the great continuity that is city life.


Starting around the Sixties, Market Street began to change noticeably. The better stores disappeared, to be filled with t-shirt and sneaker shops, and low-end retail; whole rows of stores were demolished to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Lately a convention hotel has been built, and a landmark high rise has been converted into a hotel, as well. Stores vanished when the idea for an in-town mall came to fruition, and the Gallery – appropriately named, in this discussion about art and the city – like malls everywhere, became a big-box magnet and category killer. There are amenities for tourists and conventioneers, but not many.

And where once there were seven department stores, now there is one. It has gone through three name changes and, as a Macy’s, no longer has any hometown lineage, and except for the organ and eagle, no local DNA. Snellenburg’s died and departed long ago, as did Robinson’s and Howard’s; Gimbel’s has been a street-level parking lot for decades, and the site of dashed developers’ dreams for just as long. Strawbridge’s and Lit’s have been converted into office buildings, with a smattering of retail at ground level.

For one who works in one of those buildings and who exits onto Market Street five days a week when the sun is similarly making its exit, the art of the city is difficult to interpret, and certainly to appreciate. The street surface is filthy, foul odors emanate from a sewer system overtaxed by the flushings of shoulder-to-shoulder multi-story buildings, a deadening darkness pervades the streetscape as shops – those that are not vacant – close early or roll down their metal grates over the windows of their unlighted businesses. It is by no means “Blade Runner” but it is a vista that resonates with several layers of failure and many more layers of tolerance for what should be intolerable.


So much for the set ­- now for the actors. A walk up Market Street more and more seems like a stroll down a byway in a third-world country, with the lame and beggars lined up, trying to snag some change from passing tourists and dayworkers headed home. These are people in dire shape and straits, and they are not to be ignored; but, not too long ago, there was a campaign by a local group with the poster tag-line, “The more you give change, the more things stay the same,” and that is the philosophy we follow. But we all play our roles: they ask, we politely decline, and that’s that. Some passersby behave as if these people do not exist, not acknowledging their presence. Very few of us actually give, and these are often visitors from other countries. But there is almost a dance of request and rejection, and both sides know their lines and, really, know how the scene will end. Indeed, some of the panhandlers ask for things – a dime for a meal, a quarter for coffee or a bus ticket – that are so patently ridiculous on the face of them that they are bound to lead to the failure that is predetermined even if their “pitch” were better. But there is, in that walk up Market, an element of danger, of some fear, of the possibility of a confrontation or an accusation, and then violence.


Market Street, once a benign place of commerce – not the city’s liveliest, or best, but certainly one of its most solid – has become emblematic of a changing urban “theater,” one we no longer wish to be in the audience of. We all, in the city, put up with too much to get what we think we need. When one no longer gets that, nor gets it in a way that is satisfactory – when one realizes that there is no reason to put up with so much unpleasantness, that one no longer wants to take it anymore, that what we believed to be the city’s placeness is mutated or gone completely – then it is time to say that this city as art is no longer to our taste, and that it’s time to direct our gaze elsewhere.

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A Convenience Truth

locationWhen I moved to the city, the idea was, as urban-planning professionals keep telling us, that the clustering of services and housing for the many on a condensed footprint is the rational way to live. I guess that I interpreted this concept as convenience. A dense neighborhood, close to amenities – how could that be bad? The city neighborhood we chose to inhabit, at that time, was down on its luck (otherwise, how could we have afforded it?), but it was convenient: to transportation, to supermarkets, to the downtown center (only six miles) and to the most natural portion of the municipal park system. It seemed to have it all. We could walk to two supermarkets, never mind that the closest of the two never had anything besides toilet paper that we were looking for and the other, a mile’s walk one way, had possibly three things that we wanted.

There were two shopping district streets about a half-mile or less walk, one up the hill from our street and the other down. The upper one was quaint, sort of behind the times, but it had services like hardware stores, banks, real-estate offices with notaries, a card shop, shoe stores, etc. The lower one was on the skids, with many boarded-up storefronts, too many bars, a plumbing supply and a roofing supply. But a new wave of people saw opportunity there, and some trendy restaurants opened and, eventually, they were followed by antiques, boutiques, galleries and designer-kitchen shops. It was new and exciting, at first, to see life where there had been cobwebs, but the downside was twofold. As the lower street gentrified, it killed off the upper street, which now looks as shantytown-ish as the latter had been before its makeover. And, because of the trendiness factor, people came from everywhere to see the lower street and, as a result,  more and more restaurants and bars opened – more expensive versions of what had been. The clientele kept getting younger and younger, and drank more and more. Some of the restaurants gave way to bars, and the whole street became a college-student drinking mall. More students, more cars. A 19th-century mill town became an SUV parking lot, and all the barflies ended up drunk and disorderly on the streets at 2 am. Not terribly convenient.

One appeal of this neighborhood is that it had some greenspace left, unlike some of the other residential areas in the city. That was probably because of the neighborhood’s topography of steep hills, rendering some sites difficult to put a structure on. Not anymore. Now every scrap of open land, no matter the slope or narrowness or absurdity of building upon it, either has been or is being built on. In addition to the number of vehicles reducing two-lane streets to one, the number of houses are choking the life out of the blocks and making the same damn canyons that kept us from choosing other neighborhoods over this one. Very inconvenient.

When I go downtown into the city’s center, I notice very nice houses, cheek to jowl (well, they are rowhouses), now with 20-story high-rises built right next door, and where open space means having a parking lot with a hundred cars in it at any given time. Because of a lack of yards, often these houses will have decks on their second or third floors. Of course, the sky is open but everything else feels so confining, surrounded by building facades, backs of restaurants and their Dumpsters and exhaust fans, or the exquisite view of blacktop and cars that resembles the shipping port’s cargo holding lots. Yes, owners can walk to a number of amenities from such houses, but do they? Or do they feel as prisoners in their lofty towers? I feel a bit imprisoned in my house; not that I am afraid but, rather, it is uncomfortable to be outside among the whooping denizens.

I think that one has to give up many lifestyle conveniences to live conveniently. There are so many tradeoffs. What is convenient about having to have bars on your doors and windows? Or to live in a cloud of exhaust fumes day in, day out? Or to hear the incessant sounds of humans and machines without respite?

We have recently decided to live in a more rural town. We haven’t made the physical move yet, but the process of weighing and comparisons are inevitable. In a more sparsely populated area, the conveniences are fewer but so are the inconveniences of civilization. Being able to breathe – not only spatially, but to inhale the scent of pine, wood fires, rushing creeks and mountain air. These are conveniences, too. Watching bunnies play, having wild turkeys poke around in the meadow, listening to the sound of the stream and, at first, thinking that its whooshing sound is that of a highway but, no, it is water! These are not the usual conveniences we are taught to appreciate, but these are the ones we instantly, instinctually respond to; we just don’t think of them as conveniences, merely nature. And then there is the very real convenience of feeling like you can go outside on your own property and not be stepping on someone else’s turf, or even having to look at or hear someone else’s assertion of his or her presence. Yes, there are neighbors, but they are both near and far, not so close that you can’t escape them. And if you want to rub elbows with others, walk a few blocks into the town center, but leave it behind when you have quenched your thirst.

Convenience can have many meanings, I am beginning to see. Maybe it can also be a state of not having so much within your reach; enough but not over-the-top too much, and having the convenience of savoring the moment.

generative design

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The Placeness of Peaceness

Living in dense city neighborhoods has its adaptive challenges. Everywhere one looks, there is a hard-surfaced structure, either hovering above in your airspace, staring straight into your windows or squeezing you laterally and literally. Sometimes it feels as if you are living in restraints, a less-soft straitjacket cutting and impinging, always at right angles and with sharp edges. It’s just the fact of being in an overbuilt environment. And besides the concrete canyons’ physical oppressiveness, depending on the human inhabitants sharing this constricted space and their self-awareness or awareness of others, the claustrophobia can be exacerbated by annoying behavior. And noise. Not only caught in a vise, but held there while being pelted with decibel levels that could otherwise compel one to give away national secrets to any enemy nation.

There seems to be some law of balance or, rather, imbalance, that the worst, loudest, most out-of-control morons will end up across the street from the quietest, privacy-seeking individuals. What are the odds? And in certain situations, it can be but it isn’t always the result of a long-standing, seething, political or religious dispute, or a national boundary. And other times it is simply that he shows up on one side of the street and you are on the other, and his presence is intolerable because he keeps making it known, constantly. There are such people living in dense city neighborhoods who, like four-legged animals, mark their territories – territories they don’t own, by the way. They do it the same way, with urine, or they do it by tossing a trail of their daily junk food trash, also with intimidating vibes and with the sounds of their voices. So the squeeze can be, besides spatial, also aural and physical in the sense of body language. Much of this behavior is self-destructive in origin but can end up taking entire neighborhoods with it if it is permitted to continue or flourish. This, in the extreme, is gang behavior. But it is also the precursor of neighbor-violence.

In this city, in far worse sections, there have been people killed over disputes and misunderstandings, sometimes even misidentifications, or wrong words, wrong actions, wrong place and time. Some deaths are accidental, others are purposeful, most are a result of rage and of feeling the kind of helplessness and hopelessness that comes as a result of seeming to have no other recourse. Sure, there are battles over boundaries that happen in the suburbs and in large tracts of rural landscapes where one might think that if there is land aplenty, there is a more generous spirit. Not. But it seems that the urban environment with its visible limitations and dense over-crowding causes more anxiety and the probability of it multiplying exponentially toward a crescendo more often. For many people living in these in-your-face tight packed places, there is a desire to live anonymously, to not make eye-contact, to come and go secretively, to stay inside, to keep the blinds closed. It is a kind of denial of the reality of the place, a distancing for self-preservation, a coping mechanism; it is definitely a tough challenge to be open and trusting of so many vying for such a small piece of turf. It is not ideal. But the covert behavior of those in denial set the empty stage for those with overt actions, those who want to control and muscle and “own,” to fill the void, as in a takeover.

The noise, the relentless yakety-yak and shouting rise sharply above the pervasive din of the usual city sounds: car engines starting, doors slamming, alarms beeping on, alarms beeping off, trucks rumbling by, alarms sounding off when the truck vibrations are too intense, dogs barking, alcohol-elevated voices being delivered from lowered motor-functioning bodies, circling anxious cars desperate for just one last parking space (or trying to score drugs), the blinkety-blink blasting tune of the ice-cream truck, blaring “music” from passing cars that sometimes stays for a while and drowns out other noises, people hollering from one corner to the next – as if the cellphone had not yet been invented. Oh, yes, and there are also the cellphone ringtones; who can possibly receive that many calls, especially when the receivers seem to be hanging everyday, all day, with everyone they know? There are more assaults, trust me. It makes a person with keen hearing dread the open-window season, since all of this can already be heard through double panes of glass.

What I yearn for is elbow room, breathing space and no faces in my face, day in and day out. No one invading my turf and everyone else’s, whether physical or airspace. An absence of shouting and profane voices – did you ever notice how often the loudest mouths have the least to say? It is that way on this street, and generally in this country, that the volume is inversely proportional to the content.

My quest is to find the placeness of peaceness. Maybe it doesn’t exist in the city. I have been seduced by the idea of community, of shared resources, of clearer distinctions and manageable sizes. But what I find, after nearly three decades, is uneasiness, uncertainty, misconduct, lines drawn, social contracts broken. It is no longer detente I seek – it is a kindly and peaceable kingdom.

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Putting Down Roots

The case for trees is an easy one to make.

The benefits of including our tall arboreal friends in our environment are without dispute, and numerous. Survival for us and, too, for everything on the planet would be impossible without trees. They breathe oxygen into us and provide needed atmospheric recycling of moisture, among other notable biological processes. They air-condition our world, especially urgent now because of climate change, a result of our reckless disregard for other living systems, and our ignorant belief that our desires are the most important and necessary.

Lecturing aside, trees are awesome in almost every respect.

Our interest here, though, is to discuss the psychic benefits of trees and their transformational character in determining and creating placeness. They are major players. But, rather than repeating the scientific data, we are going to give first-hand anecdotal examples.

Our street, a 19th-century vestige of an industrial mill town, is urban and hard-surfaced, a layered mix of stone and cement, and nary a growing thing except sidewalk-crack weeds. In fact, directly across the street from us, on a cement porch, are some flowers in containers – artificial flowers – freakishly colorful (though fading) year round; neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dark of night shall stay them. One wonders why people are so willing to substitute facsimiles for the real.

Within five years of inhabiting our house we went on a quest for trees. In city-speak, “street trees.” Our park system provided two for free; that was disappointing, since they had promised four, but we added two others, plus a few more within our small courtyard. The lessons learned from tending and watching these trees and the difference they have made in our lives are enormous. When they were small and vulnerable to human assault, they were vandalized mostly by the mindless pulling off of the leaves – ironically the very thing we wanted them for. One night we heard a snapping, crunching sound, and looked out to see a bunch of drunks that had just broken off a sizable limb from one of our trees, carrying it off over their shoulders like natives back from a hunt. To do what with it? We don’t know. To be imbeciles, for sure. But since that moment we became crazed guardians of our turf and our trees. Happily, that level of destructive behavior never happened again (until bulldozers and other tall street-paving, house-building, cement-pouring vehicles started showing up twenty years later in our gentrifying neighborhood).

As the trees grew, space changed around us. There was the defining of space through the demarcation of lines and boundaries, creating a buffer zone and a filtering between street and pavement, as well as a sense of our space versus the larger general space. And the tree canopies formed another kind of space above, a soothing and calming enclosure of shade, not only for our facade’s southern exposure and our courtyard’s leafy shelter, but for encouraging walking as opposed to running and screaming (mostly what happened within the barren no-man’s land of hardscape). There seemed to have been, until then, such a total disregard by inhabitants for the dead zone of the streetscape, almost as if because it was so devoid of life it was beyond control or caring, that it was an edgy, uncomfortable place that had to be passed through but was not valued other than for parking or driving or raising hell or tossing trash. We firmly believe that lifeless areas produce lifeless thinking.

There is no way to know whether our trees are directly responsible for altering the landscape in more ways than one, but we think they did. There are the wonderful sculptural shapes of the trunks and limbs sans foliage that cause shadows and lines, which we value and enjoy in the lower winter sunlight, but our sense of being enveloped in a treehouse goes missing until spring. And during the leaf season, we have both interior and exterior dappled light and wind-carried movement at every vantage point. Birds and squirrels add another level of reality. We have watched a certain squirrel (or, more likely, generations of them) lie prostrate on one of our second-story limbs and doze off; this year, we discovered a large squirrel nest in that same tree, although we  have never seen baby squirrels.

We have observed our trees since they barely reached the second-story windows, and then watched them reach the third (a truly amazing moment when they became real trees) and beyond. And, over the course of these twenty years, we do think that our trees have changed the personality of the street for the better: quieter and less aggressive; occasional sporadic bursts of noise rather than sustained loudness; containment and control as opposed to wide-open nothingness; softness and curvy shapes to help balance the hard rigidity of buildings set up to the sidewalk. Of course, there are neighbors who have despised the trees from the first day, maybe more so now that they drop more leaves, and one person in particular likes to inform me about high winds causing the trees to sway – a perceived threat to her, a comfort to me.

Another interesting change that has gradually taken place is concerning dog waste and the people who do or don’t control it. In most instances, we have found that if you show that you value something, even something as meaningless to many as a tree, then they too will value or respect it (unless they are sociopaths). For years, as the trees struggled to achieve height, they and their reclaimed pits were treated as small dumping grounds for cups, bottles, cigarette butts and dog droppings – especially dog droppings, since there was no other non-concrete spot for squatting. Of course, it is the caliber of the dog-walker that makes a difference, but when we put low-profile fencing around the pits (only two of the four pits got these), behavior changed. New dog-walkers had bags to scoop up what was deposited and, quite often, dogs were led right past our trees on a mission to other sites.

Sometimes it’s hard to get used to the idea that the trees have become a “given” and are not treated as something to be attacked or abused. Sadly, no one else has followed suit in planting arboreal companions for ours – yet. We stand alone, but we stand tall and a bit cooler than anyone else in nature’s shade, despite the overwhelming ratio of hard surface to soft. Our place has the qualities of an urban oasis, its appearance of placeness and the sense of placeness it exudes – all thanks to trees. We couldn’t live here without them, and we wouldn’t want to.

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