Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
More cities are considering turning their street trees into food sources.
Picture talking a walk down the street and stopping at the corner to pick up an apple. Not from the corner store, but from the corner apple tree, planted on the street, right out in the public. This imaginary walk would be little more than a dream in most neighborhoods. But in Vancouver, it could become a reality.
As The Vancouver Sun recently reported, the city is looking to add more fruit- and nut-bearing trees to its urban tree inventory. As part of a plan to plant more than 150,000 trees by 2020, the city is considering making food-producing trees a major part of that effort:
Vancouver city council and the park board will consider motions next week that would incorporate planting food-bearing trees into the Urban Forest Management Plan, due to be completed next year.
“We will have a plan to plant the trees, care for the trees and harvest the fruit,” said Vision Vancouver park commissioner Niki Sharma, who introduced the notice of motion at park board Monday. Mayor Gregor Robertson introduced the notice to council Tuesday.
The city already has an inventory of about 600 street trees that produce fruits and nuts. Another 425 are located in city parks and community gardens.
For the most part, city trees don't tend to provide fruit – not the kind of fruit people want to eat, at least. The reasoning is fairly obvious: fruit trees produce a lot of fruit, and when not tended to this fruit can be a mess and a vermin attractor. While cities do maintain their tree populations – periodic trimming and culling as needed – they don't tend to spend the sort of time watching over trees that they'd need to in order to help a fruit crop grow. So it's interesting to see Vancouver announce this plan.
But official city-sanctioned fruit trees aren't the only way the urban forest can become more of an urban orchard. Amateur arborists in San Francisco known as the Guerrilla Grafters have been grafting fruit-bearing tree branches onto already growing and stable street trees. As Amy Biegelsen reported for The Atlantic Cities back in February, Tara Hui, the leader behind this movement, has grafted cherries, plums and pears onto city trees – all without the city's approval.
Hui sees maintaining data as a key element of the project. “It’s difficult to counter an argument without any data to disprove it,” she says. The grafters are working on a mapping application with data on tree type and location in hopes that the citizen science will bolster their project and any future negotiating they may need to do.
They have good reason to worry on that score. The city's public works director, Mohammed Nuru, recently told the San Francisco Examiner that trees in the right of way are "not for grafting" and that the city "considers such vandalism a serious offense. There would be fines for damage to city property."
And in L.A., a project called Fallen Fruit has carefully mapped out the locations of fruit-bearing trees that are growing on public land or at least partially hanging over public land, making it easy for people to legally access locally grown food for free.
Official fruit trees, though, are relatively rare in cities. But that may be slowly starting to change. The town of Unley, Australia, for example, recently approved a trial program where more than 60 fruit and nut trees were planted in a public park. Officials see it as a way to increase food security and also to encourage locals to consider planting fruit trees in their own yards. The shift for cities to take on the responsibility of caring for fruit trees is not insignificant, though. How well efforts like these work will largely be a matter of maintenance over the long term – both by city officials and by local community groups and neighbors. But if they can pull it off, there should be more cities willing to follow suit. And maybe some day that imaginary walk to the corner apple tree will be reality.