Northampton, MA

Why Does the Mayor Want to Chop Down The Cherry Trees?

Terianne Falcone

No one really knows.
The cherry trees of Warfield Place slated for destruction -Photo by Oliver Kellhammer

NORTHAMPTON, MA This past April, notices were left by the doors of all the houses of Warfield Place. It was a letter from the City informing residents that "improvements" were going to made to the street. Included was an indecipherable "map" that was supposed to indicate the contours of the project.

But the map was illegible.

So, why include it? Or why not make sure the map is clear?

That turned out to be an inauspicious sign.

The Warfield Place residents soon discovered that the City's idea of "improvement" involved destroying seven beautiful and mature Japanese Kwanzan cherry trees and paving over with asphalt.

This Warfield community got organized and went into action. They arranged a meeting with the Mayor of Northampton, David Narkewicz where 50 people let the Mayor know their opposition to and their outrage at the project. The Mayor responded that he had made his decision.

He went on to say that the group's opinions were "based on emotion" unlike the City's where the choice was driven by data and an "algorithm." He added that "neighborhood concerns" did not enter into the equation.

There was no data on ecological or "neighborhood concerns," so one of the Warfield residents, Oliver Kellhammer, a resident of Warfield Place, set out to do just that. In a recent guest column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Kellhammer shares a result he recorded -- something that an algorithm would never pick up. He wrote:

"On June 21 at 10 a.m., during the first heatwave of the summer, the ground temperature of the asphalt under the cherry trees was 76° F. The temperature of the unshaded pavement was 105° F.

On June 28 at 1 p.m., during the second heatwave, the temperature under the cherry trees was 85° F. The temperature of the unshaded pavement was 139° F. That's a variation of 54° F."

That's a shocking difference and illustrates the need for trees dramatically.
Huge temperature differential on the asphalt in shade vs. sun.Photo by local resident, Oliver Kellhammer

"Every time you cut down a mature tree, you can raise the local temperature 5 degrees Fahrenheit or more," Kellhammer added.

Why is the Mayor insisting on this?

The argument against cutting down the trees and paving asphalt is so strong that the City's insistence seems illogical and without motive.

Ruth Ozeki, an active member of the Warfield community, speculated: "We feel that the paving project is unnecessary, and really, it was just ill-conceived. It was a rushed project to use up money in a budget." [emphasis added]

Instead, the City's contention revolves around three points:

  • The first regards "contracts." When the Warfield residents zoomed with Department of Public Works director Donna LaScaleia, she said the contracts had already been signed.
  • The second concerns the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The City says Warfield Place does not comply with the ADA. But they haven't been consistent on this argument, and according to the Warfield group's website, "The City's plan also eliminates sidewalk access for two of our disabled residents, which will make it difficult for them to access their homes in the winter. We asked the City for a revised plan that will leave intact [their] sidewalk ..[T]he City refuses."
  • And the third involves the often-discussed "algorithm." The Mayor keeps talking about it but has not explained it.

None of these arguments \ hold up to inspection once the Sustainable Northampton Plan (discussed below) is considered.

An interesting point is that Mayor Narkewicz is not seeking reelection.

The Sustainable Northampton Plan

Kellhammer, who lectures on Sustainable Systems at the Parsons School of Design in New York, pointed out that the City was infringing on its own "Sustainable Northampton Plan," an initiative since 2005 with goals to:

  • minimize and decelerate the impact of climate change,
  • preserve street trees and existing mature trees and expand the urban share tree canopy, i.e., to increase -- not decrease --the number of trees;
  • focus on people, not vehicles; and
  • engage the neighborhood and provide "procedural equity,", i.e., work with fairness.

The City's project goes against all these principles. Their decision removes an accessible sidewalk for two disabled residents, destroys the beloved cherry trees, inflates the street temperature significantly (up to 54 degrees was recorded), and does not involve those who will be affected by the scheme.

The cherry tree defenders put forward a robust alternative

According to the group's website, the Warfield residents and its community of supporters "would like the city to hit 'pause' on this rushed, careless plan for now, and investigate better options."

They propose a two-year moratorium so that the City and the residents can work together to devise a climate-friendly approach.

Kellhammer, who measured the temperature differential discussed above, said that in the meantime, "If one [of the cherry trees] dies, we can replace them and do it incrementally," he said.

The City is not interested in postponing.

The residents say the arguments against the City's Warfield Place repaving plan are so irrefutable, the level of opposition so immense - drawing the attention of national figures such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and others -- and the alternative proposal is so equitable, that the Mayor's refusal to reconsider is, as one of the residents said a "mystery."

That same person wrote me an email saying, "It boggles the mind and leaves us scratching our heads."

What you can do

If you don't want to see "Grandpa Warfield" and the other residents chaining themselves to the cherry trees, you might consider doing one of the following:

  • get on the group's email list via the website
  • attend the protests
  • volunteer for phone banking and the like; or
  • call or write the Mayor directly. Find the contact information on the local government site.

Sometimes, it does take a village.

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I've moved back to this area after living abroad for 15 years. Both the landscape and the people are beautiful. People are kind to each other here in Northampton, MA. Thus, as I get reacquainted and go see all the cool stuff, I shall share with you! And, I have fun stories from abroad!

Northampton, MA

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