Thursday, May 23, 2024

Ribbons tied around the trunks of oak trees at the Tobin Vassal Lane Upper School indicate they will be destroyed to make way for construction. (Photo: Jan Devereux)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the three big trees on the chopping block at the Tobin Vassal Lane Upper School that I wrote about last month (“Save more of the big trees at Tobin VLUS,” June 21). I’ve since learned that five very large oak trees along the existing school driveway are threatened by the proposed site and building design. Their fate is already sealed, bright pink ribbons having just been tied around their trunks. Still, a memo on whether they might be saved was promised for the City Council’s summer meeting agenda Monday, and a Save the Trees rally is being organized outside City Hall that day.

It is especially sad and frustrating to be mourning the imminent demise of these stately trees during a summer of cataclysmic weather events globally – an overdue climate reckoning that underscores the urgency of action. Much of the public outcry has focused on the very significant canopy loss that removing these towering trees would represent. Some of us also care about the fate of the birds and small creatures, even insects, whose long-established habitats will vanish.

Another good reason to preserve the trees outside the school, as well as to increase the transparency of the new building’s façade, relates to what science tells us about the positive impact of green views and natural light on students’ academic performance, emotional well-being, attention, memory and creativity. Frederick Law Olmsted, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated in 2022, recognized the restorative powers of green views and open space on our brains early on: “Natural scenery employs the mind without fatigue,” he wrote.


These are the principles of biophilic design pioneered by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, whose findings have been explored further in research by John Spengler of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and many others. Simply put, humans have evolved to think and feel better outside looking at nature’s calming fractal patterns and green vistas, and modern urban lives spent overwhelmingly indoors weaken our cognitive capacity.

This tree debate has been framed in the false binary terms that so many political debates are these days, pitting the public benefits of a modern new school and park complex against the environmental benefits of preserving healthy, mature trees. Yet these two sets of benefits are as inextricably bound as the roots and biosystems connecting these trees, and the trees’ benefits extend not only to neighbors and passersby, but even more critically to the occupants of the future building. The prime beneficiaries of saving these mature trees are the students who will be parents themselves before the proposed replacement trees are fully mature, and the school employees who will have retired or passed away by that time.

The pandemic has demonstrated the folly of not following the science. Unvaccinated people are dying because they refused to listen to the advice of public health experts. In sacrificing these trees, it seems we have learned the wrong lessons from the pandemic and the climate emergency. It boggles my mind to think that here in Cambridge, the birthplace of both biophilic design and the Covid vaccine, we couldn’t have tried harder to make this school construction project an unequivocal win-win. 

Jan Devereux is a former city councillor and vice mayor.