The Vital Relationship Between Street Vendors and Trees

A tree's presence has a profound effect on a vendor's wellbeing.

a tray of samosas in India
Hot samosas sold by a street vendor in Hyderabad, India.

Navya Ponnuru / Getty Images

If you've ever read the classic children's story "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein, you'll know what a special bond can form between a human and a tree. You'll also know how much a tree can give a human, and how it can greatly improve a human's quality of life. This is not limited to fiction, but plays out frequently in real life.

Street vendors are perhaps some of the most grateful recipients of a tree's gifts, which is why researchers from Azim Premji University in Karnataka, India, decided to study their unique connection. Much has been written about urban trees and how they mitigate air pollution and reduce heat islands and boost wildlife, while other studies have analyzed the challenges and vulnerabilities that street vendors face, particularly in the Global South; but little research has been done on how trees affect vendors' health, wellbeing, and business prospects.

The researchers looked at the city of Hyderabad, in southern India, because it has a vibrant street vending culture and is exceedingly hot; summer temperatures are frequently over 40C (104F). They interviewed 75 street vendors in 11 streets that were chosen from a range of neighborhoods, a mix of old and new settlements. In older neighborhoods, some of the vendors had been in place for generations and were "more rooted to the place," whereas newer areas had shopping complexes and fewer vendors, many of whom were migrants.

What the researchers found is perhaps not surprising: Trees are deeply beloved and appreciated by the vendors. Those who have them nearby are considered fortunate, while those who do not view it as "fate" and have a much harder time doing an already challenging job. The vendors described the trees' practical uses for business, as well as ways in which they boost personal happiness and health.

From a business perspective, a tree can be used to hang and display goods, to offer shade that prevents spoilage of food products or fading of textiles, to attach awnings and umbrellas for more shade. A tree is a welcoming place for customers to sit and rest longer, which leads to more food and drink purchases. Specific trees are used to give directions and act as a landmark. 

On a personal level, the vendors benefit from being in the shade throughout the hot day. Some take naps in the afternoon, use the trunk to chain their carts for safety, dry out damp clothes, sit and have lunch. Some collect twigs and leaves for use in home remedies and cooking. One man said he and his family lived next to his vending tree for a week after their house was destroyed. The authors wrote, "Sitting under the shade of a tree provides the mental calm and peace required to cope with long outdoor hours of work on a noisy street." 

Spiritually, some trees such as the banyan and peepul are considered sacred, and therefore bring luck to vendors. Many of the vendors feel an intimate connection to the trees, which their parents may have used (or even planted, in one case).

But it's not as idyllic as it sounds. There is much conflict on the streets as to which vendors get the limited trees, and usually it ends up being the wealthier, more powerful ones. Female vendors do not work under trees as often as men, nor do newer arrivals or migrants. 

Many trees are threatened by urban planners who cut them down to widen roads, by wealthy residents building privacy fences and guarded gates, and by city-led "beautification" projects. From the study's conclusion:

"A number of landscaping projects aim to beautify streets, and by adding railings and fences, take away spaces from vendors who used to sit below the trees, by enclosing trees at the other side of the railing – a clear example of dispossession by design. Perhaps one of the most powerless of urban residents, street vendors lack the capacity to do anything about their gradual exclusion from access to public green spaces."

Therein lies the researchers' great concern – that street vendors have a right to shade and deserve access to public green space as much as anyone, and yet they're left out of official city plans because they're viewed as a nuisance, an encroachment. This is despite the fact that vendors are a crucial part of urban life and play an important role in urban economies, particularly in the Global South. 

The researchers write that 2.5 percent of India's urban residents are involved in street vending. "According to the Supreme Court of India (1989), street vendors 'considerably add to the comfort and convenience of the general public, by making available ordinary articles of everyday use for a comparatively lesser price.' They play a significant role in the food security of the urban poor," not to mention shaping culture.

Street vendors need trees, and their right to shade should be taken into consideration by cities all around the world when designing greener, friendlier public spaces. Read the full study here.