Op-Ed: We Give Trees a Green Thumbs Up – Some New Yorkers Prefer a Different Finger

Op-Ed: We Give Trees a Green Thumbs Up – Some New Yorkers Prefer a Different Finger

November 17, 2011 at 4:00 am

Author: Leslie Day 
Illustrator: Trudy Smoke
Publisher: The John Hopkins University Press 
Publication Date: Oct. 2011

In mid-October, the city reached the halfway point in its ongoing campaign to plant one million new trees in the five boroughs over the next decade.

That same week, a New York Times article by Lisa Foderaro took us by surprise by listing the myriad grievances against New York’s trees. And that was also the same week we released our book — a celebration of street trees and the small army of New Yorkers who take care of them.

We recognize that there are challenges with planting a million new trees and making New York an even greener city, especially in tough economic times. But our hope is that New Yorkers can focus on the positive aspects of trees and use them as an opportunity to work together to make their neighborhoods healthier and more beautiful.

Instead of curtailing the city’s ambitious program, we feel it would be productive to educate more New Yorkers on how to care for their street trees.

In contrast to the gripes and concerns about trees, our research brought us into contact with locals who revealed another side to the story.”

The New York Times article cataloged complaints about trees ranging from branches falling on vehicles to trees causing damage to sidewalks as root systems grow thicker. Foderaro also points out that “three of the top five categories of parks-related calls to 311,” are tree-related.

Although the city has ambitiously pledged to plant one million new trees over the next decade, many New Yorkers have expressed concerns about the problems they may cause. Flickr/Damian Morys Foto

We believe that this is a positive use of the 311 help line. And citizen engagement around trees helps the Parks Department do its job — otherwise, it’s impossible to catch every broken branch of every tree. It is wonderful that we can look out our window, see a tree that needs care and report it to 311.

It is true that some newly planted trees have met early deaths, as the article points out. The Times article notes that 7 to 11 percent of new trees die within two years of planting.  Only a pessimist would use a statistic like that to call the million trees program into question because that means 89 to 93 percent of city trees survive and thrive. This figure is even more remarkable considering the spate of extreme weather the cities have witnessed in the past few years.

In contrast to the gripes and concerns in the Times article, our research brought us into contact with locals who revealed another side to the story.

Everywhere we went in the five boroughs, we met people who knew and loved their communities’ trees. In fact, average residents, not city officials or contractors, became important sources of information about the history and life of the trees on the blocks where they lived.

Green Shores NYC volunteers carting pruned tree limbs on a bicycle to a nearby park for chipping. Photo by Nasha Lina.

New York’s trees are cherished by extraordinary people.  People like Susan Strazzera, also known as the “Tree Lady of City Island” for her work in making sure that trees get planted and cared for. People like Christy Van Kehrberg, head of Green Shores NYC’s street tree committee in Astoria, Queens, who invited us into her house to talk about the trees she has personally nurtured. People like the owner of a small marine supply store in the Bronx, who proudly showed us pictures of the tree planted in front of his store.

And myriad neighborhood associations throughout the five boroughs like the Brooklyn Heights Association and the Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association in Manhattan, are dedicated to the care and health of both new and established trees.

And of course there are those whose livelihood is to care for trees, and train thousands of volunteers, through organizations like Trees New YorkMillionTreesNYCBrooklyn Botanic GardenNYC Parks Green ThumbNew York Botanical GardenDepartment of Parks and Recreation and the New York Restoration Project.

Trees are an important part of our city’s infrastructure. We need them in our lives, to bring beauty to our streets, clean our air, improve our property values, absorb storm water runoff so that it does not flood out our sewers, shade us and our homes in summer and provide shelter and food for our birds and other wildlife. We have to care for them through thick and thin.

If you haven’t yet, take a tree stewardship course at Trees New York or any of the organizations listed above. Become a Citizen Pruner! You will step into the world of caring people: the kind of New Yorkers upon which the natural world of our very green city depends.

Leslie Day is the author and Trudy Smoke is the illustrator of “Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City.”