Extending a similar landscape design to the north would make Hoboken’s waterfront truly exceptional

The rows of trees lining the promenade along Hoboken’s South Waterfront reflects the importance of trees in urban design.

FBW | June 8, 2021

For four blocks at Hoboken’s South Waterfront from Newark to Fourth Street, rows of shade trees form a dense canopy. The original plantings at the South Waterfront included a double row of London Plane trees in the walkway, a row of Lacebark Elms between the walkway and bike path, and another row of London Plane Trees between the bike path and the street, totalling some 200 trees all spaced about 20 feet apart. The plantings included an additional 97 London Plane trees in a grove at Pier A Park. 

The use of trees as infrastructure maximizes their architectural values. Our best examples are European cities, most notably Paris. Large trees line every street. They are as much a part of the city as buildings and street lights and roads. – – “Sustainable Trees for Sustainable Cities,” Henry Arnold (Arnoldia, 1993).

It was Hoboken’s good fortune in the 1990s to hire Henry Arnold of Arnold Associates in Princeton, New Jersey, to execute the landscape plan for Hoboken’s South Waterfront. Mr. Arnold authored the book Trees in Urban Design. He devoted his career to understanding how trees can play an essential role in a city’s character and how trees should be viewed as a fundamental part of a city’s infrastructure. His landscape design for the South Waterfront has won multiple awards.

Indeed, the character of Hoboken’s South Waterfront linear park is defined by its trees. They connect and unify the public space at the water’s edge along the Hudson River. Their canopy shades the bike path and circumscribes the pedestrian promenade from Newark Street up to Fourth. By their repetition, the trees provide a coherent pattern. The unique bark and interesting branching of London Plane trees further adds to their visual appeal.

According to Arnold, a large urban tree requires at least 1,000 cubic feet of well-aerated, well-drained soil to survive and be healthy. While the leaves need carbon dioxide, tree roots require oxygen. Below the ground at Pier A Park and throughout the promenade, the landscape plan called for an average depth of three feet of air-entrained soil. This is a light-weight soil mix includes expanded shale which aids drainage and, as the name implies, allows for air to reach the tree roots. 

It has been more than twenty years since the park at Hoboken’s South Waterfront was built. Today it serves as a model for how the bleak, nearly treeless stretch to the north, around Castle Point, could be transformed. There is an opportunity to extend the protected bikeway and connect missing portions of the waterfront park as well. The key element, of course, are the trees that provide an aesthetic beauty and unifying theme to the design. 

Utilizing proper planting techniques and properly maintained shade trees is a long-term investment for any community. Hoboken’s first parks — Church Square, Stevens and Columbus Park — contain closely-spaced London Plane trees that are over a hundred years old. They are immense, forming a dense canopy. 

Despite the recent model at Hoboken’s South Waterfront, the City of Hoboken has failed to appreciate the important value of urban shade trees. The rebuilding of Sinatra Park in 2014 eliminated the row of London Plane trees along the waterfront walkway replacing them with ornamental trees that are likely to have a short life, are an inappropriate scale and will provide no shade. Around the same time, the City came out with a proposal to plant a mere 18 trees for a six-block stretch of Sinatra Drive around Castle Point. 

Southwest Resiliency Park has few trees that will develop any stature, making it underused during the hot days of summer. More of a plaza than a park, it provides few of the benefits the public can enjoy at older city parks. 

A recent landscape plan for Maxwell Park conducted by Boswell Engineering has proposed to replace shade trees uprooted by Hurricane Isaias with ornamental redbuds and dogwoods. FBW sought advice from Stephen Lederach of Arnold Associates in Princeton, New Jersey who reviewed the plan and wrote, “In that exposure I’d be surprised if the Redbud and Dogwood thrive, let alone are alive in a few years. These are understory trees and like to be protected. They also are not water or salt tolerant in any way. A few flooding events or high water tables would take them out quickly.”

Unfortunately, many of the London Plane trees at the South Waterfront, along the walkway and bordering the street were not properly maintained and had to be removed. A type of rock salt harmful to the trees was used during the winter months for a number of years. The City recently replaced the double row of London Plane trees in the walkway with a single row.

Shade trees, of course, provide many other benefits for urban areas. Cities are made of cement, brick, asphalt and steel. They absorb heat and repel water. Shade trees block the rays of the sun that would otherwise heat up our urban centers. Through transpiration, the trees further contribute to a cooling effect. They sequester carbon and remove pollution from the air. Large trees also have the capacity to take up significant volumes of water, thus reducing storm-water runoff. 

Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard through her countless studies has fought the conventional wisdom that trees compete with one another for water, sunlight and nutrients. Her recent book, Finding the Mother Tree, reveals how trees can cooperate, communicate and nurture one another, how they work together as a mutually beneficial community. The roots of trees in a forest are connected and can share nutrients and water through a vast, dense network of mycorrhizal fungi. Older trees, as the title of her book implies, help to protect and nurture their young seedlings.

Related Links

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The morning after Superstorm Sandy: Hoboken’s waterfront parks
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Editorial: A Once-in-a-century Opportunity
Plan for the Hoboken Waterfont
Hoboken’s first parks established in 1804
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