Why I Volunteer

by David Dannenberg

Physically, Mount Airy is defined by its greenery, especially its street trees. Arguably other parts of the city boast similar architecture, similar mix of housing. None are as green.  When I was a child the preponderance of streets in Mount Airy passed beneath a veritable tunnel of greenery, created by the overlapping canopies of the trees on both sides. The neighborhood also has many public green spaces, big and small, ranging from the Wissahickon and Carpenters Woods, to traffic triangles (picture the intersection of north and south Mount Pleasant Avenues) and wide strips adjacent to streets (picture Lincoln Drive south of Wayne Avenue) that enhance the general sense of verdancy. Unfortunately the signature green quality of our neighborhood has been diminishing for decades;  as street trees mature and die and the city lacks the capacity to care for and replace them while at the same time the city fails generally to properly care for our aging public spaces. The street tree decline is exacerbated by poor practices of companies with whom the utilities contract to trim around wires; they not only ruin the appearance of the trees, but weaken them in ways that, ironically, make them more likely to fail structurally and then damage utility wires. The wires should have been buried more than half a century ago.
There are many reasons that the City does an inadequate job caring for street trees and public space. It is beyond my capacity to address those causes herein; just accept the fact as they are. However, I believe that in light of the failure of the public sector to take responsibility for these critically important quality of life assets, it is incumbent on the private sector to do so. By seizing initiative and working together we can leverage what City and other institutional assets remain by combining them with our own resources to maintain and improve our neighborhood. This benefits everyone.

Further, the process of working together on tangible projects has many benefits that simply tilting at the windmill of city hall will never yield. Working on the ground planting trees or clearing debris, allows us the opportunity to get to know other wonderful Mount Airy residents whom we might not otherwise meet. Working on projects develops in all of us a stronger sense of ownership, makes us all greater stakeholders. Our working also generates a certain amount of appreciation from the neighbors who are not working with us, but see us working and appreciate the results; we all feel good about this. And finally, working on tangible long term projects gives us a sense of pride and happiness as we literally watch the results of our efforts grow, as saplings turn into real shade trees, as once barren and trash strewn pockets of public space become beautiful green assets that are accessed and enjoyed by hundreds of people every day.

And yet withal I retain a certain degree of frustration that borders on despair. There are many times more places to plant trees than there are places that already have trees. Many more have disappeared from our streets than have been replaced. Our rate of planting must be dramatically increased if we are to turn the tide of decline. Many more resources both organizational and financial are needed to do a thorough job of enhancing and maintaining our public green spaces. I sense a lack of awareness on the part of the public. First of all, I fear there is a mistaken belief that the City does and will care for these resources. The facts of the past four decades proves otherwise. Moreover, I believe that people are not really conscious of the effects of public greenery on the quality of their lives. It is something they feel every day—or fail to feel in many locations—but do not think about.

I ask that all readers begin to pay more attention. Try the following exercise. On a hot day find a treeless intersection or block and stand outside for 5 or ten minutes at mid day;  the intersection of  Lincoln Drive and Carpenter Lane would do but there are many many others. Then go to a similar location that is tree covered and stand for 5 or ten minutes; for contrast you could try the corner of Lincoln Drive and Mount Airy Avenue. Close your eyes as you stand there, breath the air, feel the sun, listen to the traffic or the birds; casually check your heart rate and try to be aware of your emotional state. I would be very surprised if you did not feel a dramatic physical and emotional difference between the two locations. This difference comprises the essence of the quality of life attributes of street trees and greenery. And now, as you pass through the neighborhood, imagine what the areas that are currently treeless would be like if they had trees, and imagine what areas that still have trees would be like without them. (and imagine how nice the neighborhood would look and feel without wires strung all over the place!) Then think about whether you are willing to help improve the situation and imagine how satisfying your participation could be.

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