As City Plants More Trees, Volunteer Stewards Fill Critical Role

Friday, August 10, 2012

Evelyn Chen’s boyfriend may have initially questioned her sanity when she trudged out of their Park Row co-op at 11 pm with 20 gallons of water for the street trees behind their building, but over time she convinced him otherwise.

Ten months into Chen’s self-appointed stewardship of five trees along St. James Place in Chinatown, the couple has seen the positive impact the trees have on their block: more shade, a calmer feel, and even a friendlier atmosphere among neighbors.

“I might look crazy out there with my red wagon,” Chen said, “but when people walk or bike by and yell ‘thank you,’ it’s pretty rewarding.”

The trees behind Chen’s building – she estimates there are between 12 and 14 of them – were planted about two years ago. Though they were watered occasionally by a local business group last summer, they were untended in the fall.

That led Chen to attend a tree stewardship seminar hosted by GreenThumb, a Parks Department program that provides programming and material support for more than 500 community gardens across the city. Though Chen grew up a tree lover in a leafy Connecticut town, she didn’t fully grasp the importance of urban tree care until the seminar.

“It made me think about the stresses the trees are under, the inhospitable street environment, and there was no turning back,” she said.

Each tree requires 20 gallons of water at once, and it took Chen several tries to develop an efficient routine. Because of her work schedule – and because water evaporates more during the heat of the day – she decided nights were best for the work. Her watering trips occur at least biweekly, depending on rainfall, and her tree-care regimen also extends to frequent weeding, mulching and flower planting.

Chen is one of thousands of unheralded local tree stewards throughout the city who take time out of their evenings and weekends to weed, water and mulch the tree pits on their blocks. The street tree stewardship movement is more important than ever in New York City:  budget cuts have slashed public funding for tree care at the same time that the MillionTreesNYC initiative hit its halfway mark – that’s 500,000 new saplings citywide – earlier this summer. NY4P advocacy helped increase 2013 funding for tree pruning by $2 million, but the Parks Department is still severely hamstrung in its tree care efforts.

“The City has less funding for maintenance, but there are lots of parts of the public realm that the average citizen can help maintain,” said Deborah Marton, Senior Vice President of Programs at the New York Restoration Project, which partners with the City on the MillionTrees initiative. “It’s tough when you’re working full time to add another task, but if everyone watered trees outside their home, the city would benefit in a huge way.”

Those benefits are far more than purely aesthetic. Recent studies have evidenced that the presence of urban street trees leads to decreased asthma and diabetes rates, increased physical activity, less overall anxiety and depression, higher real estate values, less energy use and lower crime rates.

Kaid Benfield, Director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth Program at the National Resources Defense Council, recently examined the value of street trees in an Atlantic Cities blog post. He highlighted the California Center for Sustainable Energy's San Diego County Trees Initiative, which built an interactive map showing specific street tree locations and the total monetary benefits provided by each tree, broken down into categories like carbon sequestration, water retention, energy saved and air pollutants reduced. A similar project is underway in Washington, D.C., where the nonprofit Casey Trees has created an interactive tree map.

Further, Benfield referenced a 2008 paper by Walkable and Livable Communities Institute Executive Director Dan Burden, which argued that “for a planting cost of $250-600 (includes first three years of maintenance) a single tree returns over $90,000 of direct benefits (not including aesthetic, social and natural) in the lifetime of a tree.”

Stewards like Chen, though, quickly realize the simpler benefits, like the improved camaraderie on her block. She says what she’s doing on her block can easily be replicated citywide.

“There are so many neighborhoods around the city where one person taking care of a tree could have a great impact,” she said.

Marton is hopeful that the network of tree volunteers will continue to grow, especially as MillionTrees and other environmental programs expand their community outreach and educate more New Yorkers about the benefits and rewards of stewardship. And she agrees with Chen that though adopting a tree might seem too time-consuming or mundane, the case for doing so is compelling.

"If people think about the investment versus the returns, I think they're much more likely to get involved,” Marton said.

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