Considering The City

Categories:  Community    Environment
Wednesday, October 1st, 2014 at 7:05 AM
Considering The City by Civitas Members: Lisa Austin and Stephen Sonnenberg

Unsightly problems are ruining the urban landscape for Erie residents, and they are making a bad impression on visitors. We can improve the lives of residents, and make a better impression on visitors by addressing four common problems of dead trees, front yard and sidewalk parking, litter, and illegal or misplaced signage, as outlined below:

1. Replace Dead Trees

While it is well-known that trees provide wildlife habitats, absorb storm-water, and filter pollutants, the city’s Sustainability Coordinator, Sarah Galloway, notes that trees improve communities by creating a “sense of place” and by fostering feelings of “happiness” and “safety.” Many studies, Galloway reports, indicate that trees actually help to reduce crime, improve student grades, and increase economic development.

Given the powerful positive impact of trees, Erie should plant more of them.

When trees drop branches, pedestrians are endangered. Cars can be damaged.  Street trees (those between the roadway and sidewalk) are owned by the city, but the responsibility for maintaining the trees falls to the adjacent property owner. Repairs to tree-damaged cars are almost never paid by the city and rarely by the tree’s adjacent property owner. Repair bills are generally paid by the vehicle’s insurer.

Tree trimming does not require a permit, however. Dave Mulvihill, the city’s Assistant Director of Public Works, notes that property owners who wish to take down or plant a tree must obtain a permit from Galloway.  Taking down a tree can be expensive, and the city tries to alleviate some of the burden by maintaining a resident-generated, first-call-first-served teardown list.  Galloway utilizes part of her  $30,000 budget to remove a few trees each year. At the current rate of teardown, the existing list will be completed in 2020. If Galloway had $100,000 to spend, she says she could transform the city.

However, it is unlikely that Galloway’s budget will increase. Though granting agencies are happy to fund the planting of trees, Galloway reports that almost no money is available for the removal of dead trees. Perhaps a forward-thinking philanthropist would help “transform” Erie by writing a check for tree removal, allowing new ones to be planted.

Due to tight budgets and minimal staffing, many city actions, including tree-removal are “complaint-driven.” Contact Galloway to add trees to the teardown list – especially those near schools and on busy streets. (  870.1255)

Erie needs a tree-removal prioritization plan. For instance, the tree on the Seaway Trail (West Sixth Street) should be immediately replaced due to its high-visibility location. The Seaway Trail starts in Pennsylvania and runs 518 miles east along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to the Canadian Border. After dealing with safety issues, we should spend money where it is going to make the most impact – our National Scenic Byway on East and West Sixth Streets should be on the top of the list.

2. Stop Front Yard and Sidewalk Parking

Many drivers illegally park on sidewalks and front lawns. Unfortunately, our existing code allows front yard parking, if some gravel is thrown over the grass. Front yard parking is usually inappropriate and almost always ugly; it is time to create a higher standard for ourselves. Front yard and sidewalk parking endangers children, pushes pedestrians into the street, and deters homebuyers.

While city employees vigilantly issue tickets for vehicles parked on wrong side of the street, few of the cars or trucks parked on yards and sidewalks are challenged. Employees who issue parking tickets are not authorized to issue citations for yard and sidewalk parking.  Perhaps these employees should be trained to write parking citations.  For now, yard and sidewalk parking complaints should be directed to Code Enforcement at 870-1470.

3. Don’t Litter

For three weeks this summer, two stained couches adorned the sidewalks facing Perry Square during CelebrateErie and the 10,000-participant-strong “Color Run.”  We should start “tidying-up” Erie before these big events.  If a TV or chair is in the roadway, call the Bureau of Streets at 870.1340. If the item is on the sidewalk or in the yard, call Code Enforcement at 870.1470.

Though it is illegal, many smokers toss cigarette butts to the ground. Some drivers throw fast-food wrappers out their windows. Pedestrians frequently drop cups from convenience stores. Too many pet lovers ignore City Ordinance 72911B, which states that “all dog owners shall remove feces immediately and in a sanitary manner.” But as one officer commented, “I wish that’s all we had to deal with.”

Our police are too busy to enforce littering laws.  We have to change ourselves. Perhaps our neighborhood watch groups can create social-media anti-littering campaigns.

4. Get Rid of Illegal Signs

Thousands of notices advertising “Cheap Mattresses” and “We Buy Houses” are stapled to telephone poles.  Commercial banner signs are installed on front lawns. We must encourage the city to enforce existing ordinances against illegal signs.

These four “visual pollution” issues don’t require new legislation or millions of dollars. We can make a big difference in Erie’s appearance by taking personal responsibility for our neighborhoods and working with watch groups to encourage the active enforcement of existing codes.

Civitas members can be reached at their website, via Facebook at CivitasErie, by emailing, or by scheduling a Friday morning meeting at the Civitas office in the Masonic Building, 32 W. Eighth St. 

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