A bare beginning
When I moved to the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood in 1994, much of it was not a pleasant place to walk.
Most of the public rights-of-way (the areas between the street curb and property lines/fences) were just hot, bare dirt, devoid of shade trees and other life. There were few sidewalks, but thankfully there was plenty of room for earthen footpaths. However, many people parked atop the footpaths rather than parking on the street—I’m afraid my brother and I were guilty of this, too (fig. 1A). This choice of parking location was driven partly by a fear that cars would get broken into if parked on the street. This fear was due in part to there not being many neighbors’ eyes on the street, which was due in part to having impassible footpaths—you did not want to hang out in or look out into the bleak, lifeless street environment.
Yet another problem was the traffic in the streets. The neighborhood at that time was rife with speeding cut-through traffic (especially on the east-west streets) which would often collide with slower-moving pets or cars parked on the street. Thus I did not consider walking in the hot streets to be a viable alternative to walking in the rights-of-way.
But there was much to love about the community, and a number of neighbors saw great potential for simple transformations of the negatives to positives, with the past and present sometimes informing the future. For example, before she passed away, Dunbar School alumna and activist Willie Fears told me that many decades ago when she was a child, trees lined Main Avenue and its footpath to downtown, enabling kids to walk there barefoot in summer from our neighborhood and back.
Those trees were all gone by the time I moved here, but an oasis could (and still can) be found on Perry Avenue between University Blvd and 2nd Street where South American mesquite trees planted by neighbors in the 1980s canopied over most of the street. Then-resident Steve Leal had obtained well over a hundred of these trees which volunteers planted around the neighborhood. Many of these trees were eventually lost as they blew over or were leaning so much they had to be removed. On the northwest corner of Perry and University Blvd grew (and still grows) a different tree, a huge native desert ironwood tree planted many years ago by Elizabeth Upham who had bought it from Target as a seedling in a one-gallon pot.
These and other tree stories and plantings inspired then-newcomers such as me, along with longer-term residents, to begin in 1996 what has become an annual neighborhood tree-planting project that brings neighbors together to plant native, food-bearing trees along our streets, walkways, and property lines. As we began to plant, we found cars moved to the street (figs. 2A and B) and the neighborhood immediately felt enhanced and more cared-for. Native songbirds, butterflies, and pollinators returned to the growing habitat. (We would later discover research showcasing how important native vegetation is for native wildlife. For example, native mesquite trees attract over 60 native pollinators, while non-native mesquites planted here attract only about a dozen.) More people started walking and bicycling in the neighborhood. Crime dropped.
Since 1996, our neighborhood’s annual tree-planting project has resulted in neighbors planting over 1,400 trees! Still more were planted before 1996, or since by individual efforts outside of the neighborhood programs.
And those trees are doing particularly well where individual and/or neighborhood efforts are also passively harvesting rainwater and street runoff (while reducing downstream flooding). Over a million gallons of rain per year falls on a one-mile stretch of a typical Dunbar/Spring street. If that rainwater is directed to street-side basins as opposed to storm drains, there is enough street runoff along our streets to freely irrigate over 400 low-water-use native trees per mile, or one tree every twenty-five feet, on both sides of the street.
Beginning in 2004, my brother and I created pilot sites where we made illegal cuts or core holes in the street curb to enable the street runoff get to the street-side tree basins. Vegetation flourished. We dialogued with the city, and by 2007 the practice of cutting street curbs to harvest street runoff had been legalized, and was later even incentivized. Now legal curb cuts spread as pioneering neighbors such as the Jacobses and Turtle and Ian installed them on their blocks.
Interestingly, our neighborhood’s lack of sidewalks proved to be an asset in pioneering this street-runoff harvesting, as it allowed the neighborhood more leeway for making larger basins for stormwater and trees along the street than would’ve been possible if sidewalk placement had left a street-side planting area too narrow for effective stormwater harvesting. Additionally, we did not have the expense of cutting through and then repouring concrete sidewalks. We were also able to pioneer more naturalistic, slightly meandering, tree-canopied earthen footpaths.
In 2009 our neighborhood was awarded a $500,000 Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant for tree planting, rainwater and street-runoff harvesting, traffic calming, and public art—all in the public rights-of-ways, our public Commons. Thanks to that grant, individual efforts, previous small grants, and donations, by the year 2012 our neighborhood’s green infrastructure included:
- 10 water-harvesting traffic circles,
- 33 water-harvesting/traffic-calming chicanes
- Over 85 street-side basins fed by 50 curb cuts and 35 curb cores
All of this harvests over 700,000 gallons (2 acre-feet) per year of stormwater, which used to flood our streets.
Thanks to these growing and culminating efforts, there is now far more life in the neighborhood than there had been in the early 1990s (fig. 1B, above).
An old challenge reappears in a new form
However, ironically, in some sections of the neighborhood’s public rights-of-way there is now so much life that it is once again becoming unpleasant or impossible to walk along the footpaths—this time due to vegetation blocking the route. Simple pruning can remedy this. Maintaining a minimum standard of a continuous clear walkway area, 5 feet wide by 7 feet tall, enables two people to comfortably walk side by side or pass one another (our neighborhood has mostly 20-foot-wide public rights-of-ways).
How have Brad and his Dunbar/Spring neighbors turned their pruning challenge into more benefit for the neighborhood, creating tangible and intangible improvements that further ratchet up the quality of life in their little part of the city?
Glean pruning and mulching tips and walkability/maneuverability ideas, learn more about the history and community development of the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood, and more, here.