The other day I saw a meme with this sentiment expressed on it:

The trees planted on city sidewalks should be replaced with fruit trees, so the homeless have somethign to eat in the summer and fall.

Nice sentiment, right? And not just for the homeless. Imagine walking along in the August sunshine as you do some shopping, realizing you feel hungry, and picking a nice apple off a dwarf or semi-dwarf apple tree on the sidewalk as you go. Imagine being able to show your kids how fruit grows and where it comes from even if you don’t have a yard big enough for your own fruit trees.

My mind even took this a little farther. What if most landscaping in cities became edible or otherwise beneficial? The pretty flowers were bee-friendly. The annuals in the planters each spring were lettuce or onions or herbs. The bushes were blueberries. What would happen to our love of produce? Our care about what chemicals we see being put on the food as we drive down to the drug store? Things would change.

It’s a nice picture, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s not totally practical.

Let’s go back to the fruit trees.

Fruit trees require plenty of sunshine. Think about how tall some of the buildings are and how much sunshine one side of the sidewalk gets per day as a result. Probably not the eight or so hours the trees prefer. Think about all of the cars passing the trees each day, the pollution only feet away. Most street side trees are picked for their ability to survive that level of pollution for at least a half dozen years. Fruit trees are less resilient. Think about how long it takes for a fruit tree to reach maturity for producing fruit. If the tree is going to die of pollution by year five, how practical is that really? How beneficial will it truly end up being if it only gets to bear fruit for two years instead of twenty?

Now let’s think about practical problems from the perspective of the city. Fruit would probably not all get eaten, meaning that some–or perhaps much–of it would fall to the sidewalk, creating a hazard that the city would be liable for. Fruit trees also require more maintenance than common sidewalk trees, primarily fertilization and pruning. All of this extra work cleaning the sidewalks and maintaining the trees would require the city to hire dedicated employees, at least seasonally. A city budget doesn’t always have much room for that.

I don’t think any of that means that there aren’t things that can be done. For instance, there’s parks. Parks already require maintenance, so pruning and fertilizing could probably be easily added to those duties. Parks tend to be off the road enough the pollution isn’t a problem, and fruit would be falling into the grass rather than a sidewalk. There’s often a place with enough sunshine to actually sustain fruit trees as well. There’s also community gardens and community orchards that could benefit a town. Put in an hour weeding, take home produce. Bring a box, take home apples.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to start in our own yards and neighborhoods. We can hardly expect a whole community to be forced to care if they have no reason to. Your neighbor isn’t going to think twice about choosing that evergreen shrub instead of blueberries, or those expensive insecticide-treated annuals instead of some echinacea, if they’ve never been given reason to consider it. The mom two apartments down isn’t going to care about her kids knowing that apples don’t just come from a store if she’s never had reason to consider it herself.

So sure, talk to your city council about putting in a community garden. Thank a local business that put herbs in their window planters. Smile when you see a bee-friendly plant in the landscaping around an office. But also take a moment and look at your own yard, window, or balcony.

What can you start with?