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This Shouldn’t Be New York City’s Most Common Tree
March 19, 2024

This Shouldn’t Be New York City’s Most Common Tree

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The London planetree is a symbol of European settlement, biodiversity collapse, and Robert Moses., London planetrees shouldn’t be the most common trees in NYC.

A nature walk in Bryant Park introduced me to a tree I have come to resent.

Urban naturalist Gabriel Willow was leading a group of birdwatchers around the Midtown square in search of migrating birds. He pointed to the tall, graceful trees branching over the paths—their patterned bark; their soft, pale green leaves—and named them for us. They were London planetrees, and no birds flitted in their boughs.

‘You don’t really bother looking at London planes because there’s just not much there,’ Willow told me in a recent interview, by which point I’d spent years cultivating a loathing of London planetrees.

Oaks, tulip trees, and other native species attract throngs of songbirds, especially in the spring and fall migration seasons. London planetrees do not. While all trees have physical or chemical defenses, insects in New York City haven’t adapted to the planetrees’ fortifications the way they have with native trees, causing cascading effects throughout the food web. This means fewer plant-eating bugs; in turn, fewer bug-eating birds grace these trees.

Devoid of most critters, the London planetrees are about as sterile as trees can be. And they’re just about everywhere. You might not yet have a strong feeling about these trees, but they’re probably familiar to you. New York City is home to over 87,000 London planetrees, per the Department of Parks and Recreation’s 2015 tree census. That’s 13 percent of all the trees.
There are about 23,000 more London planes than the next most abundant species, the honeylocust.

They’re prized in cities throughout the temperate zone for their hardiness and generic good looks—’the city tree par excellence,’ according to Henry Lawrence’s book City Trees. By 1900, Lawrence writes, the planetree ‘was on the way to becoming the most widely planted of all city trees,’ having spread from England to continental Europe to North America.

While they do some good, like all trees do, experts say that their negative impacts on biodiversity can’t be ignored.

‘If you’re going to put a tree in a city, make it do a number of things—not just be a decoration, not just sequester carbon, but do the best you can in terms of supporting biodiversity as well,’ said Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware and a leading native plant advocate.

Their main appeal is that they are tough. London planes became New York City’s street tree of choice in the mid-20th century because they can tolerate all sorts of disturbances that get thrown at urban street trees. Droughts, downpours, vandalism—even cleaning solutions poured onto the sidewalk don’t seem to affect them.

‘It was seen as a gold standard of urban design and was praised for its longevity and hardiness,’ said Georgia Silvera Seamans, an urban forester at New York University whose work explores the roles that trees play in cities. ‘It was seen as a tree that you would plant and it would be able to survive whatever New York City conditions it was planted in.’

Even in the concrete jungle, London planes can grow tall and wide, providing shade and shelter. Those broad canopies absorb rainfall while the roots soak up water in the soil, helping to mitigate flooding. They even capture particulates in the air, which cling to their exterior. When the trees shed their puzzle-piece bark, it’s like they’re exfoliating: They deposit pollutants into the soil, preventing them from entering local waterways or our lungs, while jettisoning damaged bark.

As the name implies, London planes have roots in England, but neither parent species is native to there (a native species being one that has evolved alongside the rest of an ecosystem). They’re a hybrid of the American sycamore (native to what’s now the eastern United States) and Oriental plane (native to eastern Europe and western Asia). They were popularized in London sometime in the 17th century, but might have originated in Spain—a lot about this tree’s history, including when exactly it arrived in North America, is murky. What matters is that the hybrid London planetree is native to nowhere.

Precise details aside, the same Old World parentage that wards off native insects, plus the crossbreed’s own renowned hardiness, helped planetrees resist the diseases that all but wiped out the American elm and American chestnut, two previously popular street trees. And they’re long-lived—some of the original London planes in England are still alive, now centuries old.

‘I don’t want to say they’re indestructible, but they seem to put up with a lot,’ said Silvera Seamans.

London planes survived in the city well enough to serve as decorations in an era where trees were mostly seen as objects of aesthetic appeal. In later decades, they’ve also been praised for their role in resisting climate change.

In a 2021 piece for Curbed about stewarding urban nature, Stephanie Foo drew motivation from a London plane that annually sequesters an estimated 10,500 tons of carbon dioxide. As Alison Kinney wrote in a 2017 New Yorker essay romanticizing the planetree, they also help filter rainwater and provide green spaces for New Yorkers.

‘Here, like other hardworking immigrants, they performed tireless, invisible labor for the city, sequestering carbon, countering the heat-island effect, and reducing the pollution of storm-water runoff,’ Kinney wrote.

I’d say they’re more like settlers than immigrants, though, brought in to impose a colonizer’s ideals upon the landscape.

This was the role of the London plane in Robert Moses’ New York. The pivotal factor in this tree’s spread was how much powerful white men loved the European aesthetic that the preferred street tree of London, Rome, and Paris helped evoke.

It was during Moses’ reign over the Department of Parks and Recreation that the planetree was popularized in the city’s parks and streets. Like expressways tearing through low-income neighborhoods, London planes are said to have been a personal favorite of that shrewd tyrant. Moses seemed to love this tree almost as much as he loathed poor New Yorkers, people of color, and public transit. When Moses consolidated the boroughs’ parks departments into a single citywide office in 1934, the new parks department got a now-familiar logo. That leaf, while officially unspecified, seems to depict a London plane.

Moses and the landscape architects he hired planted London planes everywhere they could as they went. Moses’ subsequent park-building spree featured the tree in every one of his parks. The virtual extinction of both the American elm and chestnut in the first half of the 20th century cleared the way for planetrees to become urban America’s default tree. They were fashionable, popular, and European—Silvera Seamans described the popularity of the London plane as ‘a European fever dream in city planning.’

This fad came at a cost to native wildlife, starting with bugs, the vast majority of which are adapted to survive by eating the plants they’ve evolved with. Nonnative species like the London plane are associated with declines in species richness and abundance. A 2012 study in England—where, again, planetrees aren’t native either—found that London planes ‘are especially poor for insect herbivores and may be particularly unprofitable food sources’ for birds. No bugs; no birds.

In my hundreds of hours birdwatching in New York City’s parks, I’ve found that I rarely see birds foraging in a London plane, and even then only when there are no other options. In Bryant Park, species that are typically arboreal can be seen foraging on the ground, which Willow, the naturalist, speculates is due to the sterility of the ubiquitous planetrees. (European starlings are one exception; these invasive birds love to nest in the hollows of London planes.)

With fewer native plants, animals like birds that depend on bugs as a food source are threatened. Reducing the spread of nonnative species, on the other hand, can help prevent declines in insect populations.

One native oak tree can support hundreds of species of caterpillars, while an American sycamore (native, but not especially prolific) can support fewer than 50. Cross that sycamore with a nonnative Oriental plane to get a London planetree, and the number likely plummets even lower. That kind of drop in food availability may have ‘serious conservation implications,’ one study warns. In another study, Tallamy and his co-authors likened the ecological effect of nonnative plantings to that of a food desert.

Nonnative plants can still play important roles in human communities. Lara Roman, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, pointed out that while biodiversity is a high priority, it isn’t the only priority. A nonnative species might shade more of the sidewalk or hold special cultural significance.

‘It’s not possible to necessarily have win-win-win scenarios every time and always simultaneously achieve all benefits,’ Roman said. But if wildlife habitat is the priority, ‘then yeah, go with the natives,’ she said.

‘Is the cultural value enough to keep planting a species that doesn’t have a lot of wildlife value?’ Silvera Seamans said. ‘Personally, I think London planetrees are beautiful, but beauty is not enough anymore.’

These days, the New York City parks department recommends planting London planes only sparingly. Though, really, why plant them at all? They are a relic of a worse time in New York’s history and should be phased out.

We have a model to look toward in the case of the Norway maple, a formerly popular shade tree that was placed on the parks department’s do-not-plant list in 2006 because its prolific seedlings displaced those of native species. In the 2015 tree census, it was down from nearly one-quarter of the city’s trees in 1995 to just 5 percent in 2015.

While the London planetree doesn’t spread as aggressively as Norway maple, we could take the same strict do-not-plant approach in the interests of native biodiversity. It would be counterproductive to cut down the London planes that are currently standing. But we could replace them exclusively with native trees as they die off.

A London plane can sequester carbon dioxide, sure, but so can every other tree, including native species adapted to local ecosystems. Besides, cutting down on CO2 emissions isn’t their responsibility—it’s ours.

Trees these days also don’t have to deal with the same pollution as London planes did in pre–Clean Air Act New York. Tallamy described the idea that native plants aren’t hardy enough to survive in cities as ‘ridiculous,’ pointing to the example of the oaks and elms of Washington, D.C.

If we care about our environments, we ought to reshape our urban forests to better support their ecological communities. Practically speaking, resilient ecosystems also provide innumerable services to the humans living around them, like filtering air and water, mitigating extreme heat, reducing flooding, and supporting populations of crop-pollinating insects. Native plants, according to Tallamy, help keep cities alive.

‘Everybody requires functioning ecosystems,’ Tallamy said. ‘It’s not optional. Everybody requires it. That means everybody has the responsibility to help sustain it. Everybody, not just tree huggers.’

I’m with him on this. But just know that I won’t be hugging a London planetree any time soon.


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