My first summer in New York City was met with the seven stages of grief.
As a former San Franciscan, I was rattled by the debilitating humidity and heat trapped between the city’s colossal buildings. Then came the pain from the expensive ConEd bills due to our apartment’s AC units. Once the bargaining stage was in full swing, I pathetically laced up my shoes and went for a run to relieve stress. It was then, in the dead of summer, that I saw a tree on the bank of the Hudson River with a green sign labeled “It is okay to hug me.” The tree, nurturing and selfless, provided shade for fellow runners during the heatwave in New York City. Red-faced and exhausted, I collapsed under the tree’s shade, grateful for its canvassing branches and leaves. I had entered the stage of acceptance.
Seven miles away from my feeble rest, a dry, empty plot of dirt sat near black asphalt in a Bronx community center. The scorching asphalt was an unbearable landscape, prickly to touch, and unsafe to play, eat, or have community gatherings. That is until one day, that plot of dirt was introduced to a tree.
There are five million trees in New York City. As a recent New York transplant, I noticed immediately how their presence was a stark contrast to the city’s historic skyscrapers. Without trees, the city would look like a depressing and lifeless island. In fact, cities like New York could not sustain life without their trees, especially in the wake of rising global temperatures due to the climate crisis. Extreme heat is here and is a danger for city-dwellers. By 2050, experts claim that if nothing were to be done, 970 cities will experience average summertime temperature highs of 95˚F (35˚C), up from 354 today. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to have an AC unit, but not all New Yorkers are afforded the same luxury or had easy access to parks and pools.
To combat the heated inequity, one can look to tree planting and maintenance within the island of Manhattan.
Trees New York is a nonprofit group active since 1976. Their mission is to plant and maintain trees as well as educate New Yorkers about urban forestry. For example, a tree’s shade makes the pavement 20 to 45˚F cooler. Not only that, but trees improve air quality by removing pollutants sprinkled throughout sprawling metro islands like New York. And, when city dwellers sprawl underneath the canopy of these giving trees, the trees simultaneously sweat out water vapor in a process known as evapotranspiration. A daunting term that only means trees make the surrounding area cooler with its water vapor.
My first thought as I came back to my apartment is why don’t New Yorkers go out and plant trees as fast-paced as they do just about everything else? Wouldn’t that solve a lot of our problems? Nelson Villarrubia, executive director of Trees New York, informed me that it is not that simple.
“Trees are emotional for people. They can be contentious for some people and very welcome to others,” Villarrubia told me over a video call while sitting on his couch in Queens. Villarrubia has been with Trees New York since 2003, starting as an assistant and progressing to a leadership position. “It’s related to people’s past experiences with a tree that maybe wasn’t maintained correctly,” he told me.
“Trees are emotional for people. They can be contentious for some people and very welcome to others.” —Nelson Villarrubia, Executive Director, Trees New York
Mulberry trees are a fine example of a street nuisance. When improperly cared for, a mulberry tree wreaks havoc on apartment stoops, forcing its neighbors to hose down their stoops every season the berries make their landfall. Because of this, nonprofits such as Trees New York are committed to a community-based approach by finding the right tree for the right spot. Villarrubia told me an example of how Trees New York collaborated with the community before planting a tree in a dirt plot.
A couple of years ago, their group found a perfect spot for a tree, but the community informed them that it was an area where kids play football. Grateful for the information ahead of time, the group chose another spot to avoid damage to the tree that would eventually cause more harm than good. “When the community feels heard, they are more likely to support us and provide that extra care and maintenance to the trees we plant,” Villarrubia explains.
For more difficult properties, such as a low-income property flanked by the Cross Bronx Expressway, Trees New York collaborated with the property to plant a line of trees around the area. The Cross Bronx Expressway is one of the most congested roadways in the U.S. and what anthropologists determine as an accelerator of the economic and cultural turmoil in the Bronx during the ’70s and ’80s. “The large caliper trees that we planted acted as natural barriers to the pollution and air particulates coming from the expressway. The particulates fall on the leaves, then the rain washes them away.” He added that the large caliper trees are natural sound buffers which overall created a healthier environment physically and mentally. While large caliper trees are more expensive than small container trees, they add more environmental benefits and are sturdy enough to withstand the urban environment.
It is not enough to find the right place to plant a tree. Maintaining trees is an entirely different feat. To get first-hand experience, I decided to volunteer with NYC Parks in September 2021 on one of the last warm days of summer. Our job was to take care of a row of trees on a street in Washington Heights.
The heat was palpable before 9:30 a.m. The volunteer group stood outside of the neighborhood bodega and waited for the instructions. I found myself surrounded by an eccentric group all connected by one shared interest in tree care: a woman with her toddler, infant, and husband, a silent burly man with his arms crossed, a middle-aged woman playing with a fancy camera and humming meditatively, and Lara, who would end up being my partner in the maintenance project.
Lara was a young woman from the Midwest with light brown hair and an enthusiastic grin. Well-versed in tree knowledge, Lara gave me the inside scoop on a British television show “Gardeners’ World” that she watched to decompress after her long days working for a cryptocurrency start-up. “They just talk about planting things. It’s very calming and relaxes me,” she told me. The thought of calm, British gardeners talking about their plants did seem meditative, like the ‘Great British Bake Off’, but with flowers.
We were instructed to first throw out the trash built up underneath the trees. Lara and I approach a female ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba). Lara identified it immediately and smiled up at the tree with admiration. The female ginkgo looked down on us too, slender, and proudly donning its unique fan-shaped leaves. Existing since the time of the dinosaurs and found in the mountains of China, they were reintroduced to Europe in the 18th century and finally came to North America. The female ginkgo came from a long lineage of durability. They are unflappable against pollution, animal waste, and salted roads. A reasonable annoyance, however, is that their nuts can smell awful, like dog poop unhappily found on many street corners in New York City. Underneath the female ginkgo, Lara and I uncover everything imaginable from Juul pods to a red decorative pin with a Marvel superhero embellished in the middle.
Once the ground was free of trash, the next step was to excavate the weeds. Weeds and trees compete for soil moisture and nutrients. While the female ginkgo tree was overridden with weeds, we soon found out that our next tree, a Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), did not have any weeds. Its soil was desperately compacted, which made little room for anything else to grow in the soil. Cultivating soil for a tree is akin to taking off a tight corset; the tree can breathe and drink water.
The Chinese elm is famous not only for its graceful vase-like shape but also for its peeling bark, which captures and sheds urban dust. Fast-growing with a glossy foliage that provides dense shade for its neighbors, it was a perfect tree for this block. The Chinese elm is native to China, Japan, and Korea. Both the female ginkgo and Chinese elm whispered century-old secrets slinking from their roots through their sinewy trunks; a lineage rooted in a deep, colorful history.
Both the female ginkgo and Chinese elm whispered century-old secrets slinking from their roots through their sinewy trunks; a lineage rooted in a deep, colorful history.
Lara and I spent thirty minutes sifting the cement-like dirt with rakes, but not too fiercely as to disturb the tiny, shallow roots near the surface. We both wiped the sweat from our foreheads and surveyed our finished product. The Chinese elm’s soil was soft and fluffy. I realized Villarrubia’s advice, finding the right tree for the right block, resonated with these trees. They were easy enough to maintain that even a newcomer like me could make a difference.
Once the soil was cultivated, we applied mulch to the base of a tree in a donut shape then spread it evenly across the dirt plot about one to two inches in height. Mulch is a pungent accumulation of grounded-up wood from other trees. It smelled bitter to me, but Lara had a stronger reaction. “I hate the smell of mulch, I don’t know why,” she said with a scrunched face. The benefits of applying mulch after cultivating the soil are to prevent future compaction. But too much mulch, otherwise known as a mulch volcano, can hurt the tree. The most thoughtful approach, then, was for us to be mindful of where to place the mulch and how much to disperse around the tree.
After we applied the mulch and admired our work, an older gentleman approached us. “Thank you for doing this,” he said affectionately. He peered down at our work and took a sip of juice, “It feels like nobody cares. But it really makes a difference. Just, thank you.” A woman walked by shortly after with an overweight bulldog by the name of Sunshine. She told us that she had lived on this block for fifteen years. When the weather on the block got this hot, the trees’ shade was a solace for her and Sunshine. Sunshine slobbered and kissed our shoes in what I imagined was gratitude. Sunshine’s pants under the shade reminded me of my dog Samson lounging under a gorgeous cherry blossom tree in our front yard during the hot, dry summers in Southern California. Each pant was a signal of love from dog to tree, and each shadow from the tree’s branches reciprocated the love back.
I left the experience feeling a new sense of admiration provided by the trees I had never noticed before.
Across from the awning of a bodega where I bought plump fruits and dark coffees, I noticed a tree in front. The bodega was next to a neighborhood bakery as small as a New York bedroom. Seniors sat on the bench outside the bakery while construction workers rushed in and out of the bodega. For both micro-communities, the tree noticeably provided shade on the connecting sidewalk. The tree made it a pleasant place to eat a croissant or devour a plum on a restlessly hot day.
To live in a city means to contribute to a community of millions of people, and millions of trees. Like New Yorkers, their trees’ trunks stand proudly with branches outstretched to assist neighbors in times of need. The not-quite-concrete jungle of New York City is lush with the possibility of prevention and safety from extreme heat if we reciprocate the love trees give to us.