Recent maintenance projects in the LeConte neighborhood have left me critical of Berkeley’s municipal street repair priorities. This past April and May, on both Derby and Parker streets, Berkeley has intentionally sacrificed decades-old street trees in order to repair small amounts of asphalt.

Municipal street repair teams, in re-leveling small areas of asphalt pushed up by tree roots, have excavated and ground up the root structures of a number of sizable street trees. The practice is well-intentioned: It is meant to repair ruptured and heaved asphalt and distended curbs. The prioritization of asphalt over decades-old neighborhood street trees, however, is flawed.

In all of the observed instances on Derby and Parker Streets, the intentional excavation and grinding of the root structure was significant and may very well kill the tree (see attached 5/9 image from Derby Street). At the very least, it will greatly stunt the tree’s growth and make it dangerously unbalanced in high wind events.

When Berkeley repaved some streets recently, it cut away at the roots of some trees. Photo: Joseph Poirier

Street trees are vital community assets that take decades to accrue value: they increase property value for neighborhood homeowners (thus increasing property tax levy for Berkeley), they absorb greenhouse gases, they provide shade in the summer, and they filter runoff water. Risking the death of these resources to repair small amounts of asphalt is a shortsighted fiscal and planning policy. If the tree dies, the cost of felling, stump grinding, and re-planting will be substantial and the lost value to the neighborhood significant.

Berkeley should instead follow the lead of numerous other municipalities and consider low-cost construction of curb extensions around trees that have developed significant girth (see attached image from Cambridge, MA). This allows trees space to grow, protects sidewalks and asphalt from root heaves, and adds traffic calming and additional green space to the neighborhood. The LeConte neighborhood – which is especially short on green space – would benefit tremendously from such a shift of City policy.

Joseph Poirier thinks Berkeley should install curbs like these around tree roots rather than cutting away the roots. Photo: City of Cambridge, MA
Joseph Poirier thinks Berkeley should install curbs like these around tree roots rather than cutting away the roots. Photo: City of Cambridge, MA

The City of Berkeley should think seriously about changing its street repair policy to one that protects and enhances trees as valuable community assets, rather than treating them as dispensable and less important than asphalt.

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Poirier is a Berkeley resident, UC Berkeley student of city planning, and lumber industry worker.
Poirier is a Berkeley resident, UC Berkeley student of city planning, and lumber industry worker.