Planting Trees for Life

by Anne Schwartz, Oct 22, 2004

Hunts Point is just one of the neighborhoods with low-income, minority populations that have more pollution, more health problems, and fewer trees than the city as a whole. The average amount of land covered by trees in New York City is about 18 percent. In Hunts Point, canopy cover is 3.5 percent.

Trees lessen pollution by absorbing gases and intercepting particulates (the soot on the windowsill). By cooling the ground and filtering sunlight, they reduce the formation of ground-level ozone. In 2000, New York City’s street trees removed 1,500 metric tons of air pollution, according to an estimate by David J. Nowak, a scientist at the U.S.D.A Forest Service’s Northeastern Research Station. Studies (in pdf format) by Nowak and others have determined some of the variables that affect how much pollution a tree will remove, including its size, species, and location. For example, large trees remove about 70 times more pollution annually than smaller ones. An analysis by the Forest Service and SUNY’s School of Environmental Research of a survey done in 2003 found that just 322 trees in three New York City neighborhoods annually removed more than 500 pounds of pollutants from the air.

Street trees have many other benefits. They reduce energy use by shading sidewalks, buildings, and cars in summer, and buffering winds in the winter. They absorb greenhouse gases, slow stormwater runoff, and provide habitat for wildlife. Houses on leafy streets have higher real estate values, and trees in front of stores encourage pedestrian shopping. Research has shown that street trees create hospitable spaces — outdoor rooms — that bring neighbors together, resulting in stronger communities and lower crime.

Together with the city parks department, the group in Hunts Point came up with a detailed strategy (in pdf format) to survey existing trees, identify the best locations for new ones, plant them, and help them survive to maturity. They have planted 400 trees so far, and plan to plant an additional 75 a year for the next five years. "Eventually we’re going to have what I call an awning around us,” said Eva Sanjurjo, who has lived or worked in Hunts Point most of her life and was one of the founders of Greening for Breathing. “The awning is the trees."

Stitching together that awning is a slow process that requires a tremendous amount of legwork. The city will plant a tree on a sidewalk only if the owner of the adjacent property requests it, so volunteers have to find property owners and persuade them to submit a request. Because the parks department lacks the funding to care for trees once they are planted, a key part of the effort has been to recruit volunteers within the community to water, weed, and keep garbage from piling up around the newly planted trees, especially in the first few years when a tree is most vulnerable. To prevent vandalism and encourage stewardship, the plan includes special tree-planting days, workshops, and celebrations. "You can’t just plant trees and then you’re done — that’s the easiest way to fail," said Elena Conte, the group's coordinator. "What we’re working for is a much richer involvement."

As part of its current focus on the relationship between trees and public health, the parks department would like to replicate the Hunts Point project in ten communities around the city, and is working with the Department of Health to identify the locations, according to Fiona Watt, Chief of Foresty and Horticulture at the parks department. "Our focus and interest right now is how do we target our tree preservation, maintenance and planting programs to best support this emerging relationship and to improve public health in the areas that need it most."

A Question of Funding

But state funding for urban forestry, totaling $450,000 over the last four years, still falls far short of what is needed, according to Nancy Wolf, executive director of the New York State Urban and Community Forestry Council: A survey of municipalities around the state, recently completed by the council but not yet published, showed "the need for tree-planting money is just colossal."

In New York City, the parks department receives less than half a percent of the city budget to maintain and run the parks, so very little money is available for street tree care. In 1997, the department instituted a regular block-by-block tree pruning program that reaches the city’s 500,000 trees once every ten to twelve years, but park advocates fight annually just to keep the money for pruning in the city budget. Ideally, trees should be pruned every seven years, if not sooner. Maintaining and protecting trees in other ways, like watering, monitoring for disease, and purchasing tree guards to fend off trucks and cars, is left to tree-loving citizens and non-profit groups like TreesNY.

The capital budget, which covers planting trees, has been more robust, although not nearly enough to substantially increase the city's overall street tree population. Funding has ranged from $7 million to $10 million a year for tree planting, except during last year’s budget shortfall, according to Watt. But the price of planting a tree has risen steeply, so the department is able to plant fewer trees for the same amount of money.

In many years, the department planted slightly more trees than it lost, although last year it planted 9,997 trees while it removed 11,412, according to the recently released Mayor’s Management Report.

In September, the City Council passed a resolution calling on the city, state, and federal governments to plant trees in "communities of color, communities of low income and communities with the highest asthma rates, that have historically had the fewest tree plantings." But it doesn't address the funding needed to achieve that goal.

"The city should start by spending $45 million, one-tenth of one percent of the city budget," said former parks commissioner Henry Stern. "That would give you a much stronger program than you have now."

Efforts like Greening Hunts Point offer the hope of making life better and healthier in the city’s communities of color. But to bring trees into all the neighborhoods that need them most will take more than City Council resolutions and pilot projects. Urban forestry would have to become a citywide priority, with sufficient funding, for the city to truly green its grayest blocks.