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First NYC Tree Canopy Study Shows Growth as Storms and Budget Cuts Threaten Gains

Trees cover a street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Nov. 10, 2021.
Trees cover a street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Nov. 10, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York is getting shadier.

The South Bronx has more tree cover than it did a decade ago. Canarsie has less, likely due to Superstorm Sandy. And overall tree growth in New York City went up nearly 2%, between 2010 and 2017.

Those are among the findings in a new report from the Nature Conservancy that used three-dimensional laser imaging of the city to take a census of New York’s “natural infrastructure” — the canopy of leaves created by city trees of all kinds.

Staten Island had the biggest increase, with a 2.36% boost in tree cover, and Queens had the least growth, with just a 0.92% expansion of its trees and leaves. Citywide, New York added 3,253 acres of canopy, or 1.68%.

“Our urban forest is this incredible and tremendous asset to New York,” said Emily Maxwell, director of the Cities Program at the conservancy and a co-author of the report, the first of its kind for the city. “The amount of care and effort that we invest in it will pay dividends, both today and into the future.”

Trees help the concrete jungle in numerous ways, she noted: Cooling the streets, absorbing rainwater, turning carbon dioxide in the air into oxygen, and making our shores more resilient to flooding.

The research aims to establish a baseline of what tree cover looks like in the five boroughs to better protect, improve and manage it going forward — especially in low-income neighborhoods where trees tend to be more sparse, Maxwell said.

The report found that communities with more household crowding, more vulnerability to heat and higher poverty rates have less canopy overall. But between 2010 and 2017, tree canopy growth was strongest in those very areas with higher poverty and heat vulnerability.

People walk along the Central Park Mall, Nov. 11, 2021.
The Central Park Mall, Nov. 11, 2021.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

An example of that trend unfolded in the South Bronx, where the Nature Conservancy found some of the biggest relative increases in tree canopy in the city. The four community districts in that area saw above-average increases across the board, gaining between 30 and 41 acres — translating to a canopy boost between 2.17% and 3.42% in the seven-year period studied.

That may be because of a concerted effort by the Trees for Public Health initiative connected to Million Trees NYC, a public-private program that targeted tree-planting in six neighborhoods that had the highest need for trees, including Morrisania and Hunts Point in The Bronx. More than 7,600 trees were planted there between 2007 and 2015, the report said.

Cheap and Effective

Adrian Benepe, a former Parks Department commissioner who is now head of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, reviewed the Nature Conservancy report and found it “the most comprehensive” analysis of its type he’s seen.

To him, the report underscored a basic truth: “Trees are one of the simplest, cheapest, most effective ways to effect climate change of any you can imagine,” he told THE CITY.

In the 2019 budget year, the Parks Department spent $2,700 on average to plant a street tree. Maxwell noted that the cost of planting any tree isn’t just the sapling itself, but also its siting and ongoing care.

Annel Hernandez, associate director at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, has advocated for more equity in tree plantings and park space, especially in areas of the city affected by the “historic, racist practice of redlining,” as she co-wrote in a recent op-ed.

“Nature-based solutions are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for all communities,” she told THE CITY.

Nature Vs. Nature

All the boroughs of New York saw an increase in the net tree canopy during the time studied, which relied on open data of Lidar imaging — a method of scanning the Earth’s surface with laser technology — undertaken by the city in 2010 and again in 2017 using federal funding allocated after Sandy for disaster recovery and resiliency efforts.

But some areas saw worrying tree loss. Central Park recorded a 3% decline in tree cover during the time periods studied, the largest decrease for any community district analyzed.

Richard Frank, 82, said he tries to get to Central Park from his Upper West Side home every day to enjoy the park’s trees, which he likened to a painting by French impressionist Claude Monet.

“It’s more than a canopy. It’s almost another world,” he said, sitting on a bench on the Central Park Mall. “I sit here and think of all the things that are going on outside of the park, negatives. And I don’t think anybody can be negative in this park, under these trees. Nothing comes close to this.”

In Queens, which had the lowest increase in the canopy, just over a third of privately owned land lost canopy, the highest of any borough.

Some of the biggest tree cover losses came in areas hit hard by Sandy, including much of the Rockaway Peninsula and Broad Channel. In Brooklyn, the data showed overall losses in Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, and in the swaths of Canarsie flooded by the 2012 storm’s surge.

As part of a new report on New York’s tree canopy, the Nature Conservancy analyzed where tree loss in Canarsie overlapped with flooding from Superstorm Sandy.
The Nature Conservancy analyzed where tree loss in Canarsie overlapped with flooding from Superstorm Sandy.
Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

In his time at the Parks Department, Benepe said storms caused the biggest tree-loss events, including when a tornado hit Brooklyn and Queens in 2010 — taking out “15,000 to 20,000 trees in a matter of minutes,” he said.

“Sandy was a slower disaster because the saltwater inundation slowly killed a large number of trees that are not salt-tolerant,” he said.

Planting a Seed

Maxwell said the effect of the climate crisis could be seen in the report’s results. “Both extreme storms and extreme heat present tremendous challenges for New York,” she said.

Her group’s analysis is the first of its kind in New York City. Part of the goal: more data on the topic will spur action to better protect and manage the city’s trees, whether they are on the street, in parks, on state or federal lands — or even on private property.

Maxwell hopes to see a future where, perhaps, New York makes rules to protect trees on private lots, or institute tax incentives for people who take good care of their trees.

“There is a large part of our tree canopy that is unregulated, so people can remove it at will,” she said. “There are incentives for solar energy. There are incentives for green roofs. Why not incentives for trees?”

The group is also advocating for a master plan for how to manage New York’s urban forest, and a bigger and more steady source of funding, as described in the NYC Urban Forest Agenda, a companion piece to the Conservancy’s canopy report.

Mayor-elect Eric Adams has said he would back funding the Parks Department at 1% of the city’s budget — which would boost that agency’s funding by about double of what it is now, Benepe noted.

That’s much needed, because money for tree management “waxed and waned” constantly, he said.

“Pruning contracts would go out the window when budget cuts came in the door,” he said.

Liam Kavanagh, first deputy commissioner for the Parks Department, cheered the Nature Conservancy’s work.

“As the stewards of nearly half of the City’s urban forest, we are proud to champion, protect, and look to expand this vital natural resource wherever possible,” he said in a statement. “We echo the call for all New Yorkers to work to support and sustain this vital living infrastructure.”

On The Mall in Central Park, souvenir vendor Scott Fray observed “the city could always use more trees.”

“The trees block the wind, they block the sun,” said Fray, 54. “It’s just a beautiful area — a place where people want to be.”

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