By Mary Cunningham
June 20, 2023
New York City’s 7 million trees may soon be getting some new neighbors.
At a City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation hearing last week, officials and environmental advocates called on the Parks Department to increase the city’s tree canopy to 30 percent by 2035. The most recent tree census – taken in 2017 – registered 22 percent tree coverage across the five boroughs.
To help reach this benchmark, Council Member Erik Bottcher is urging the Parks Department to create a strategic plan that lays out the steps it will take to maintain and expand the city’s tree population.
Bottcher’s bill would require the department to create an “Urban Forest Master Plan” that would be updated every five years, with the first to be delivered by July 2024 (although Carl Wilson, a spokesperson from Bottcher’s office, said that could change.) Another bill from Council Member Gale Brewer, introduced concurrently with Bottcher’s, would force the city to consider trees as part of its long-term sustainability plans.
The campaign to expand the city’s tree canopy has solid backing: dozens of environmental groups have expressed their support, including the Forest for All NYC coalition. They cite the climate benefits that increased tree cover can bring, like improving air quality, diverting stormwater runoff and helping to mitigate the impact of extreme heat.
But hitting the 30 percent benchmark may not be so straightforward: questions remain over maintenance, funding, and how to mobilize city dwellers to plant more trees. “We think it is a feasible goal,” Parks Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Greenfeld told lawmakers of the legislation, “but it’s a very ambitious timeframe.”
Beyond Parks’ jurisdiction
The Parks Department oversees 53 percent of the tree canopy in New York: that’s 22,000 acres out of the city’s 42,656 acres of total tree coverage. The remaining 47 percent fall into the hands of private and public land owners.
Bottcher’s bill, as it’s written, requires a plan for the entire urban forest, not just the trees that the Parks Department maintains. That means other stakeholders – community groups, homeowners, NYCHA, and schools, for example – will need to come on board to help the city reach the legislation’s target by 2035.
The city can only get about halfway to the 30 percent benchmark on Parks Department land alone, Greenfeld told council members, citing analysis by The Nature Conservancy.
“I think that is perhaps why we heard a lot of advocates saying, let’s make sure that the Parks Department is supported and has other leadership with them in this planning because much of it does in fact, go beyond their jurisdiction,” said Emily Nobel Maxwell, New York cities program director at The Nature Conservancy.
Bottcher’s bill instructs the Parks Department to create an outreach plan to educate property owners on how to protect and expand the trees on their land, although the details for how this will look have not been teased out yet, according to Greenfeld.
Private property owners are one group that will be particularly important to engage, advocates say. According to a study from The Nature Conservancy, 68 percent of land where trees can be planted is private. Private properties could include school campuses, businesses, and homes.
While they may not be the first thing to come to mind, cemeteries could also be a key part of the puzzle. The privately-owned plots of land account for 4,358 acres of space in New York City. That’s about five times the size of Central Park, said Joe Charap, vice president of horticulture at Green-Wood Cemetery in South Brooklyn.
“If you just consider that acreage alone, the impact that these institutions have by taking even small efforts to increase their tree planting would be a significant step in the right direction,” he said.
Green-Wood Cemetery plants hundreds of trees each year. They recently applied for funding from the federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act, which they hope to use to plant 400 trees a year for the next five years.
Thoughtful thinking around reaching and engaging private landowners – whose participation will be voluntary – is also vital. “[They] are looking to be activated in a way that lets them know that they’re part of a collective effort to achieve something greater than just planting a few trees in the ground,” Charap added.
Outside of the private sector, the city could seize opportunities to mandate government agencies like the Department of Transportation to plant trees, explained Bram Gunther, who previously headed forestry, horticulture and natural resources for the Parks Department.
“Agencies would have to start thinking about how to use that land in the way that the people and their representatives want,” he said.
NYCHA properties, which are on state land, are also rife with potential. The Nature Conservancy’s State of the NYC Urban Forest Report estimates that NYCHA represents one of the largest individual holders of canopy in New York City. According to NYC Parks, NYCHA makes up 2 percent of the city’s urban forest, with 1,000 acres of tree canopy.
In a statement shared with City Limits, the housing authority said it is continuing to seek funding – most recently through the USDA Urban and Community Forestry program — to carry out recommendations made in its 2021 Urban Forest Report. “If approved, this program would fund green jobs for NYCHA residents in urban forestry, higher level maintenance of NYCHA’s trees in collaboration with NYC Parks, and the planting of at least 6,000 trees over five years.”
Between agency land, state and federal lands, and private land, Gunther is confident that there is plenty of space to plant more trees.
“It’s not going to necessarily be easy, but it can be reached,” he said of the 30 percent goal.
Taking care of the existing canopy
Increasing New York City’s canopy doesn’t mean just planting more trees: it also means tending to the 7 million trees that already exist. In a recent study, The Nature Conservancy identified that up to 87 percent of canopy increase that occurred between 2010 and 2017 was from growth of existing trees.
But both planting and maintaining trees could present a challenge, advocates say, given budgetary and staff constraints in the Parks Department. Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, underscored that decades of disinvestment has left the department in a precarious position.
“We’re very mindful of the fact that the Parks Department can’t take care of the parks and the trees it has now,” said Ganser. “We are setting ourselves up for failure if we’re not talking about the maintenance costs that are going to be required to make sure, first of all, new trees survive in the first year that they’re planted, but then that they’re cared for longer term.”
This past year, the department’s budget was $647.3 million, 23.1 million more than the city allocated in its adopted budget last June. The city could further tighten its purse strings this coming fiscal year: the mayor’s executive budget plan allocates $610.4 million to Parks.
That’s roughly 0.6 percent of Mayor Eric Adams’ nearly $100 billion total city budget proposal, in stark contrast to other places like Minneapolis, MN, where 5.3 percent of the city’s budget goes to their parks department, according to a New Yorkers for Parks report.
Advocates have repeatedly called on the mayor to designate 1 percent of the city’s total budget to the Park’s Department. But even then, there’s more the administration could do to support the department’s work, they say. It costs Parks an estimated $3,000 to plant a tree, and $87 to prune one.
“One percent should be the floor, not the ceiling,” said Nobel Maxwell.
Despite advocates concerns about the budget, Greenfeld still believes the department can still get the job done when it comes to tree care, pointing to $44 million for new planting in the current fiscal year budget.
“I think I feel confident we have the funding we need to maintain our current canopy,” she said.
Continuing the legacy of tree planting
This isn’t the first time legislators and advocates have pushed for the city to plant more trees. In 2007, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched Million Trees NYC, a successful campaign that was completed in 2015 under former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
And in a rare display of unity, all five borough presidents came together last year to call for more trees. In February 2023, the officials sent a letter to the Adam’s administration asking them to prioritize the One Million More Trees Initiative.
Advocates have also been vocal about the need to plant more trees, citing their positive environmental and health benefits. In 2021, the Forest for All NYC coalition released the Urban Forest Agenda calling for the 30 percent canopy coverage, with special attention paid to planting in communities vulnerable to high heat.
So far, 28 city council members, all five borough presidents, and the Mayor’s Office have signaled their support of the 30 percent goal, the latter through the City’s PlaNYC.
Nobel Maxwell of The Nature Conservancy said she’d love to see city officials act as soon as possible on the legislation to help get there. “We’re coming into summer, a period of extreme heat,” she said. “There’s resounding support. So I would love to see these bills move relatively quickly.”
According to Greenfeld, the Forest for all NYC coalition has already brought on a consultant to start the scoping process for the ‘urban forest master plan.’