Sidewalk maintenance and street trees

Sidewalks and street trees both make it easier, safer, and more comfortable to get around town on foot, so Syracuse’s new municipal sidewalk program and Urban Forestry Master Plan should make life better for pedestrians. But these two programs might work against each other if they’re not coordinated.

One side of the problem is that the sidewalks need fixing—in many cases—because tree roots have messed them up. Trees planted too shallow send their roots out near the surface, and they lift individual pavers to make the sidewalks impassable for people with wheelchairs, a headache for parents with strollers, and a hazard for anyone on foot. In many cases, fixing the sidewalk will mean removing a poorly planted tree.

The other side of the problem is that planting a new tree the right way often requires tearing up the sidewalk. Trees wont send their roots through the sidewalk if they’re given enough room, and on streets where there’s only a little space between the sidewalk and the curb that means planting the root ball deeply and partially underneath the sidewalk. Of course, that’s only possible if you tear the sidewalk up to plant the tree.

It’s not hard to imagine where this could lead: a tree gets cut down to fix the sidewalk, then a little while later, the sidewalk gets torn up to plant a new tree. The end result is less tree cover and a newly-busted sidewalk, and City Hall’s spent a lot of money to make the street worse.

Luckily, we have a model for doing this right. The Dig Once program coordinates pavement reconstruction with utility maintenance on Syracuse’s streets to minimize construction disruptions, save money, and to preserve the new smooth street surface for as long as possible. Basically, whenever DPW rips an entire street up in order to repave it, they fix everything underneath the street before laying new asphalt back over top. This is the kind of common sense coordination that delivers better municipal services without any extra cost to the public.

City Hall should take the same ‘Dig Once’ approach with its municipal sidewalk program. Tearing up a sidewalk in order to lay down a brand new one? Check with the City Arborist to see if that block is in line to get new trees, and let them get planted nice and deep before pouring the new concrete surface. It’s that simple.

Syracuse is used to hearing that it can’t have nice things because we can’t afford them, but a lot of times it’s less a matter of money and more a problem of just doing things efficiently. That’s the case with rebuilding our pedestrian infrastructure. We have the money for sidewalks, and we have the money for new trees—we just need to spend that money intelligently in order to buy a better City for people who get around on foot.