Sometimes Progress Brings Complaints, But There Are Solutions

International Herald Tribune
In New York, countless doubts over a million-tree goal

As Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg installed the 500,000th tree out of a planned million in New York, officials extolled their virtues, but residents’ complaints about the trees only increased.

In a city of steel and concrete, a single tree offers a burst of green, a cooling canopy and an antidote for frayed nerves. It seems as if nobody is against one tree. But try planting a million of them.
That is what New York City has been aiming to do, and as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg installed the 500,000th tree in St. Nicholas Park in Upper Manhattan on Tuesday — reaching the halfway point in the Million Trees campaign — officials extolled the role of trees in making the city more sustainable. Trees help fight asthma, reduce storm water runoff, absorb carbon dioxide and lower ambient temperatures. But as Callery pears, honey locusts and white pines grow in all five boroughs — on sidewalks, along medians and in parks — so, too, have New Yorkers’ grumblings.

Residents worry that the saplings will eventually lead to buckling sidewalks, dangling limbs, excessive shade and leaf litter, among other things. Three of the top five categories of parks- related calls to 311, the city’s help line, involved complaints about trees. One Queens homeowner begged the city not to plant a tree in front of her house by arguing that her dog would get confused by the introduction of a new smell; she got a tree anyway. Even elected officials who profess a love of trees say they fear that the city may not be putting the necessary resources into caring for the trees once they are planted. They cite instances of premature tree deaths, as well as a pruning backlog, made worse by recent budget cuts. The regular pruning cycle of street trees is now once every 15 years to 20 years, down from once every 7 years.

“I’m all about trees — trust me,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, a city councilman who represents western Queens. “But we’re not going to get what we want unless we commit to the ongoing maintenance of these trees as they grow older. These are tough economic times, but more trees means more maintenance and pruning. It’s got to mean that.”

Of course, many residents have embraced a leafier streetscape. And most of the trees planted under the Million Trees program, which began in 2007, are too small to have caused problems — their roots and boughs have not yet reached the tentacle stage.

At least some of the newly planted trees have met untimely deaths. Efforts to plant trees along a narrow median on 11th Street in the Long Island City section of Mr. Van Bramer’s district, for example, have failed.

Tom Paino, an architect whose house overlooks the median, said that landscapers planted the trees too late in the spring and that the root balls were not sufficiently submerged. Recently, workers chopped down the dead trees, leaving behind stumps. “As soon as they put them in, I thought, ‘They’re not going to make it,”‘ he said. “It’s a very frustrating experience.”

City officials defend their record, saying some tree mortality is to be expected. As for pruning, the city says it responds to all complaints about dead limbs or trees within 30 days. The Parks Department has stepped up its “citizen pruner” program, in which residents can become trained and certified to do limited pruning of street trees.

Moreover, officials say, all new trees are under warranty for two years from the date of planting by landscaping contractors, who are also responsible for watering them. “Most people love trees,” said the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe. “But this being New York, you’ll always find someone who doesn’t want a tree.”

Indeed, at the other end of the complaint spectrum are those residents whose requests for new street trees have gone unheeded. Some lost trees to Tropical Storm Irene. The city says there is a waiting list of at least a year for a new street tree in some neighborhoods.

The Million Trees campaign, which is a year ahead of schedule, is a partnership between New York City and a nonprofit agency founded by Bette Midler, the New York Restoration Project. The city is overseeing new trees on streets and in parks, which will make up most of the plantings. The Restoration Project, meanwhile, is focusing its efforts on libraries, churches, cemeteries and housing projects, while encouraging New Yorkers to plant trees in their own yards through tree giveaways.

“A really important tree is about to hit the ground,” Mayor Bloomberg declared in St. Nicholas Park on Tuesday morning, before he lifted a shovel and planted an 11-year-old pin oak on a patch of lawn. He was helped by Representative Charles B. Rangel and other elected officials, as well as Carmelo Anthony, the Brooklyn-born basketball star who plays professionally with the New York Knicks.

As with most initiatives under the Bloomberg administration, the tree effort has been meticulously documented. Some 120 species have been planted across the city so far, with Manhattan receiving 49,045 trees (9.8 percent of the 500,000) and the Bronx getting 135,626 trees, or 27.1 percent.

To address residents’ concerns, the city has introduced a number of programs. For buckling sidewalks, for instance, the city now does repairs in front of one- to three-family homes; in the past, it was the homeowner’s responsibility. Since starting a repair program several years ago, the city has received 38,300 requests, and it has addressed 9,169 so far. To prevent buckling in the first place, all new trees have considerably larger beds, allowing room for spreading roots.

As for pruning, the city says it responds to all complaints about dead limbs or trees within 30 days; if the condition is deemed hazardous, the work will be performed immediately.

The parks department, with the nonprofit group Trees New York, has stepped up its “citizen pruner” program, in which residents can become trained and certified to do limited pruning of street trees. The one limitation, however, is that citizen pruners must keep their feet on the ground, which prevents most work on taller trees.

And the city recently revamped its Adopt-a-Tree Web site, where residents can sign on to take care of trees in their neighborhood. By Tuesday afternoon, 2,999 people had officially adopted trees, pledging to water, mulch and weed. New Yorkers who take a free tree- care class get a bucket or garden hose.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to have New Yorkers form an emotional connection to trees,” said Morgan Monaco, director of MillionTreesNYC, which is part of the parks department.

In the East New York section of Brooklyn, where asthma rates are high, Marisol Rivas’s block is now graced with Kwanzan cherries, Japanese Zelkovas, honey locusts and Canada red cherries. Surveying the street, Ms. Rivas, a 40-year-old bus attendant, voiced approval of the new trees — her vista as yet unclouded by fears of what they might sow.

“It makes the block greener,” she said. “Before, it was a little gloomy.”

Copyright International Herald Tribune Oct 20, 2011

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes Progress Brings Complaints, But There Are Solutions

  1. It sounds as if all the complaints are being addressed and handled more efficiently than most local governments. Some people are just whiners.

    Kudos to Bette for spear-heading a massive environmentally green effort, that is not only noticeable, but starting to encourage a lot of resident participation and activism.

    Not being from New York, and yet a regular donator to the NYRP, it’s always been my fervent hope that Bette’s “blueprint” for ecological success spreads to other cities throughout the country. I would love to see the “greening” of America everywhere. Perhaps when the “99 Percent” on Occupy Wall Street achieve their goals, they can continue with an Occupy Main Street effort, with a shovel and bucket in one hand, and a tree sapling in the other. It all starts with a (sorry, bad pun) “grassroots” campaign.

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