If a Tree Dies in the City, Will Anyone Notice?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

About two years ago, Maria Newsom rejoiced when nine trees from the city’s million trees initiative landed along Coney Island Avenue, a barren four-lane road that runs between Kensington and Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Then, after a long, hot summer, she walked her kids down the street on the first day of school in September and saw seven of them had shriveled up and died.

“It was heartbreaking,” she recalled. “I thought, this is really not the kind of message I want to send my children or any of the children in our school: That nature doesn’t survive, and isn’t cared for.”

The dead trees symbolized the difficult circumstances facing many urban trees. But they also inspired Newsom to resolve to water the trees once they were replaced the following spring. And that’s what she’s done, taking five-gallon plastic buckets out with her two sons once a week during hot months, filling them up from a spigot in the school yard, and dumping them on the saplings.

“I told a guy on the water truck, ‘You know what, we’re going to come out and water this summer,’" Newsom recalled. “And he looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Thank you so much,’ because he knew.”

Seven years after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched MillionTreesNYC, the city has planted more than 800,000 trees. (About a sixth of them are on the street. The rest are in parks and private yards.) The Parks Department expects to plant the millionth tree by the end of next year, two years ahead of schedule.

But while the trees' mortality rate is not unusually high compared to other cities, the Parks Department encourages New Yorkers to do their part to take care of them. According to the department, the two-year mortality rate was 6.7 percent for street trees planted in 2009. That rate – 3.4 percent annualized — puts New York favorably in the company of Denver (2.4 percent, according to an internal audit); West Oakland (3.7 percent, according to a published study); and Los Angeles (4.4 percent, according to a yet-to-be-published study by the National Forest Service). WNYC obtained more recent data, of trees planted in the spring of 2011, and determined a higher mortality rate: 12.1 percent over two years, or 6.2 percent annualized. (That cohort was the only complete data set obtained through a Freedom of Information Request.)

Some neighborhoods saw even higher mortality rates, such as Greenpoint-Williamsburg (22.3 percent) and Sheepshead Bay (21 percent), both in Brooklyn. Staten Island and the Rockaways also show high death rates, though those areas were subject to the saltwater from Sandy’s storm surge in October 2012.

“Mortality rates fluctuate from year to year, depending on a variety of factors ranging from development to vandalism to environmental factors,” Tara Kiernan, a spokeswoman for the New York City Parks Department, said in an email.

But forestry researchers said that even if the 2011 rate persisted over several years, it would not be alarming, given the challenges trees face in urban settings. "That is on the high rate of normal, but it is not shocking," said Lara Roman, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service in Philadelphia, who has studied tree mortality rates around the country.

Another researcher, Robert Young, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, said New York City had "the Cadillac" of tree planting programs, because of how Bloomberg borrowed money to pay to plant trees. That helped the city develop long-term relationships with the nurseries that grew the trees and improve the quality of the stock it purchased. But Young said the city should also put emphasis on caring for the trees once they are planted.  

“They built the acquisition of trees into the capital budget, but not the stewardship of trees,” Young said. “When you build something, you have to take care of it.”

Some places have gone to great lengths to care for trees. Canopy, a nonprofit organization in California, planted 1,000 trees along a highway in the low-income San Francisco suburb of East Palo Alto beginning in 2007. The group picked drought-resistant species and installed an in-ground irrigation system to keep them hydrated. Within three years of planting, only 2 percent of them had died, according to Executive Director Catherine Martineau. 

"Our project demonstrates what you can get if you put all of the chances on your side," Martineau said. "But I can't say it's necessarily scalable, because the cost and volunteer effort and staff work is not negligible." 

The Parks Department said the landscaping companies that plant the trees provide ample care. By contract, the companies have to replace any tree that dies within the first two years and are expected to do regular watering. The city has also taken other steps in recent years to improve longevity, such as enlarging tree pits (the concrete squares cut into sidewalks that allow roots to soak up water) and installing tree guards in highly trafficked areas.  

A series of young trees along Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn died from thirst two summers ago. Since they have been replaced, Maria Newsom and her sons Theodore and William have been watering them during dry months.  

In addition, the Parks Department is expanding its efforts to recruit people like Maria Newsom to care for street trees. The city's own research suggests that trees live longer in settings where neighbors are more likely to take care of them. Roman, the forest service researcher, found that in Sacramento, young trees did better outside homes with stable ownership compared to trees on properties that were bought and sold.

In April, New York City's million trees program launched its first Spring Stewardship day, which brought out hundreds of volunteers to events around the five boroughs. The Parks department previously launched tree care workshops and an adopt-a-tree program.

“Anybody is able to take care of the trees,” said Shalini Beath, the deputy director of the million trees program. “Whether it’s watering, whether it’s picking up litter, whether it’s  notifying any issues with that tree by calling 311.”


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Comments [24]

L from Kings County

But the Parks Department doesn't actually care for anything. They no longer have any staff to do any care or repair work to trees or other park facilities.

Instead they contract out all their work to various companies. Those who do the tree pruning do not pay workers or give workers the benefits that city employees are now entitled to.

It is disingenuous that Mayor DeBlasio has granted minimum wages and benefits to city workers while workers doing city work, like those with contracts with Parks, don't have the same sick leave benefits as other workers now have doing city work.

Can't we come up with a plan that teats both the people who care for trees and the trees themselves better?

Jan. 22 2015 11:28 AM

I live on Bedford Ave bet. S1 and Grand street, brooklyn.
I requested they plant trees in the empty beds, and damned if they didn't get right on it and plant three trees!!

All are growing, well!
Except in front of Maison Premiere restaurant; they keep washing the sidewalk with bleach and soap-water, and spraying it into the tree bed.
Two trees have died in three years.

But every time I request that the city plant a replacement tree there, they do it!!

So I guess the routine is to see a tree begin to thrive, then watch Maison Premiere kill the tree with soap water.

Its almost like a contest.
Paid for by our tax dollars!

Jun. 25 2014 10:22 AM
Doris from New York City

So the Parks Department put new trees on First Avenue and 80th Street in Manhattan and on 15 Street and First Avenue as part of a bus stop rehab (I am sure there are more places like this). The trees are surrounded by a low wrought iron railing about 4 feet all around. This is now the most perfect place for trash that I have ever seen. The fenced in area around the trees is now littered with beer cans, soda cans, condoms, cigarette butts and garbage of all kinds and the bus stop rehab is not even finished! Also, I see people pick up their small dogs and put them over the railing to urinate against the trees. Large dogs are encouraged to just hop over the fence to do so. Because of the railing there is no way for garbage to make it to the street or for a well-meaning store owner to clean around the tree. What were you thinking? Whose idea was this? We are not a bucolic hamlet in the Midwest where this might be workable. This is a terrible idea. Contact the Parks Department and complain, as I am doing. Next time, Parks Department, feel free to contact me, a native New Yorker.

Jun. 25 2014 08:29 AM
Konrad from Astoria

Fire Department should do it once a week within a certain radius of their firehouses. Its not like they do anything else on most days, and that way they be more part of community, and gain community support (if they are worth it) when threatened with budgetary closures.

Jun. 24 2014 11:17 PM
BaHa from Lower East Side

In my neighborhood, there is a beautiful block of large green trees but, on the other side of the street, the trees are all dead. Not dogs, not vandalism, but foolishness, because they were planted in full shade; they get no sun whatsoever, due to a tall building directly opposite.

Jun. 24 2014 05:04 PM
Margaret from UWS

JJ from Manhattan: Yes - rain barrels everywhere! Water trees; rinse sidewalks; with filtering, dog drinking fountains. "It's the Parks Dept.'s job"? Why isn't it every citizen's job to stay connected to Nature, and be responsible, while living a life enclosed in steel, glass, and tarmac, and that abuses Nature to be what it is? Jane Weiner from Manhattan: Scaffolding does damage, but not as much as the general neglect and abuse of the general public. Shepsl: Agreed! Watch a Facebook page I'll start today, and help me agitate and instigate on the issue. Use my notes and letters for ideas on tree stewardship, and progressive design. Look for: MT MUG/Neighborhood Tree Health

Jun. 24 2014 04:48 PM
Amy Stone from NYC

Definitely check out
I was trained by them as a citizen pruner -- graduating just before Hurricane Sandy. Plenty to do.

Things we can all do--
1) Not let our dogs use the tree pits for toilets.
2) Get our supers to water the tree pits when they hose down the sidewalk.
3) Don't kill the trees with love by adding planting soil several inches above the tree bark for flower beds.
Bark does not thrive under dirt. It deteriorates and can be invaded by insects.
Keep dirt level with sidewalk. (See how the Parks Dept. does it.)

Jun. 24 2014 04:42 PM
M. Sullivan

To write an article about caring for New York City street trees and make no mention of the great work that Trees New York has been doing for decades is appalling. They are a small nonprofit organization who has been training New Yorkers to care for their city's trees since the 1970s and they deserve to be recognized for their efforts.

Jun. 24 2014 04:06 PM
Tree Steward from Park Slope, Brooklyn

MillionTreesNYC, along with TreesNYC, the various Botanical/Botanic Gardens, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, Sustainable South Bronx, Snug Harbor, etc. all partner to provide instruction in street tree care!

MillionTreesNYC has had a tree care guide on their website for easy download for the last 5 years:

In Spanish as well:

Come on, folks - do a little research and visit a website or two before commenting! I was trained in tree care by MTNYC in 2009 and by TreesNY in pruning in 2011.

Jun. 24 2014 03:20 PM
ECA from Corner of 204th & Cooper St., Inwood NY NY 10034

1 million Thank-yous to my Inwood NY, NY, Neighbors! All of the trees planted on Cooper St. between Academy and 204th St. are alive and growing beautifully since planted on 2010!

Jun. 24 2014 02:04 PM
ECA from Corner of 204th & Cooper St., Inwood NY NY 10034

1 million Thank-yous to my Inwood NY, NY, Neighbors! All of the trees planted on Cooper St. between Academy and 204th St. are alive and growing beautifully since planted on 2010!

Jun. 24 2014 02:04 PM
JJ from Manhattan

What about collecting rainwater in barrels to water trees? Hmmm….the old tricks may just be the best ones. Also, what about PSA's that address issues like watering, becoming a tree-keeper, reporting sickly trees, etc.? As w/the bike lane and citibike program, the last administration seemed averse to seeing its initiatives to completion (as a biker who now avoids bike lanes, I wish pedestrians could be warned ahead of time that stepping into a bike lane puts both walkers and bikers at peril). Meantime, call 311 or the Parks Dept. It's the latter's job to care for the city's precious trees.

Jun. 24 2014 01:00 PM
Jym Dyer

◇ The nonprofit group Trees New York trains volunteers to maintain street trees, definitely worth learning ISA-approved tree care. Cities all over the nation have deferred tree care and other long-term responsibilities since budgets were pinched in the Reagan/Bush years, and this has been one coping mechanism.

MillionTreesNYC used younger trees than the usual city supply, I hope enough survive.

Jun. 24 2014 12:42 PM
Timmy Tigerson from South Brooklyn

I recently brought home a tree for my front yard from Million Trees and I was surprised that I did not receive a pamphlet or anything telling me to stake the tree and how much to water it. I've been having to do my own research and since I'm not really the gardening type I worry that the tree will die within the next year. How much would it really cost to put together a generic pamphlet or to make such a thing available online as a PDF? I see that they offer practical courses on how to mulch, water, prune, etc., but for busy professionals a simple how-to guide would probably save a lot of trees from dying.

Jun. 24 2014 11:40 AM
Jane Weiner from Manhattan

Scaffolding causes carnage to our tree population. Those responsible for creating the ubiquitous, NYC-wide structures have no regard whatsoever for the lives of our city trees. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the diBlasio administration. Otherwise, we will continue to witness this unconscionable destruction.

Jun. 24 2014 11:14 AM
susan from Yorkville

The de Blasio administration decided it was best to sacrifice 6 30 year old pear trees to allow for a ramp to a garbage dump (in Yorkville, near Gracie Mansion). These beautiful pear trees were part of a playing field for kids of all ages, from all over NYC.

I don't know why they had to be destroyed and not replanted in Carl Schurz Park, next door.

Trees vs. garbage; this is our new Mayor

Jun. 24 2014 09:32 AM
Majora Carter from Hunts Point

Although many municipalities, including NYC, tout the benefits of green infrastructure (using strategic greenery on rooftops, medians and street trees etc) to help cost-effectively manage stormwater, clean the air, and reduce the temperature of cities overall - reducing dependence on a/c and electrical demand, NYC falls short of treating "green infrastructure" as INFRASTRUCTURE. Would we ever leave the management of the City's sewage treatment system or subway system in the hands of "volunteers"? It's in all of our best interests to HIRE and pay people to make these trees thrive. They are the ambassadors of green infrastructure who will protect our tax-paid investment and make it relevant to all New Yorkers.

Jun. 24 2014 09:08 AM
rita from east village

in the early 70s the city gave my block, 5th street between 2nd and 3rd avenues about 20 trees. We, the entire block adopted them and very carefully cared for them, from seedling to tree.
. Take a walk down my old block and you will see a gorgeous array of nature.

Jun. 24 2014 08:54 AM
Moira from Riverdale, NY

Sam Bishop helps run a fantastic program from TREES NY. You take the course, learn about NYC street trees and how to prune and water them correctly. Upon completion you receive a "Citizen Pruner" certification permitting you to handle street trees.

Jun. 24 2014 08:44 AM
Elyse Glenn from 4288 Bedford Avenue

In 2008 the towering maple tree in front of my house crashed down during a storm. Since then I have been requesting a replacement tree. I spoke with people from various Forestry Department agencies in NYC and was told that upon inspection of the site, no tree could be planted in the tree pit. This is because these is a gas line below the site. I wonder if this means that there will eventually be no trees on the even-numbered side of Bedford Avenue. Do you have any suggestions?

Jun. 24 2014 08:37 AM
Mar from NYCer

The question,
Who should take care. The people who are trained of course, the parks dept.
This is an opportunity for education, jobs and volunteer work.

Jun. 24 2014 08:26 AM
L from manhattan

the city has been steadily increasing the price of water since the beginning of this program.
small coops like the one i live in have been struggling under the weight of these and other operating expenses as well as increased taxes since 2007 (read: the recession).
water is our biggest expense, and the price isn't going to go down -> only up.
i almost never see rental buildings watering trees in my neighborhood: washington heights.
in fact, i see an abundance of dog poop, trash, and food waste collecting around most trees everywhere i go in my area, and i walk around a lot.
i don't think the average individual in my area would know about the city's million tree program, or care for that matter.

Jun. 24 2014 08:05 AM

Enlarging pits sounds great -- until you see that property owners by and large quickly brick them in to within inches of the trees. Frankly the city should take a look at its own bricking in. A stroll along the Fifth Avenue side of Central Park shows mature trees bricked in to within an inch of their lives -- and judging from their appearance, actually their deaths. Many of these trees are clearly in dire trouble. So, planting is one thing. Keeping the tree pits open so the trees can have half a chance of their roots' getting the air and water they need is the greater, ongoing battle, and the city seems as much at fault as ordinary landlords.

Jun. 24 2014 08:02 AM
A. Campbell from Putnam County

Newly planted trees need clean water in the summer every other day that it doesn't rain. It takes someone with a sense of that and impetus to do it though. I think a program to encourage and coordinate individuals in the neighborhoods to do it and maybe Scout crews (with merit badge credit if it lives two years!) for those that are outside specific neighborhoods would add the benefit of helping people learn that their community needs care to survive and prosper. (I even fed the one scrawny recently-planted tree at our local library but this year I have seen more of these and plantings around the county with bare branches that make me wonder what might be happening.) --Thanks for the news item!

Jun. 24 2014 07:28 AM

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