Monday, August 3, 2009

Where Have All the Oak Trees Gone?

The thing that surprises most first-time visitors I meet is how leafy Houston is, even inside the Loop, near downtown. When we moved into this 6th floor condo unit in 2002, I compared our view to the prized one from Fifth Avenue in New York, looking out over the canopy of trees in Central Park.

The amazing thing to us, even then, was that what looked like the treescape of a park from above, was actually a neighborhood of homes where people lived in harmony with the shade around them.

The ensuing seven years have seen tropical disturbances, construction, economic melt-down, a recession. The first of these would have been expected to damage our trees to some degree, and it did. It is the second, though, that has been responsible for the vastly greater damage, despite financial problems that should at least have brought it to a temporary halt.

MacMansions are on the march down Piping Rock west of Maconda, near River Oaks.

When we stand on our balcony looking to the southwest, the green canopy that once stretched toward the Loop has been replaced by gray expanses of roof in such close proximity that no oak tree can survive. Which is probably moot since whatever might have been there was removed for construction. If one or two remain out near the street, they present the sad aspect of patients with a terminal disease, their canopies thinning, their limbs serially amputated, a pitiful sight.

Higher density building is happening all over the neartown suburbs of Houston, and in many areas it is welcomed for the demand it will create for mass transit. Loss of trees is generally compensated for by decreased pollution damage from automobiles.

The MacMansions, though, do not contribute to beneficial urban population densities. They’re single-family houses and we’ve seen no sign of the large families one might expect to occupy them. You might call them “underoccupied” from the point of view of how much electricity they consume for cooling and other basic activities.

In the areas where this is happening, therefore, we are seeing the negatives of density with none of the potential positives. We’re losing our trees, and with them the oxygen they produce to help in our battle for clean air; we’re losing one of the few sources of natural beauty in our city—the one most likely to be noticed by visitors and tourists. And we’re getting nothing for it.

I should point out than when these oversized houses are planned for River Oaks, at least, a sign is posted noting that a variance has been requested. The variance, when granted, allows a house to be built that exceeds the neighborhood’s size restrictions. And they are always granted. I would like to know why. And I would like that answer to be public and specific.