Street Smarts

New York’s tree-planting program greens city, improves health.

By Tracy Tullis

On a quiet, residential street in the Bronx, New York, Jennifer Greenfeld appraises a young Kentucky coffee tree, its spindly branches thinly attired with leaves.

“It’s going through an awkward phase,” she admits. “But one day this will be a beautiful tree.”

Greenfeld is the director of the New York City Parks Department’s Tree Trust, a program devoted to protecting the city’s trees. She was surveying a group of year-old saplings in Morrisania, a part of the Bronx that became synonymous with urban devastation in the 1970s. Once famous for arson and rubble-strewn lots, the neighborhood is thriving once again, and is now one of five targeted by a new tree-planting program. Greenfeld’s saplings are part of a pilot project to green New York’s streets and will soon be joined by hundreds of thousands more under the city’s recent environmental initiatives.

On October 9, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg planted in Morrisania the first of the one million trees that will be planted over the next decade as part of PlanNYC 2030, a campaign to make the city more environmentally sustainable. If successful, the initiative will increase the number of trees in New York’s five boroughs by 20 percent. About 220,000 of the trees will line urban streets; the rest will take up residence in parks and public lots.

In selecting its pilot neighborhoods, the parks department compared its recent street-tree census—which surveyed every London planetree and Norway maple, every stump and stretch of barren concrete sidewalk—with maps showing areas with the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations. The places with the fewest trees also tended to have high asthma rates and high poverty rates.

In response to the findings, saplings will be putting down roots in places like Morrisania, East Harlem, and East New York, some of the city’s least leafy, most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

As they grow, the trees will provide more than just scenic streetscapes. The parks department calculated the environmental benefit that the urban forest contributes. The city’s existing trees—some 592,000 of them—absorb 42,300 tons of carbon annually. And they soak up 890.6 million gallons of storm water that would otherwise collect pollutants from streets and sewers and spill into the rivers. Trees also filter ozone, particulate matter, and nitrogen and sulfur oxides—all known to trigger asthma attacks—improving air quality and reducing human exposure to these compounds.  

Researchers say that leafier streets also bring significant social benefits to urban dwellers, from less violence to more diligent students.

Nancy Wells, an environmental psychologist at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, found that poor children who moved to greener urban surroundings performed significantly better on tests measuring cognitive functioning.

Frances Kuo, a professor of environmental science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, found that buildings in a Chicago public-housing project with some green space had lower crime rates and greater community cohesion than identical buildings without trees.

“Trees turn out to be a kind of social glue,” Kuo explains. “Because it’s more beautiful and hospitable outside, people actually spend time in those spaces; they get to know their neighbors.” Neighborly mingling replaces criminal activity, and safer spaces encourage further socialization, she says.

There are challenges, of course, in beautifying economically depressed neighborhoods. On one stark block in the South Bronx, the parks department planted a tidy row of 14 trees in front of a graffiti-splashed fence—sweet gums, swamp white oaks, and golden rain trees. Each tree pit was elegantly lined with granite paving blocks. By the next morning, every stone had disappeared.

But most residents are thrilled by the greener streets, and even pitch in with weeding and watering to ensure the saplings’ survival. Eva Sanjurjo, founder of Greening for Breathing, a South Bronx environmental justice organization, says the new landscape has already inspired healthy changes. Her neighbors are walking and bicycling along once-barren streets, which are now lined with slender red oaks, sweet gums, and frontier elms.

“It’s just beautiful!” Sanjurjo says. “Greenery makes people happy.” That, she believes, can be the start of a true community transformation.


See more articles from In Depth

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

Fish Tales »
« Prized Fighter

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter