While some New Yorkers wait in vain for the city to plant trees requested via 311, a City Council member is mobilizing to seed saplings from Boerum Hill to Greenpoint.
“I have been talking to climate experts across the country about the best things we can do to fight back against climate change,” said Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn). “And one of the solutions I hear most often is surprisingly simple: plant more trees.”
Restler is working with the city Department of Parks and Recreation to plant 3,400 new street trees in District 33 over the next four years, maxing out the existing tree pits in his district. The effort sprouts from his office’s Climate Action Roadmap, released in May.
“We reached out to the parks department to say, ‘We want street trees in every viable location across our district. How can we make it happen together?’” said Restler.
He found he could only push the public sector so far. The parks department evaluated its budget and the level of need in District 33 and committed to planting 2,200 trees, according to Restler, while his office committed to fundraising for the remaining 1,200 trees at a cost of $2.5 million.
To do that, the Council member’s office is launching the District 33 Street Tree Fund, which will accept donations from residents and local businesses. If the fund falls short of the $2.5 million goal, Restler’s office says it will bridge the gap with discretionary funds each Council member gets in the annual city budget process.
“As far as I know, this is the first effort of its kind, so we’ll have to see how it goes,” Restler said. “But we are super fortunate in the 33rd to have people who really care about their neighborhoods and are deeply invested in the community.”
The money raised through the fund will go directly to the fund’s fiscal sponsor, the North Brooklyn Parks Alliance. The Alliance will work with Tree Time, a partnership between the City Parks Foundation and the parks department, to plant trees and ensure planting keeps pace with donations.
Restler’s office says teaming up with Tree Time will facilitate lower costs and expedite tree planting.
A typical tree planted through this fund will cost $2,600 while a tree planted by the parks department comes with a much heftier price tag of about $3,600, according to testimony at a City Council hearing in June.
“Unfortunately there’s an additional cost to when the city pays for something itself,” said Restler. “The parks department planting a tree or my office funding a tree through the parks department costs more than when neighbors contribute to the District 33 Street Tree Fund and we have the trees installed by a nonprofit partner. So the benefit to our neighbors stepping up and investing in a tree fund is that the trees will cost about $1,000 less per tree.”
District 33’s plan also includes an effort to get more residents involved in tree stewardship, as trees are most vulnerable in their first few years of life and could benefit from community care.
“We want to organize, educate and empower our neighbors to do more to keep our trees healthy,” said Restler. “So we are organizing training courses for citizen pruners, we are hosting tree pit maintenance and tree care events across every neighborhood in our district and we are providing tips and resources to encourage residents to care for the trees in their community.”
Restler’s office will be hosting 10 tree pit maintenance and composting volunteer events with nonprofit group Big Reuse. The first two are scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 19, in Brooklyn Heights and Sunday, Nov. 20 in Greenpoint.
Big Reuse — which helps New Yorkers collect food scraps and turn them into compost that is used to enrich soil across the city — will teach volunteers how to clean tree pits, weed, cultivate soil with compost, and water trees.
“Big Reuse has been making and distributing compost for NYC since 2012, including using compost to improve the degraded soil in tree beds,” said Justin Green, executive director of Big Reuse. “Our NYC trees have tough conditions to grow in so adding compost and care from community members is essential to growing an urban forest.”
Restler’s office will also sponsor two citizen pruner cohorts this upcoming spring in partnership with Trees New York, an organization that plants trees and educates communities about tree care.
Lael Goodman, a longtime resident of Greenpoint and the Environmental Justice program manager for North Brooklyn Neighbors, a nonprofit that addresses issues of public space and environment in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, took the citizen pruning course a few years ago and said she walked out of it feeling better able to care for trees.
“I’m allowed to cut different branches and make sure that the trees are healthy,” said Goodman.
Canopy for All
Goodman says she’s really excited about the plan to plant 3,400 trees in District 33 and thinks community members will be, too. She’s particularly pleased that the plan will lead to more trees in neighborhoods that currently have lower canopy coverage.
“Different parts of the neighborhood have more tree cover than others,” she said. “So I’m excited that this is going to fill every viable tree pit, so it’s not just the neighborhood where residents are the most organized or have the best connections. It’s a plan that will cover everybody.”
The South Bronx is often cited as one of the areas with the lowest canopy coverage in the city, but District 33 also has relatively low tree cover according to a report released last year by The Nature Conservancy.
The report evaluated canopy cover between 2010 and 2017 and found that in 2017 the district was among those with the lowest level of coverage — between 3% and 18%. Districts with the most cover included District 3 in Staten Island and District 23 in Queens, with between 33.1% and 48% canopy cover.
In addition to the shade and cooling that trees will provide, Goodman is also looking forward to benefits such as cleaner air, the ability to mitigate stormwater runoff and more beautiful streets.
Restler also aims to chart a path for other local leaders. “My hope is that we can innovate and identify new policy solutions and local organizing approaches that have resonance beyond District 33,” said Restler. “And they can be emulated in other Council districts and neighborhoods across our city and beyond.”
Restler also hopes that one day the parks department can have enough resources to ensure that every block in every borough across the city has a full tree canopy. But until then, his office is going to step up, he said.
“This is a comprehensive approach to ensure that every block in our district from the most privileged to the most vulnerable has a full canopy of trees,” said Restler. “Because we all deserve better air to breathe, lower risk of flooding, and a beautiful place to live.”