“Trees cross party lines and geographic lines. They are the great uniter,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who with his fellow borough presidents is pushing City Hall to commit to funding the additional plantings in the sustainability plan the administration will publish in April.

NYC Council/William Alatriste

A new tree in Cortlandt Park in 2018.

The five borough presidents may not always see eye to eye on every policy issue, but there is one thing they agree on: New York City needs more trees.

“Trees cross party lines and geographic lines. They are the great uniter,” Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine told City Limits.

On Feb. 10, the officials from each borough delivered a joint letter addressed to Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi and shared exclusively with City Limits asking the administration to prioritize the One Million More Trees Initiative—their campaign and rare alliance, started in February of last year, that aims to plant that many new trees by 2030.

This is “the only issue that all five of the borough presidents have spoken in unity on,” said Levine, who’s spearheaded the effort since taking office last year.

The joint letter urges the administration to include the additional plantings in its upcoming OneNYC 2050 climate plan, which will be released by April 22 and creates a roadmap for tackling the city’s sustainability goals.

The One Million More Trees campaign hopes Mayor Adams will commit to spending an estimated $500 million to bump the city’s tree canopy to 30 percent, up from the 22 percent registered in the most recent 2017 tree census.

But to make that happen, Levine points out, the city needs “a serious multi year commitment” in funding from the administration. “And the perfect place to make that commitment is in the sustainability plan. It sets down a marker for the city that can guide budgets in the years to come,” Levine said. 

“We are going to be pushing for a down payment on expanding our tree planting effort in this year’s executive budget. But what we’re really after here is the multi-year commitment,” he added.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether the administration will make that commitment.

Edward Reed/NYC Mayor’s Office

Former Mayor Bloomberg speaks at planting of 500,000th tree in Million Trees NYC back in 2011.

The One Million More Trees initiative is a continuation of a similar campaign launched in 2007 during the Bloomberg administration that secured a multi-year commitment to tree planting through 2017. There are currently around 7 million trees across the five boroughs.

Mayor Adams has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to dedicate 1 percent of the city’s total $102.7 billion budget to the Parks Department, which manages a little more than half of the city’s tree canopy. When Mayor Eric Adams released his preliminary budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2024 on last month, he set aside nearly $583 million for Parks, $46 million lower than what’s allocated for the current budget. 

The mayor is also behind on his pledge to plant 20,000 trees a year for the next four years. During the first four months of the current fiscal year, which started in July, Parks planted 2,748 trees, down from 5,075 in the same period the year before, according to the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report. 

City officials said they’ve made progress since those numbers were compiled.

“Mother Nature doesn’t follow the fiscal year cycle; our fall planting season is still ongoing, and the report is not reflective of our total tree plantings for the season,” a Parks Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We’ve already planted over 6,800 trees this past fall, more than in the previous two fall planting seasons.”

Planting more trees is important because they lower temperatures and battle urban heat waves. According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), temperatures in New York City are expected to rise four to seven degrees by 2050. The numbers of days where recorded temperatures top 90 degrees is expected to increase from from 18 days to 52.2 days per year.

Trees are beneficial in other ways: they reduce stormwater runoff as they capture and store rainfall in the canopy that later evaporates naturally into the atmosphere. Most importantly, they fight climate change. A recent study found that green spaces reduce New York City’s carbon footprint by absorbing as much as 40 percent of carbon emissions.

But not everyone in the city gets to reap those benefits because green spaces are not distributed in an equitable manner, environmentalists say.

“We do see a trend that lower income areas, communities that are a majority people of color tend to have lower canopy than other places,” Natalia Piland, a scientist at The Nature Conservancy’s Cities Program in New York, told City Limits.

A report released last year by Trust for Public Land, a coalition of environmentalists who fight for more greenery in the Big Apple, found that communities of color have 33.5 percent less park space per person within a 10-minute walk compared to white communities. And that low-income communities have 21.2 percent less park space per person within a 10-minute walk compared to high-income communities.

“We have suffered through the devastating effects of environmental injustice and negligence,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson in an email, saying unequal distribution of greenery has “​​contributed to the urban heat island effect causing increased temperatures in communities of color, high asthma rates, and other respiratory illnesses.”

“The presence of more trees in underserved neighborhoods is not just a want but a need to protect the health and well-being of our City,” she added.

The letter signed by all five borough presidents placed the equal distribution of trees at the center of their demands, urging the mayor to plant in heat vulnerable areas and to “prioritize historically neglected communities.”

“Million More Trees initiative is an opportunity to redress the decades of disinvestment in under-served communities across the city,” the letter reads.

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