As City Plants Trees, Benefits—and Some Burdens—Grow

Damage from Hurricane Irene in the Bronx. Very few new trees were affected by the storm, but older trees suffered and caused damaged.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Damage from Hurricane Irene in the Bronx. Very few new trees were affected by the storm, but older trees suffered and caused damaged.

The storm was not supposed to happen. Instead of a leafy autumn in New York, with beautiful foliage shading children out for Halloween trick or treating, the city was pummeled by an unusually early snowstorm.

The cost of that damage reached untold millions of dollars, and was made worse by something as simple as an autumn leaf.

Instead of a typical winter scene where snow falls amid bare branches, the city’s trees were filled with leaves. Experts, including the National Weather Service, says that foliage was like having countless tiny baskets catching the unusually wet and heavy snow. The added weight sheared off many more limbs than might otherwise have fallen.

On a larger level, the storm was a stark example of a looming dilemma facing New York City. It is a problem entangled with good intentions –from beautifying the city to lowering the high asthma levels that plague poor neighborhoods. It is exacerbated by older trees that are now iconic to the city, yet were virtually unknown in New York a century ago. And this problem comes with a growing price tag the Bloomberg administration is finding difficult to pay.

More trees, less money

For the past five years, the Bloomberg administration has been rapidly planting more trees in New York City. The Parks Department is the leading agency for the effort, borrowing money to help pay for the program, and it has attracted private groups to join.

The mayor and others promote this ambitious plan not simply for framing an urban jungle with tinges of nature. Trees, by reducing carbon pollution from cars and elsewhere, have emerged as a key tool for New York City to combat its high levels of asthma, particularly among children in poorer neighborhoods. Trees also cut the levels of the city’s damage to the earth’s atmosphere.

This arbor upsurge comes with a catchy title that encapsulates its goal, MillionTreesNYC. Residents can have the cost of planting trees in their yard paid by the city. Private partners like Con Edison have joined the effort. In the end, the city hopes three of every 10 trees planted under the program are on private land. The majority will be in city parks and along streets.

The effort is promoted countless ways. Boy scouts are encouraged to help with forestation. And publicity even recently included comedian Jerry Stiller, in a city park, reciting a classic Joyce Kilmer poem that begins, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”

Just weeks before the October snowstorm savaged the city’s trees, the city held a ceremony in Harlem celebrating a milestone. It planted its 500,000th tree, and it reached that halfway point toward reaching its goal a year ahead of schedule.

But underneath the publicity is a growing budget gap. The program’s budget has been cut every year since 2009. The forecasted reduction for 2012, compared with a prior year, is a cut that exceeds 20 percent.

Maintenance cuts hurt

After the trees are planted, they must be cared for. And for all trees in the city, maintenance is a burden borne by the Parks Department, which faces an overall 12 percent budget cut this year. City officials declined repeated requests to specify exactly how much will be reduced in tree maintenance, but they did acknowledge it, too, will be affected.

Budget cuts have included a hiring freeze for just about every city agency. For the Parks Department, less staff means fewer workers to prune trees. Trimming trees not only includes removing diseased and damaged branches, it also stimulates tree growth.

Up until three years ago, city trees were pruned every seven years. That excluded emergency cutting. Now the pruning cycle is longer. Trees get trimmed only once every 10 years. With the next round of funding cuts, according to Andrew Newman, project coordinator at MillionTreesNYC, the city may well make it even longer, with a 15-year pruning cycle. A Parks Department spokeswoman says a 15-year cycle is possible, but no decision will be made until the impact of budget cuts becomes clear.

Along with less money and fewer workers, there is a shortage of key equipment. For instance, the city only owns two stump removers. This is heavy machinery that handles the difficult task of removing the remnants of trees from the ground. That includes extruding trees killed by storms. The job is more than just about removing stumps, according to Newman. The city needs to get rid of those stumps to clear land for planting new trees.

The Parks Department spokeswoman, Tara Kiernan, says the shortage of stump removers is not an issue because most of the stump removal is contracted out. The department maintains they do not have “declining maintenance abilities,” rather they have been asked “to do more with less.”

“MillionTrees has dealt with maintenance from its inception,” says Morgan Monaco, Parks’ Director of MillionTreesNYC. “We have a competitive bidding for the contracting of trees that includes planting and maintenance for two years, which are the most vulnerable years for trees. This means if there is anything wrong with a tree, or if it dies, the contractors are responsible for it. It’s cheaper than doing it internally.”

A symbol ages

One of the challenges facing the city’s tree maintainers has nothing to do with the budget, and dates to well before the Bloomberg administration. Its imprint is on the city Parks Department, a well-known logo on signs throughout landmarks like Central Park, and emblazoned even on t-shirts sold by the city. It’s a full, five- pointed leaf—the leaf of the London Plane.

The London plane, according to a city historian, is not a tree native to New York. In fact, the London plane was scarcely known to the region a century ago, and traces its lineage to European cities. In the 1930s, Robert Moses, the controversial city planner, began expanding city parks and favored the London plane. It is now the most common tree in the city, and also the most common on city land. While exact figures are difficult to determine, a 2005 census found about 15 percent of the city’s trees are London planes.

The London plane tree is just about everything you want in an urban tree: it strongly resists harm from pests, pollution and urban conditions.

The problem with London planes is that they are getting old. Trees continue to grow as they age, and older trees are more difficult to prune. Even worse, London planes create expansive canopies, so their long branches have a greater tendency to shear off in storms. In the October snowstorm, this was evident particularly in Central Park, as huge limbs shattered on the ground from the weight of the heavy snow.

“The danger with so many London Planes having been planted during the Moses era was that it created a monoculture,” says Monaco. “A single invasive species could take out many trees at once.”

The city now undertakes a meticulous process for determining which mix of trees is most appropriate for the city.

But even as new trees are added, London planes are still the most common tree in the city, and will continue to pose problems as they continue to get older.

Mother Nature’s role

A little more than a year before the Halloween snowstorm, on Sept. 16, 2010, a tornado – an event so unusual that one news outlet’s incredulous headline was “A New York Tornado?” – tore through Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Little noticed in coverage of the damage was the role played by city-owned trees, savaged by winds that exceeded a hundred miles per hour. In 417 claims, residents reported that uprooted trees and broken branches fell on houses, tore off power lines and crushed cars.

Documents obtained by CUNY under the state’s Freedom of Information Law show the city faced claims for more than $2.5 million to pay for injuries and damage. Some claims do not specify the dollar amount of the damages, so the extent of the toll claimed by residents may be far greater.

Some of those filing claims alleged the city is negligent in the way it maintains its trees. They charged the city poorly maintained those trees, allowing large diseased and rotted branches and trees to loom without being trimmed away.

One case alleged permanent injury after one branch of a diseased, city-owned tree sheared off by the tornado left a Forest Hills resident with broken ribs, leg, foot and clavicle and a collapsed lung. The case, seeking unspecified damages, claimed the victim has suffered permanent damage.

What remains unclear is what the actual bill will be for the city. More than a year after the tornado, only five claims totaling $8,098.12 have been paid. A little more than half of the claims were rejected by the city, but those complaints could move to local courts. The rest remain open.

For the October 2011 snowstorm, the city’s bill stemming from tree damage is harder to determine. The Bloomberg administration declined to project a price tag, but 31 claims were made, none of which have been settled. MillionTreesNYC coordinator Nathan says a lack of resources has kept the city from quantifying the overall cost of the damage.

In addition to damage to homes and cars, city reports show the Parks Department got 552 work orders for hanging tree limbs and 1,272 work orders for downed limbs after the storm. But that may well not be the final tally. Four days after the storm, the city no longer logged resident storm-related requests because it faced growing duplicate requests.

The Parks Department says it’s working hard to address the danger that severe weather, which some believe will increase in frequency and intensity as the globe warms, poses to city trees and the people, cars and houses that happen to be under them. The department prunes upwards of 35,000 trees a year through its block pruning program, according to Kiernan. And the damage caused by recent storms, she contends, says more about the ferocity of the weather than the vulnerability of the city’s trees.

“Even the healthiest of trees and limbs could have sustained severe damage,” she says.

The city says it has taken measures to ensure that trees are planted to withstand worsening weather conditions. Tree pits are now dug deeper to allow sufficient space for roots to grow, and some trees are planted with an eye to protecting telephone wires. Tree species are selected based on landscape conditions, with heartier trees (Oaks, Japanese Zelkova, Ginkgo, Sweetgum and Japanese Pagoda Trees among them) being planted on city streets to resist engine exhaust, poor soil quality, urban heat island effects, drought and salt content.

“Even in the last few hurricanes and snow storms we’ve experienced, less than 1 percent of trees uprooted were planted within the last four years through MillionTreesNYC, which is a testament to the success of our revised planting methods,” Kiernan says.

Benefits as well as costs

While tress can have a costly impact, the need for them is strong. Moses brought in London planes for beautification. The Bloomberg administration, armed with health and environmental data, points to more immediate and practical concerns in its push for more tree cover.

New York has an asthma rate that exceeds national levels, and it is worse in low-income neighborhoods. Trees absorb many pollutants linked to asthma. MillionTreesNYC targeted six neighborhoods with exceptionally high asthma rates, one being East Harlem. The neighborhood ranked in the top five for both asthma-related emergency room visits and hospitalization rates for the entire city in the last three years. Cuts in city tree spending sparked concerns at a recent public hearing in East Harlem.

In a tightly packed room on Park Avenue, where Community Board 11 of East Harlem holds their monthly Parks and Recreation meeting, 44 year-old Raymond Figueroa voiced his frustration about tree planting and maintenance.

“Trees add to the sense of community,” says Figueroa. “But when you don’t have access to greenery and life that trees represent in dense areas of poverty, you’re just warehousing people.”

He wants more trees. Figueroa remembers a childhood at Johnson Public Housing on Lexington Avenue where seeing trees was a rare site. But thanks to the Bloomberg program, he now sees more trees than ever before when he steps out of his apartment near 127th St. near 7th Ave.

Local resident Richard Toussaint, 67, counts himself among the supporters.

“Any increase of trees in Harlem is good thing because of the high asthma rates here,” he says. “Asthma is always a concern and should always be a concern.”

Local trees, global cause

In addition to curtailing pollutants that contribute to asthma, the Bloomberg tree program is also aimed at cutting the city’s carbon footprint.

New York City’s urban forests absorb 1.35 million tons of carbon, according to a research report by the United States Department of Agriculture. The monetary value associated with carbon storage is based on the estimated social costs of carbon dioxide emissions. For New York City, this translates to $24.9 million.

Certain trees—especially big trees—are known to better combat ozone (which contributes to smog) and particle pollution, according to David Nowak, researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Trees can directly remove ozone from the atmosphere,” says Nowak. “So when you have big trees that exchange a lot of gases, they tend to remove more ozone.”

There is also a secondary benefit from trees. They absorb rainwater from the ground, which moves through the tree and evaporates into the atmosphere. That helps cools the air, which also cuts down on ozone, he says.

“They basically act as pumps through this evaporation process to move the water from the soil to the atmosphere,” says Nowak. “They keep this water cycle moving, which is huge for air temperatures.”

Of the trees favored by the Bloomberg administration for plantings, Nowak identifies a few that are on the USDA’s list of top tier trees for combating ozone. These include the Norway Maple and the Silver Maple, which rank among the more common trees in the city.

Elm and conifer trees, which are trees that produce cones, are good for absorbing particle pollution because their leaves are rough and small. Rough leaves catch and store more particulate matter from the atmosphere.

“Think of it like a coat,” says Nowak. “If I got out on a dirty day, my jacket is going to be dirtier, especially if it has wool fibers, so you can see it accumulate when your jacket turns brown.”

A million trees, a lot more caretakers?

As the Bloomberg administration pushes to plant the second half of its million trees, it may well be relying more on others to care for them.

“We have been giving free training to teach New Yorkers how to properly care for trees,” says Monaco. “In doing so everyone can pitch in and help their local trees.”

According to Kiernan, there are over 10,000 trained citizen pruners across New York City.

Neighborhood non-profit groups like Trees New York have helped to partially offset shortfalls in city spending by motivating community residents to volunteer their time to care for their local parks and trees. “We’ve been working to educate the community about the importance of trees, especially in East Harlem with the high prevalence of asthma,” says Samuel Bishop, education director at Trees New York.

Trees New York teaches residents about proper watering, mulching, planting and basic maintenance. It also conducts educational programs with schools, teaching children to work hands on with plants.

“There has always been more need for tree care than need for funds to plant them,” says Bishop. “There are more people in New York than trees, so if everyone helped out a little bit there shouldn’t be much of a problem.”

Jose Bayona contributed reporting.

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