Public Lab Research note

How to Get Street Trees for your Community

by WendyBrawer | August 20, 2019 20:11 20 Aug 20:11 | #20601 | #20601


A Chinese proverb says: the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best is today.

Manhattan isn't known for its trees, and my Lower East Side neighborhood has many empty tree pits and struggling street trees. The shortage of mature street trees poses a chronic health risk to pedestrians, cyclists, birds and all that breathes. In addition to mitigating climate change, trees beautifully shelter humans and wildlife in all seasons. Moreover, street trees raise the value of nearby homes and reduce the need for drainage infrastructure - it's even been proven that trees calm traffic, thus increasing safety (see

The LES is NYC's Garden District but currently, tree stewardship isn't all that common. Although street tree contracts include watering for the first two years, funding for maintenance, tools, stewardship training and volunteer events is crucial to the survival of young trees. This funding has greatly diminished in the decade following the Million Trees project (see, although the return on investment is very high, estimated up to $90,000 in 'eco system services' for every tree planted. This includes benefits to air quality, reduction in CO2 and stormwater, energy efficiency and other values that expand as the tree grows.

I was motivated to act for trees by sudden retrogressive changes to the East Side Coastal Resilience (ESCR) project. As of December 2019, this flood protection seawall includes destruction of nearly 1,000 mature trees in East River Park, which is Manhattan's largest park south of Central Park - it's also our community commons. The original ESCR plan (known as the Big U in 2014) included a massive tree planting in the streets upland of this riverside park, but none have actually been planted. Moreover, local construction projects, including the rebuilding of sewers, vents and other underground structures have taken hundreds of trees (such as the those destroyed in 2019 on NYCHA's Baruch campus), and social disregard including dog owners who allow pets into tree pits to relieve themselves, wintertime oversalting and curb-hopping trucks, all of which take their toll.

Here's how I kickstarted street tree planting in my 'hood, and some steps [in brackets] that will encourage you to do the same for your district, town and city.

Materials needed

  • A few copies, signs (and Valentines)

Step 1

[Discovery] Borrowing ideas from our neighborhood's abundant community gardens and emergent tree stewardship programs, how other cities do it, etc., I began to campaign for street trees, a re-ignited stewardship program and rapid cultivation of a 'community canopy'.

Online, I found that NYC Parks Department 'owns' our street trees. Their awesome tree map calculates the eco-system services of street trees across the whole city, by the neighborhood or by the tree ( shades my office and provides nearly $1 per day in services). Some stewardship programming and other resources are offered, but there is no way to request hundreds of trees or a stewardship workshop.

Step 2

[Find an entry point] I looked to my community board, which offers New Yorkers a pathway toward policy change. There are 53 community boards. Mine, Manhattan CB3, is home to 165,000 people and way too many dogs. CB3 has 5,000 street trees which provide $600,000 in benefits annually. (To find your own CB in NYC, check [Outside NYC, call your city or check with a librarian if you cannot find the answers online (the League of Women Voters help you find your representatives across the US. ]

According to CB3's online calendar, I was ahead of the agenda deadline for the next Parks Committee meeting. I contacted CB3's district manager, and she suggested that I send in a draft resolution at least a week ahead to expedite swift passage.

Step 3

[Frame the Ask/Demand] Drafting a resolution was new to me, but CB3's website had examples to guide me, plus I asked around and got feedback as I wrote two pages focused on urgency, the value of thousands of new Street Trees and ancillary benefits of local Stewardship programming for wellbeing and climate health. View my draft and know that I learned later I should have broken it out into clearer 'Therefore' clauses as these paragraphs illuminate the nuances of the proposition.

Step 4

[Presenting] On February 14, 2019, the CB3 Parks Committee meeting went long as complex issues including the ESCR were presented and discussed. Toward the end of the evening, I made a quick simple pitch. In less than 5 minutes, I emphasized the community benefits of street trees and to punctuate it with love, I handed out valentines and copies of the draft resolution. Very quickly, the Parks Committee discussed it, asked questions, edited the digital version I had sent ahead and voted to pass it. The LES Community Tree Canopy Resolution was heading to the full CB3 Board for a vote!

Step 5

[Understanding how to gain larger approval] I have been before CB3's full Board in the past, so I knew to come a bit early, in time to fill out a speaker form. This must be done before the meeting starts. [Wherever you live, it's a good idea to attend your community board meetings now and then to find out about local issues and board policies about getting involved (or ask around, someone will tell you the process)]. For example, CB3 allows a maximum of 4 speakers to represent each side of each issue (so organize if you are campaigning with a group, so together, you can get all key concerns aired in your allotted minute or two). Overall, it's a lively scene, with all levels of government making brief reports, announcements and agenda items that give you a sense of the district's diversity and challenges, with side conversations, people circulating flyers, journalists and neighbors in the room.

[Be succinct, appreciative, supportive]

On February 26th, I had CB3's attention for just two minutes (yes, I practiced!). I thanked the Parks Committee for their quick climate action. It was good to be on hand to respond to questions (there was one about the source of a statistic which I confirmed on the spot). Concerns about tree species and allergens were added to the resolution. The Board voted, and the resolution passed!

Step 6

[Getting the word out]

CB3's district manager sent me the resolution the next day, but it had the wrong month, which I had corrected before distributing. I posted about it in a spring blog, linking in the related Patch article, and extended the story into a timeline as this instructable was completed).

Step 7

[Making the project identifiable] I used the expression "Community Canopy" to build off the culture of stewardship that's integral to our neighborhood's 53 Community Gardens. Perhaps later, the LES Community Canopy would be able to access bulk tool ordering and other resources offered by Green Thumb (NYC Parks' amazing program for community gardens).

[Keeping the project on the front burner] I kept showing up at CB3 Parks committee meetings, and when Parks staff reported in March, they announced that 1,000 street trees would be planted in CB3 over a three year period! Although new street trees being planted continually in response to requests (here's the map of upcoming plantings), the Canopy Trees would be in addition to these requested trees. Trees are dormant when it's cool and fall plantings fare better than Spring for the young saplings.

[Understanding the cost and time involved is important] $3,000 was said to be the cost of planting a new street tree by the City's contractors. This includes widening the existing tree pit and making the sidewalk around the pit more permeable; replacing the soil, procuring and planting the tree; tagging and staking it; then surrounding the tree with a low steel guard, and guaranteeing it for two years. Contractors water the new trees in hot dry weather and freshen the mulch occasionally, etc., but in a messy city like ours, stewards do more to help the tree thrive.

Speaking with the deputy commissioner and foresters, I was told they would be native trees but later learned that's unlikely due to the long lead time - five to seven years - needed for 3 to 3.5 inch saplings, and the fact that currently NYC buys its street trees from just two nurseries. [Is this an income opportunity for your locality?]

Step 8

[Keeping the goal visible] NYC is on the Atlantic Flyway and hundreds of species of birds and insects who pass through annually need treetop habitat. I brought up the promise and requested local stewardship trainings at every opportunity but spring and summer passed without an indication of action. Meanwhile, NYC Parks mentioned the 1,000 street trees whenever asked about their ESCR mitigation plans for the Lower East Side neighborhood. Along with 40 promised bioswales, the street trees are the only natural systems element planned with the $32.9 million in restitution -- everything else is high VOC sports paint, synthetic plastic turf, playfields and BBQ areas. What was being done to support biodiversity?

I persisted in reminded officials and residents that in 2014, the Big U (ESCR's precursor plan) had won $335 million in HUD federal dollars for a plan that included extensive 'upland' (neighborhood) tree planting, bioswales and other green-blue infrastructure. Trees have been planted for other purposes, but not specifically for climate change mitigation. We knew the City was cutting nearly 1,000 mature trees in East River Park, and thanks to Dr. Amy Berkov, who combed through the volumnious EIS, we found our community was being shorted! The correct number, according to NYC's Rules Governing Tree Replacement is 4,247 3-inch saplings to replace the 12,740 caliper inches of trees being cut in East River Park. Right now only 2815 3-inch trees are promised (in and around the park), but it's a matter of climate change mitigation, public health and environmental justice that 100% of the rule be followed. [This type of rules can vary greatly and could became the subject of a local campaign that accelerates canopy expansion]

[Two steps forward, one step backwards] Meanwhile, local data was coming in about income disparity and tree cover while the City was cutting down apparently healthy mature trees in our neighborhood without notice. I had been in contact with the Parks Commissioner in charge of the street trees and emailed him numerous ideas for getting the planting rolling in a visible way. Everywhere I looked, more cities were touting their tree planting programs - and despite the continual removal of trees, NYC's was listed as exemplary in climate change coverage.
image description

Step 9

[Overcoming resistance with a public event]

My organization, Green Map System, decided to host a local event during Climate Week in parallel with the United Nations, planning to feature their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals by making these SDGs more visible in our community. Several weeks ahead, I asked about planting the first of the LES Canopy Trees during this public event. Many nudges later, Parks agreed, just a bit too late to do proper press outreach. We spread the word via social media and had a good turn out in Sara D Roosevelt Park on a rainy afternoon, with the Commissioner, Urban Park Rangers, park coalition partners and local groups providing services that align with the SDGs. Several members of the public and Green Map board members took part in planting the first two Canopy trees, a Red Maple and an Eastern Red Bud, both native to NY, including K Webster, the president of the SDRPark Coalition.

[Persist!] At numerous hearings and presentations about East River Park's future, I asked about the stewardship program and next steps for the tree planting program and finally in October, I heard from Parks' Director of Street Tree Planting and Director of Resiliency - a Street Tree Task Force was being formed, who did I think should take part and where should that meeting be held. I encouraged a location where it would be easy for a diverse cross section of neighbors to meet, and provided a list of people already involved in tree planting and stewardship. The City was planning to hire an Arborist for this program, and I encouraged them to select a local bilingual professional for the job, realizing that social buy-in would be key to the program's success. During this same period, unfortunately, the destructive ESCR plan was approved and a lawsuit got underway. [Although it's uncertain whether your advice will be taken, giving attention and responding in detail can help achieve the desired results]

[Take stock of progress, and watch for backsliding] Although that first meeting was a bit uneven (and smaller than expected), in the three months since, the City has indeed hired an Arborist to manage the program, and she has scheduled tree walks to understand more of the issues from the community's perspective, as well as the second Tree Task Force meeting. She also asked me who else should be involved. Tonight, one year since I presented that draft Resolution, is the first time Street Trees and Stewardship will be on the Agenda at CB3 Parks Committee. I'm ready to ask why the 1,000 trees promised to CB3 are now described as being planted in CB3 and CB6, why the City isn't planning to follow the Tree Replacement Rules to the letter and to encourage better communications with the public so more people can get involved. I'll add to the LES Canopy Timeline over time.

Wrap up

Please share your stories and advice (article links too) here. We'll add to the LES Canopy Timeline over time.

[Synergize your efforts] I've also joined forces with other tree, park and greening advocates, taking part in a new Renature NYC (website to come) group that formed in Fall 2019, thanks to NYC Sierra Club. With representatives from all five of NYC's boroughs, we have met with several elected officials, and are now looking forward to a City Council hearing that will examine why NYC has been so determined to cut down mature trees and pour on concrete, both of which exacerbate overheating, which NYC's biggest health threat stemming from climate change. Will new policies arise? We have several in mind.

I'm sure that having trees referred to as a solution in media reports all over the world this year has perked the ears of residents everywhere and encouraged them to speak and act for their local trees, especially since mature trees can be 70 times more effective at mitigating stormwater, heat and air quality impacts than saplings. My thanks to all at Public Lab for providing this forum, and I hope this instructable story will help your community's street trees!

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