Fruit Trees Along City Sidewalks: Of Course It’s a Great Idea!

One of my favorite ideas for enhancing the human-built environment is to have plenty of fruit trees, vines, and vegetable plants growing in the public space: in parks; along sidewalks; as living fences. As they say in real estate: “Location, Location, Location!”

One of our most foolish, and potentially fatal, human experiments is the one where we decided it’d be perfectly fine to not grow food near where people live, and to instead transport it from halfway across the country or around the world to our supermarkets. Bad idea! Let’s go ahead and quit this one before we have to see how it ends.

The other day while googling for lush fat yummy pictures of fruit trees and grapevines growing along city sidewalks, I instead stumbled on this article “5 Reasons Why Planting Fruit Trees Along Sidewalks Is a Terrible Idea.” Fortunately the five points are easy to refute.

1 – Most fruit would go unpicked, falling to the sidewalk and attracting wasps; creating a slip hazard. Ah, the good old “public safety” argument. First of all: The biggest public safety hazard in the United States is disease caused by bad dietary habits. I am pretty sure it exceeds the slip hazard. Anyway, it would be easy to ensure all the fruit gets picked. Publicize it widely so citizens know about it. People would be happy to harvest it for themselves, or to donate to food banks. And have city landscaping crews clean up any excess. You know, the landscaping crews who we now pay gazillions of our tax dollars to buzz-cut turf grass and make sure the ornamental shrubbery is perfectly square? They deserve a more worthwhile occupation, don’t you think? Yes, caring for fruit trees requires labor and special skill. But that translates into jobs and careers!! Imagine a city where the restaurants get to source at least some of their food from the immediate area. And where residents of all ages and educational levels are able to create their own cottage businesses around the public harvest. If my neighbor’s making jam, I’m buying some!

2 – Government won’t support it because of liability and expense. This is where the citizen push comes in. Citizens need to show their passion about this issue to help government see that it’s in our best interest to have a well-nourished population. Fear of litigation is always a concern, but some things are worth braving that for. Cities need to get some teeth in their legal departments. Food deserts are very unpopular these days; it’s a serious equity issue. Now that is a real liability. As for expense … See #1 above. I would love to know how much money a city spends on fussbudget grass-barbering, not to mention all that goes with it, such as application of chemicals.

3 – Pollution from passing cars could cause substandard fruit growth, disease, and so on. In every city I’ve visited, I’ve seen fruit trees growing just fine on private property despite exposure to automotive exhaust. Pollution from cars is a problem everywhere. Even on farms, pollution from mechanized equipment is surely an issue. Some fruit trees might not do well along city sidewalks, but that happens with purely ornamental plants too. At least with fruit trees we have a chance of harvesting something worthwhile. The article also said fruit trees are bad because we might have to spray chemicals to protect them — as if we don’t do that now for our vast expanses of turf grass and other “vanity landscaping.”

4 – Some fruit trees don’t live long, and might have to be replaced before they bear fruit. Yeah, that is a real possibility. Cities need to consult their local ag extension, Master Gardeners, and other experts to find the best varieties to plant. And cities should look into grapevines, kiwi fruit, and other non-tree fruit options as well.

5 – Fruit trees need a lot of sunlight. While there might not be enough sunlight on every street, that’s no reason not to plant at all. In addition, there are greens and other edible plants that do well in part shade; we can intersperse those with the fruit trees as conditions warrant.

Although the writer of this article doesn’t think fruit trees along sidewalks are a good idea, he or she does express a favorable view of community orchards and urban farms. And that’s something I can wholeheartedly agree with!