Where did all the trees go? A mental health essay about eugenics’ legacy in American cities

During the early 1900s, urbanization spawned a global wildfire phenomenon known as eugenics. On an international scale, the effect was disastrous, but it has continued to have far-reaching consequences in the United States. Back then, American cities were just beginning to be filled with skyscrapers, traffic jams, fast food chains, and poor living conditions. With an ever-increasing population and a highly disproportionate amount of farmland lost to the city, the resulting ecological crisis created a perfect storm. “If there is a European example, it’s lost eugenics,” says Michael Cristensen, executive director of the Foundation for Environmental Health and director of the EcoCity Research Initiative. “And we’re still struggling with it here.”

Trees are vital to human life, mitigating flood risks and supplying oxygen. Yet they are losing ground with the U.S. population rapidly expanding — in part because of eugenics-style policies that push people out of their houses in favor of strip malls, townhouses, and tract homes. Why are we losing so many trees? And can we save them? “A lot of it is driven by political and economic forces,” Cristensen says. “The removal of trees prevents floods, but also improves water quality by decreasing groundwater pollution.”

As you drive around a city, you likely notice that the trees are being cut down. And, if you’re particularly destructive, you can chip them off with a cordless drill. You can’t switch from sparkly fairy lights to Christmas trees, because Christmas trees are sold in nurseries that get their needles from trees that are cut down. While most cities have a law that requires city crews to maintain green infrastructure, each is governed by local rules and regulations. That means if you drive around your city, you might run into a moment of legal daylight — if you decide to drive a long way to a certain spot. But that spot might quickly disappear as a plant goes up in flames. There’s just one more layer of grief to deal with: the death of the tree as a living thing.


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This story appears in the May 25th, 2019 issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Today.

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