Her Job? Planting Thousands of Trees Every Year in New York City.
What have you learned about how climate change affects the city’s growing environment?
We have started to source more Southern species to adapt to climate change, which ultimately means we have more days with higher temperatures. I also noticed that the tree planting and harvesting season is getting shorter and shorter. I now have a limited time to get our work done. We need to harvest trees when they’re completely dormant in the fall. Then we have to quickly ask our contractors to plant them before the ground freezes. And it’s the same in the spring: You have to harvest and plant trees before they leaf out.
What type of trees are we going to see planted this year?
A significant portion of the trees will be planted in areas where the heat vulnerability index (a measure of how heat affects the health of residents) is high. We plan to plant various maples, oaks and elms in Williamsbridge, Woodlawn, Eastchester, Edenwald, Soundview and Morris Park in the Bronx. In Manhattan, we’ll plant large canopy trees in West Harlem, East Harlem and on the Lower East Side. In western Queens, like Hunters Point, Sunnyside and Long Island City, we’ll go with beeches and Kentucky yellowwood. In Staten Island and eastern Queens, including Elmhurst and Laurelton, we’ll plant hackberries and junipers.
Brooklyn is interesting — it still has a lot of aboveground wires, so we have to go with shorter trees, like cherry, lilacs and golden rain.
You started working for the Parks Department right as the MillionTreesNYC initiative finished in 2015. There’s been some criticism about large-scale tree-planting programs that just focus on the sheer number of trees planted. Did this program teach you anything?
This program was extremely important. Besides all the health benefits trees provide, this helped the city streamline its procurement process. In previous years, various contractors picked out trees for the city, and there wasn’t much science behind the purchases. Now the city has taken over the procurement process, so we use science and data to figure out which tree will thrive where. If you look around, some streets have the same large species of trees lining the street. That’s fine, until you have a disease that comes through that can wipe all of them out in one shot. For example, there was an emerald ash borer infestation in 2017 that wiped out about 2,000 ash trees. To prevent this from happening again, we now plant several different species of trees on the same street.
Now that the MillionTreeNYC program has ended, how large is the department’s tree-planting program? We’ve planted anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 trees in various parks and streets every fiscal year. Our current budget for tree procurement and planting is $62.6 million. I would prefer it be more. Most people love trees.
You would think every New Yorker would want a tree, but that’s not the case. I’ve gone back to a tree that was planted the day before to check on it, and it was already cut down. Sometimes people run them over or pour gasoline or propane on them. I think some people see the sidewalk space in front of their homes as their own property, and if they don’t want a tree, they’ll stand in the way of that.
How do you handle the tree haters?
We now have it in our contract that if something like that happens, the contractor will replace the tree. I would estimate that maybe 3 percent of the trees we plant annually are vandalized. We have our staff attending community board meetings to inform the neighbors about what is about to happen, and the benefits of having trees. We put up signs to let people know a tree is coming so it’s not a surprise.