First make a desert to plant a garden?

by Maskil on 5 Aug 2008

I often fill up at a Caltex Service Station in Western Service Road. They also have a convenient (usually quick) and relatively inexpensive car wash service that I use occasionally. (Ignore these details if you’re not in Sandton. This is more about general principles.)

I pulled in a few days ago, and prepared to have a peaceful half-hour writer’s break in the shade of the magnificent trees at the rear of the service station. To my distress and horror, every single tree – large or small – was gone! Not one left! Where the largest of the trees used to stand, there’s now a shadecloth awning for the comfort of customers.

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What possessed them? If one of the trees was endangering person or property (overhanging branches or invasive roots), then surely just that one “offending” tree should be pruned or felled. But no, every last tree had been cut down to a stump.

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When I looked closer, I could see that they had planted quite a pretty garden in the ground previously dominated by the trees. So, is this what it was all about? They decided they needed to create an urban desert in order to plant their picturesque garden?

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No amount of indignation can possibly restore what has been lost here. Do I believe they should be heavily fined for this act of vandalism against the urban ecology? Absolutely! I don’t believe, though, that there’s a single act, by-law, law or regulation that addresses this issue. Trees – especially those on private property – are outside the protection of the law.

What needs to change to prevent this from happening? Bear in mind that this is not an isolated incident. On every building site in Sandton (and I’m sure the same applies city and countrywide), massive, mature trees are bulldozed aside like so much garbage. Developers and architects are apparently unable to function unless they have a totally clear, level site. No effort is made to spare even the largest or oldest trees, to bring shade or character or softness to the new development.

Johannesburg’s claim to being the largest man-made urban forest is increasingly under threat. In our age of global climate change, the need to preserve and supplement our stock of city trees has never been greater, both for the carbon equation and to ameliorate the local effects of global warming. Despite this, however, the threat to our urban forests has never been greater.

We haven’t yet fully understood how trees hold our planet together, both literally and figuratively. Although this applies primarily to trees in a forest setting, it also applies to those lining our streets, and in our gardens, parks, playgrounds and other private and public spaces. We should not be taking a chainsaw to the very fibres that keep the world together, and that purify and circulate the water we drink and the air we breathe.

As in other parts of the world (I think the EU may be an example), large trees on both private and public land should be protected by law. No mature tree should be felled without the appropriate permit from the relevant planning authority.

Pruning and felling of mature trees should only be carried out by qualified and accredited arborists. (The Johannesburg City Parks’ credentials in this regard are extremely suspect. Our streets are lined with their acts of vandalism.)

Trees of a certain size and/or maturity should possibly even be given the same sort of protection as that afforded to heritage sites.

Finally, just getting back to the specifics of the service station trees, if this was done in the interests of customer service, didn’t they realize that the quality of the shade provided by an awning is nothing at all like that provided by fine trees?

(Please excuse the images. I make no claim to being a photographer, and these pictures were taken in bright sunlight, using the 1.3 megapixel camera on my Nokia 6610i. I hope they serve to provide some idea of the destruction.)

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