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New York City skyline from Randalls Island, Manhattan, as seen on the southbound Amtrak Northeast Regional in August 2021. (Alex Ip for The Xylom)

Giving Trees in New York City

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.


View of New York City's Billionaires' Row from Central Park. (Chelsea Noack for The Xylom)

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.


 
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