Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Patrick was first published in October 2012.

It’s Spring! And in many places the city is looking its best, especially some of the recently upgraded places. Also some of our old friends are coming back to life too. I love city streets, and buildings, and the spaces between, but often the most wonderful things in a city are the trees. Of course there are the great city parks, and in Albert Park Auckland has a fine example of this kind of Victorian public mindedness, especially glorious now the trees are mature. But areas set aside for nature are not what today’s post is about.

My favourite city trees are the survivors on the streets, those tough or lucky examples that somehow have braved all the insults of the urban environment to offer us their shade, shelter, and oxygen, but above all their beauty. So I thought I would share my favourites. I started with very tough criteria; no parks, no groups, just the exceptional loners, but I only ended up with six! And one isn’t even a tree [you’ll see]. So I broadened it out to include some of the recent planting by the Council that I really like.

Oak, Khartoum Pl

Just to be clear what I love in a city tree is its relationship with the built environment, its urbanity if you like, not how less built it can make a place, but more the juxtaposition that emphasises both the treeness of the tree and the builtness of the buildings. I see them as an intersection of culture and nature where human construction has the upper hand. In parks and of out of the city we look more for this relationship to be reversed.

London Plane, Freemans Bay

First up a stunning example of arguably the best suited street tree: The London Plane. Especially good in those Victorian avenues like Franklin Rd, Greys Ave, and in remnants on Symonds St and Grafton Rd. This one is a member of one of the most vulnerable typologies, the Traffic Island survivor. It just made it through the Vic Park Tunnel project but it lost its partner. While the land hungry road is the biggest treat to these trees it also can give them light and air to spread out away from buildings, so if they can survive the automobile’s endless urge for lebensraum Traffic Island Trees can become stately and symmetrical.

Planes hold off their Spring growth allowing that welcome early Spring sunlight through. Below; a little more recently and here it is getting on its Summer look even if the weather wasn’t:

A little further into the city is another Traffic Islander, not sure what the variety it is as it too was still in its winter garb when I was there [please comment if you know the varieties I’ve missed]:

Victoria St West

It’s not only deciduous trees that work in the city, although I do love that combination of sun and shade at just the right times of the year. Here is a wonderful Pohutukawa at the top of St Paul St looking out on the that poorly designed intersection between the city centre’s two universities on Symonds St. Almost certainly a wilding tree, that is to say not planted deliberately into the little herbaceous border of the elegant brick town house, but a natural interloper. So even more respect. And just goes to show that we can be a little too prissy when it comes to where we think we can fit a substantial tree.

Pohutukawa, St Paul St

There are more Pohutukawas now down on the vastly improved shared space of Fort St, which does, amazingly, bring a sense of the plage to this former beach front place:

Pohutukawa Fort St

These will grow into fantastic specimens. The Nikau is our only native palm and rightfully is the one for the difficult habitat of the Queen St gully [Here’s a plan: Let’s get the cars out of this place and daylight the Waihorotiu stream, and why not? It’s little use as a transport corridor, and could really do with something dramatic going on]:

Nikau Queen St

Planes are being tried here too and they are not working out well, all leggy, no room to become their umbrageous selves. It is a strange environment, gloomy but also never dark; lots of artificial light pollution: the Nikau can handle it, used as they are to a tricky niche in the wild. They are also the right form; narrow, vertical, yet expressive.

Nikau, Queen St

They’re very successfully up some of the side streets too, like Vulcan Lane and Darby St. Big feather dusters.

Nikau, Vulcan Lane

Here’s another Queen St survivor: A venerable Cabbage Tree or Ti Kouka, in front of the Guardian Trust building; wispy, on the shaded side of the street, but been there for years. Wonderful.

Cabbage Tree, Queen St

More recent Cabbage Trees down near the harbour. I love the humble Ti Kouka, we take them for granted but I remember returning from a few years overseas and being surprised by seeing them afresh; ubiquitous yet idiosyncratic; as if designed by Dr Zeus.

Ti Kouka, Britomart

Thinking about my favourite city trees there are three singular specimens around the Art Gallery that were among the first that came to mind:

Art Gallery

Again I’m not sure exactly what the varieties are of either of these, but they’re both survivors, and both make their places.

Wellesley St

And boom!

Oak, Khartoum Place

This tree is all the better for being solitary. I prefer them when paved right up to their trunks and not walled off with the suburban tidiness that this now suffers, but it’s still magnificent.

Oak, Khartoum Place

And look at that, the moment you extend the pavement; out come the cafe tables; civilisation advances with each parking space removed.

On opposite sides of the eastern end of Customs St are a young Oak and an older deciduous specimen that will one day, if we let them be, become gateposts to this important entry point to the city proper.

Customs St

Both these trees do a great job of anchoring their sites and helping to diminish the less than spectacular surrounding buildings.

Towards Customs St

Almost the only other trees on Customs St are these two Titoki, surviving pretty well in a tough environment. And as we work to improve the quality of pedestrian life on Quay St and the connection to the harbour there this street is bound to become an even busier environment.

Not that the seven traffic lanes were being over-worked when I was there [nearly 5pm on a Friday!]

Titioki Customs St

But now we come to arguably everybody’s favourite tree in Auckland City: The Northern Club. It is a Virginia Creeper, our city’s Vertical Garden avant la lettre. A botanical event of such scale and theatre that to my mind at least means it qualifies for this list, even in a Spring shower.

The Northern Club, Virginia Creeper.
The Northern Club, with foreground London Plane Spring growth

Its great that we are at last getting more of the city streetscape back from total domination by cars. And using this rediscovered space to thoughtfully add to the built environment by planting great trees for future generations is one of the most important tasks ahead of us. This is something that we have not been nearly as good at as our forebears.

We really ought to work at becoming better ancestors.

Art Gallery

And we so easily can.

Young Oak on the corner of Emily Pl and Customs St
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23 comments

  1. Bit sad reading this again, and three of the singular specimen picked out above have gone: the Khartoum Pl Oak, the Wellesley St Elm, and the Queen St Ti Kouka.

    We’ve to fight hard to get trees in as part of the Albert St rebuild, and have only been partially successful, though there will be more than some forces were insisting on. Of course we are still waiting for the Victoria St Linear park (first announced as policy the same year this post was written; 2012), which will bring more trees of scale to the city centre, especially on the more western side. We will have to make sure the Wellesley St bus boulevard comes with a decent infrastructure of trees of scale too, as promised.

    City trees are so valuable, but need many defenders and allies, and constant vigilance…

  2. Thankyou for reprinting this. There are some people who see city trees as merely ‘green stuff’ and it’s great to see city trees acknowledged. Every year the oaks in Symonds St near Grafton Bridge come into spring leaf, and every Autumn the Virginia Creeper on the Auckland Club goes red, and the gingoes in Emily Place go yellow – things tree lovers notice!

  3. Love this post. It’s the first GA post I read.

    I’m wondering about the street trees in fully paved footpaths with a square of permeable ground around the tree, but where the tree was damaged and then cut out but not replaced. Outside the city centre, what’s the success rate of asking AT to replace them?

    1. The success in the city centre is also zero. I’ve messaged AT/AC for literally a couple of years now regarding missing trees on Fort Street and Shortland Street with no luck and ongoing generic e-mails that it will be looked into. There appears to be a budget to plant a tree but no budget to ever replace or properly maintain trees that we have. Furthermore, AT are all too keen to remove trees when the chance arises.

      1. Thanks. So in our DIY city, we probably need to replant something ourselves. There are techniques for planting alongside the old stump, so the new tree can use the rotting roots. Time for a bit of experimenting with species, I think…

      2. I notice that the empty tree pits on Lorne Street where
        Locust trees had been removed have recently been replanted with Taraire. Be interesting to see how they fare. In addition to not providing budget support to maintain our street trees it’s nothing short of a disgrace the way agencies like AT, NZTA and power lines companies etc are allowed to hack into existing trees.

  4. This is a nice piece. I get sick of the sparse, concrete minimalism of so many new or rejigged urban spaces. So soulless! More trees and vegetation, please!

  5. Trees have a phenomenal ability to transform a place for the better. I have spent the day pruning our citrus trees and a few of the pears. Planted another lime for those summer margaritas. The plums are in bloom and the cherries not far behind. In a few weeks the air will be thick with the scent of mandarin and orange blossom and the avocados will be dripping with their (unremarkable) flowers. The kowhais, oaks and maples are sprouting new leaves and the elms will be last to turn green.
    Urban trees are a joy but reading Patrick’s post (while sipping on a truly excellent Panhead XPA) makes me reflect that I would much rather be a rural arboreal king than an urban pauper. YMMV.

    1. Kowhai. There’s no “s” in te reo so the plural is the same.*

      If it wasn’t Maori Language Week… (I mean, look, I never write in the macrons or even use double vowels… the alternative orthography**…).

      *Technically, there are some words where macrons differentiate singular/plural but mostly it seems that the other words in the expression do the job. Regardless, though, when using Maori in English it’s just like using sheep… one sheep, two sheep but never sheep/s/.

      **One still hears people talking about Takaanini on the train even after, it seems, about a year.

  6. Boy that view looking down Emily Place and along Customs Street sure is different nowadays.
    Sadly the great trees on Wellesley Street by the Art Gallery were elms and it was inevitable that the Dutch elm disease would get them eventually.
    After my initial scepticism that Nikau would work in Queen St (I had doubts about their viability and aesthetic value) I have been pleasantly surprised to see them growing ok and looking right at home there. I guess the Queen St valley is a reasonable facsimile for the shady, bush clad gullies they like to grow in.
    Have to give a bit shout-out though for 2 trees that I think of when I think of street trees in Auckland. In the inner city it’s Liriodendron tulipifera, the Tulip tree from south-eastern USA which seems to thrive here and in the older inner ring of suburbs it’s Melia azederach, which we mostly call the Himalayan Lilac but in America is called the Chinaberry.

    1. Yes agree about Nikau working in gloomy urban valleys, probably being ideal there. But unfortunately they are also being insisted on by retailers, or rather commercial property owners in sunny places, because they see them as blocking less of their window and/or advertising space than larger spreading trees. As well as traffic engineers, of course, who want as much of the public realm for multiple traffic lanes and/or parking as they can get.

      I don’t know if this is the case on upper Williamson Av, but I do know that Nikau there are a poor substitute for a row of big street trees that could go some way to help the vast bulk of the countdown building, and offer some real shade and beauty there. For how it can work see Smith & Caugheys Wellesley St, a lovely building made better by a boulevard of trees of appropriate scale. Big.

      1. I agree that the Nikau at the top of Williamson Ave are are a mistake. They work best in the narrow laneways of the innercity that can evoke the glade-like nature of the bush. On a broad exposed street like the top of Williamson they feel exposed and diminished. At any rate the whole streetscape at the junction of Williamson Ave and Ponsonby Road needs a serious rethink.
        As for the strip of Wellesley outside Smith and Caughey’s, those are Liriodendron. You won’t get any complaints from me about them, I love em!

    1. You could tell us the Maori names of all the native plants in your hedges, windbreaks and biodiversity plantings, and find out why they have those names. 🙂

      1. Well played, madam, but in polite society we do not break wind with trees. We refer to them as shelter belts!
        Bit of a story to the shelterbelts; when we bought the place there were several hundred metres of cypress leylandii. Hideous trees with a main claim to fame of being fast growing but we had to sign a covenant that we would not remove them. Now they are infected with cypress canker and will die.
        We have been trialling tawhiwhi as a replacement and after 2 years it is looking good. Not sure how high it is going to get; the leyland cypress are around 9 m and cope well with brutal trimming methods. Very popular with the opossums (since we are being very careful with words).

  7. I think Auckland Transport are reluctant arborist but do react to public and then political pressure to look after trees deemed iconic.
    The recent works in Franklin Road had a considerable component of looking after the plane trees.
    The design included greatly enlarged permiable areas around each tree, and details to keep cars further away as well as water channels from the gutters and aeration tubes.
    The implementation of root and arboral pruning was supervised. And upon completion the trees were fed with a solution of fertiliser from 1000l water containers.
    So it is essential that tree care becomes firstly a public issue, to become a political issue. Then, and probably only then, AT will respond positively and competently.
    Conversely if the public are seen as demanding car priority, politicians will follow, and AT provide more vehicle lane space at the expense of the public space trees.
    Therefore it is up to us, the public, to use the ways available, including this forum, to continue to make a case for our urban trees.

  8. The trees on Alma Street in Northcote Point are very prominent when coming over the Harbour bridge.

    A few years ago there was an attempt to plant kauri on the median of Glenfield Road. Don’t these trees have shallow and vulnerable roots? I don’t think any of them are standing anymore. There are a few still on the corner with Coronation Road.

  9. On my walk to work recently I’ve noticed that the grassy banks alongside Ian McKinnon Drive (under the horrible yellow golf supply shop on Newton Rd) have been mass planted with Pohutukawa. The sapling supports are really flimsy, some are already broken and a couple of the sapling’s trunks have been broken in half either by the wind or vandals.

  10. An update on the Wellesley Street tree sites alongside the Art Gallery. Council have replaced the elms there with both Taraire and Copper Beech. They should look great in a generation or so.

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