SUSTAINABLE MARBLEHEAD: Trees are essential to our planet, and to us

Long ago, with the rise of urbanization brought on by industrialization, the Victorians saw a need for green spaces in barren cities. They planted parks, established sanitary infrastructure addressing community disease and created the model for modern cityscapes we know and love today. Research shows that trees and green spaces are critically important to our life on earth — they improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, capture dust and pollution particles, dampen noise, shade streets and buildings, absorb pollutants, including bacteria, and prevent erosion. Additionally, the shade alone reduces heat by an average of 30 degrees Fahrenheit. 

A walk through our green conservation areas so carefully maintained by the Marblehead Conservancy can reduce your blood pressure, increase positive thoughts, lower “fight or flight” stress and give you time to think. Long-term stress in all animals and plants reduces life expectancy, so we would all do well to spend more time outside. 

If you need further reason to spend time amongst nature and trees, significant new evidence exists that myopia is increasing as children and young adults spend more time indoors reading, studying and gaming. A BBC article published last year reported: “In the United States, about 40% of adults are short-sighted, up from 25% in 1971. Rates have similarly soared in the UK. But their situation pales in comparison with that of teens and young adults in South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China, whose prevalence rates are between 84% and 97%. If current trends continue, half the world’s population will be short-sighted by 2050. And the problem seems to be spreading at a faster rate than ever.”

Our seniors, so often alone in their houses and apartments, also need outdoor socializing time with plenty of shade in the summer and protections from winds year-round.  

In Marblehead, there has been a renewed interest in the state of our tree canopy, but we need to do more than just express interest or horror. An urban tree’s life expectancy is at best 50% of that of its wild brethren — the effect of several stressors. In our town, we are seeing the impact of intensive tree planting in the 1970s and 1980s that subsequently was not well managed. Maintenance, including periodic trimming and replanting, was not a focus and as a result, many of our shaded streets and neighborhoods are transforming into heat islands as dangerous and dead trees must come down. Countering this trend requires a sophisticated management plan and hard work over multiple years by many parties — it also requires money and focused labor.

Our town Tree Warden Jon Fobert, our Parks Department, Marblehead Conservancy and Sustainable Marblehead all work, with limited resources and volunteers, to improve and maintain our green spaces. Fobert has made replanting a priority by:

1) reviewing and responding to the multiple page/multiple year list of tree requests;

2) planting 25-30 neighborhood trees in April for the past three years, with the help of Sustainable Marblehead;

3) establishing an inventory process,

4) and regularizing the ordinance for town trees to be planted on private property.

An outline for the so-called Abbot Hall Tree Walk. COURTESY PHOTO

The Parks Department has used donations to create native plantings at the Community Center and Chandler Hovey with more ideas in the works. The Conservancy continues to make major improvements to our wilder lands with an all-volunteer crew.

While all that is positive, we need to do more. In 1975, Tree Warden Loring Clark established a Tree Fund to replace the stately elms around Abbot Hall which had been ravaged by Dutch elm disease. There is a plaque in Abbot Hall that lists the trees planted and the generous donors.

That fund still exists and it needs your support. The Emerald Ash Borer has come to town and all the ash trees, whether public or private, will need to be removed. Beech Leaf Disease is also attacking our trees. Beeches are quite prevalent in the conservation areas. As with Dutch elm disease there are no cures for these scourges and Marblehead’s budget can’t possibly pay for all the work that needs to be done. We need to step up as volunteers and donors to make a difference.

If you’d like to contribute to Marblehead’s Tree Fund to fund tree replacements, please contact the Tree Department at 781-631-2721. Come join Sustainable Marblehead again next April for more planting.
The Recreation and Parks Department has an excellent donation website for developing landscaped native plantings in our parks. People who in the past might have sponsored benches should consider memorializing their loved ones and organizations with green spaces. Visit for more information.

The Marblehead Housing Authority properties are also heat islands with almost no seating or gathering areas. Outdoor rooms with benches, planters, shade trees, picnic tables and umbrellas are all needed as well as the volunteers to make the hands-on changes to these areas. To learn more contact

Sustainable Marblehead is working with our town and other superb volunteer groups to protect our open spaces. Many of you already belong to SPUR, Scouts, Rotary and garden clubs. We cross pollinate in our efforts to provide the social, educational and structural needs of our town together. Thank you and please keep your support coming.

Palma Bickford is Sustainable Marblehead’s Town Tree & Urban Forestry Working Group leader.

Pamela Bickford
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