I lived in that jungle for nineteen years. During that period, I owned a home on Riverside Drive and 77th Street, on the Upper West side. During that period, a tree died in front of our Whitestone building. I undertook the task of getting one tree replanted there. I learned that there is only ONE man in charge of planting trees in Manhattan, the department that controls this is titled Manhattan Forest Department, and being the determined New Yorker, I hounded his voice mail until one was placed in front of my home. It took months! I built a boxed-in wood frame to hold dirt and moister from four by fours, and watered it faithfully. The replacement tree was the renowned London Plain tree that adapts well to polluted environs, like London. It flourished under my care, and lives to this day.
Starting in May 2015, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation will begin a five to seven month-long street census to locate and identify the species of every street-side tree. There are 592,130 street trees (52 species) in New York. Queens has the most trees, honey locusts, rarely found in the Northeast, are found in great numbers on the streets of Manhattan. Callery pears, a invasive species from China, are all over the region, particularly in Staten Island (but they smell like rotting fish, chlorine or semen).
New York now plants just 20 or 30 Callerys per year, while literally thousands are lost to attrition (from storm damage and such). Jeremy Barrick, the deputy chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources at the Parks Department, expects the Callery to lose its number 3 spot in the 2015 census. He anticipates a total Callery count of roughly 30,000—a 50-percent decline from 2006.
Even when it comes to species you might expect to find in New York—such as oak, maple, and elm—the Parks Department chose to plant Asian cultivars instead of North American ones. “There’s only one oak species on the list that isn’t from Asia—and it’s an English oak, native to Europe,” says Doug Tallamy, a wildlife ecologist from the University of Delaware.
The solutions to this linear planting scheme are actually quite easy to implement. Many of the Asian cultivars can be replaced with a North American counterpart—such as Chinese elms with American elms, or Japanese and Norway maples with sugar maples. Tallamy dismisses any grumblings that native species are too big or too difficult to grow as nonsense. “We have native species that are smaller that we can still grow—we just need to start planting them.”
Rich Hallett, an ecologist at the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, cites plans to integrate the data on a digital platform that can be updated in real time and act as a “living document.”
There are other factors impacting ‘greenification’ of our urban areas. In San Francisco, the resident population in the ‘outer Sunset and Richmond’ (which is virtually treeless) do not favor trees, and have been reported to kill them with scalding water because they feel they are ‘dirty’ and need maintenance.
So it is not everyone who wishes to promote tree propagation in the US.
Special thanks to Neel V. Patel of Wired Magazine for his inspiring research.
NOTE: All maps in this post developed by Brooklyn web developer (and amazing artist) Jill Hubley