Trees of home: pruning red tape in the urban forest

Trees of home: pruning red tape in the urban forest – includes related article

Norah Deakin Davis

When the nearest tree is outside your apartment door or down at the local park, taking care of it or planting a new one can be a monumental hassle. Here’s how New Yorkers work the bureaucracy.

In 1991 when Felix Arias moved to a public housing project in an Hispanic neighborhood on Manhattan’s east side, he would see four or five people sitting in chairs under each of the trees on his block. The shade offered the only relief from summer’s 95-degree heat at the Washington Heights housing project. But trees on that street were few and far between.

Residents of large, densely populated cities may not have a tree outside their dwelling to call their own, but they can still have a strong connection to the urban forest. Sometimes their “Trees of Home” reside on their block or in a nearby park. Arias, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was eight years old, characterizes himself as a nature lover. “You can have a little slice of heaven on your block by having plenty of trees,” he says.

Arias ran for the Washington Heights Tenants Association and decided to make it his mission to beautify the neighborhood by planting trees. “Caring is contagious,” he says. He figured be could start with himself, and if he then could persuade another person to care, and then another, it would spread.

Firing up the tenants’ association was the easy part. Then Arias ran into the New York bureaucracy.

His first step was research to find out how to get trees planted in a low-income neighborhood where people don’t have the money to spend on “non-essentials” like trees. “I thought it would be a simple process to have trees planted,” he says. “I thought you would just ask the parks department.”

But the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation receives thousands of requests for trees each year. Someone has to set priorities, and that someone is the local community board. New York City has 59 community boards that decide on complaints and requests for services, including who receives funds for tree planting.

“Then I found out that it takes five or six years to get a tree planted,” says Arias.

Officials say the waiting period is more like one or two years, but they admit the process can be frustrating. Arias runs the housing project’s day-care center, and he and his wife have a six-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. The children need shade where they can play. Arias couldn’t wait five or six years, or even one or two.

Luckily, someone told him about Trees New York, a nonprofit organization dedicated to caring for New York’s trees. The group helps citizens find their way through the Byzantine process of obtaining permission to plant a tree.

Even if you have the money to plant a tree yourself, you may still have to obtain several permits before you can put shovel to dirt. First, there’s the “street-tree planting permit” from your borough forestry office. Then you may also need a “utility-line clearance and pavement-breaking permit” from the city’s Department of Transportation. You’ll have to shell out $135 for that one – the fee for pavement removal. And if your neighborhood is a designated landmark district, you may not be able to plant a tree at all. You’ll need to call the Landmarks Preservation Commission to find out.

Getting back to Arias’ odyssey, he heard about a course offered by Trees New York for learning how to plant and care for trees. “It was a wild stroke of luck,” he says. He took the course, and the instructor gave him the name of the state forester to seek funding. Arias wrote a letter.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is small and understaffed, but after a number of phone calls the state forester made a site visit to the Washington Heights housing project and was able to help Arias plant 12 blocks.

The department fills a specific urban forestry niche within New York. While the city Parks Department provides forestry, the DEC provides environmental education to block associations, technical nonprofits, and botanical gardens, and channels federal and state funding to local agencies and citizen organizations. In many cities federal tree-planting money is available in the form of urban and community forestry grants, which often require partnerships between citizen groups and a local government body. In this case a Small Business Administration loan was used to buy trees.

Those young trees have already begun to make a difference. “If kids break a branch or throw trash in the tree pit,” says Arias, “someone will say to them, ‘Don’t do that.’ You wouldn’t have seen that two years ago.” Caring is contagious.

The tenants association is setting up a team of community residents to take care of maintenance and plant perennials in the tree pits. Arias has discovered that the people who keep houseplants on their windowsills are the ones who are interested in becoming involved.

The group now is applying for a grant to buy gloves and shovels to outfit a tree group for young people who are at risk from drugs and violence. The group will be called Los Platanos Verdes, or the green plantains, a type of banana considered a delicacy by Dominicans.

The green team will work to beautify the neighborhood and then spread into adjacent Highbridge Park, which stretches for two miles along the Harlem River. Until recently, the park was a haven for drug dealers and homeless people. Parents of children in Arias’ day-care center filed complaints with politicians, police, and social-service agencies. To improve safety, gates have recently been installed. So now if the grant comes through, the young people can begin planting trees.

Some city residents like Felix Arias form strong emotional attachments to the street trees in front of their apartment building. Like Arias, the street trees may be their only connection with the natural world. They may become protective of a single tree or block of trees, adopting them and caring for them informally.

Other apartment dwellers may not have trees in front of their building and may not be able to plant any because of utilities or a subway beneath the street. Many of those individuals develop a feeling of ownership toward trees in a nearby park. For those who want to plant park trees or help care for them, New York, like a number of other cities, offers various volunteer opportunities. One is to become a volunteer helping to restore Central Park’s 843 acres of wildlife habitat, which includes a patch of black cherry and black locust famous among birdwatchers for its seasonal warbler migration.

Other New Yorkers are fortunate enough to own homes with trees in their yards. They may choose to volunteer time because they’re aware of the benefits the city’s street trees and park trees provide, such as helping scrub pollutants from the air and lowering temperatures during steamy summers. (For volunteer opportunities in New York City and suggestions for other urban areas, see “How You Can Help” on page 60.)

For apartment dweller and homeowner alike, Trees New York is a good route for learning how to plant trees and care for them. The organization was founded in 1976 under the name New York City Street Trees Consortium as a citizen’s response to the city’s first drastic budget cut of the parks department. Today, with a membership of about 900, Trees New York is the recognized place to go for help with anything related to trees.

“Sometimes people make six calls and then find us,” says Executive Director Barbara Eber-Schmid. Most calls are about existing trees that are in trouble, perhaps losing their leaves. “We talk the caller through it,” says Eber-Schmid. “What kind of tree it is, for instance, and whether it might be dropping its leaves early because we’re having a dry season.” Calls about tree abuse are also common. Someone might see a restaurant owner, for example, dumping detergent into a tree pit to kill a tree that is blocking the restaurant’s sign.

In addition to answering queries and distributing brochures on tree tips, Trees New York oversees tree plantings for neighborhood associations, botanical groups, and other community organizations in New York’s five boroughs. Grants from private foundations, for example, funded a recent planting of 250 street trees in Manhattan’s lower east side. The trees turned a desolate traffic triangle near Henry Street Settlement House into a mini-park. Trees New York is training young people at the settlement house to care for the trees.

Trees New York is best known for its courses for volunteer citizen pruners. Graduates of the 12-hour course, which includes classroom and field work, receive a certificate issued by Trees New York and the city’s parks department. The certificate qualifies the graduates to volunteer to prune street trees from the ground only.

The group offers a similar course for young people in secondary schools and settlement houses. Young pruners are restricted from using some of the tools used by adult pruners and also, like the adults, are not allowed to climb. As of January 1994, Trees New York had trained more than 3,500 adult citizen pruners and 305 young pruners, some of whom may find careers as foresters, arborists, gardeners, or horticulturists. “Our intent is to open a window of opportunity,” says Eber-Schmid. “It’s like giving kids piano lessons. You don’t necessarily expect them to become pianists, but at least to appreciate music.”

The first of these courses was taught at the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, an umbrella organization for 100-plus neighborhood associations in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a primarily African-American section of Brooklyn. The students, two of whom were young girls with babies, were not particularly thrilled about taking the course, Eber-Schmid reports. “But after a couple of weeks, when the guys would be cutting up, the girls would say, ‘Hey, shut up. I want to listen.’ Not that there were any miracles, but the girls were beginning to grow up.”

Sophie Johnson, executive director of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, points out that caring for trees has opened a career path for a number of youngsters who were at risk of dropping out of school. One graduate went on to become the chief pruner for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Another works for the Bronx Zoo, and still another became a city planner.

The history of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center demonstrates that planting trees can encourage urban renewal. The Center was founded in the 1960s by Hattie Carthan, recognized today as a prominent African-American environmentalist. Carthan planted approximately 1,500 trees in Bedford-Stuyvesant when the area was on the skids. Properties were being abandoned, and weeds were growing in vacant lots. Carthan was known for transforming the vacant lots into community gardens. Today many of the abandoned buildings have been replaced by new homes.

From tree planting, the Center has gone on to broaden its community efforts to include issues of “environmental justice,” including lead poisoning and other urban pollution problems that affect inner-city residents. The Center has also expanded its work to international tree planting. Two years ago, youth from Russia and Asia stayed with families in Bedford-Stuyvesant for a month while learning to plant and care for trees. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center has also started a project to help reforest Senegal and other African nations.

Many of the people reached by the Center and similar organizations in other cities around the country live in inner cities where their only day-to-day connection with nature is the street tree outside their building or the park tree down the street. When these urban residents want to help care for “their” street tree or plant a new one, community groups like the Washington Heights Tenants Association, Trees New York, or Magnolia Tree Earth Center offer a place to find help.

Felix Arias saw that the future of his neighborhood’s urban forest is in his hands. Could be a lesson there somewhere.

NORAH DAVIS – former managing editor of AMERICAN FORESTS, writes on natural-resource issues from aboard her sailboat, Richmond Studio, moored in Washington, DC.

COPYRIGHT 1995 American Forests

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