It’s rare to see borough presidents working together, but there is one initiative that all five can get behind– trees. In February, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine introduced a new project alongside Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn, Donovan Richards of Queens, and Vito Fossella of Staten Island. They are calling on Mayor Adams to plant one million new trees by 2030.
The effort aims to plant one million trees throughout New York City at an estimated cost of $500 million. Currently, there are approximately 7 million trees across our five boroughs. With one million more trees, our urban canopy would increase from 22% to 30%, and with it the health and prosperity of our community and environment.
Planting trees doesn’t just incorporate nature’s beauty into our cityscape, but it also benefits our community and creates a greener, more resilient City. Trees improve air and water quality, provide shade, and house wildlife. One tree has the ability to absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, which accumulates to 1 ton by the time it reaches 40 years old.
Layers of tree cover also helps reduce the urban heat island effect, which mitigates suffocating air temperatures in the summer months. While street surfaces and buildings retain heat, tree canopies deflect radiation from the sun, which cuts air conditioning use, and decreases the amount of heat-associated illnesses and deaths during the hottest times of the year. Heat exacerbates an average of 350 deaths per year, with the highest mortality rates being in low-income neighborhoods with less tree coverage.
Trees also improve our coastal resiliency by protecting us against flooding and natural disasters. As roots capture stormwater runoff, trees filter out major pollutants from our water, reducing sewer buildup and ensuring healthier water quality. As sea levels rise and harsher weather becomes more frequent, it is imperative that New York is equipped with the resources necessary to combat the effects of climate change.
The Million More Trees initiative was announced seven years after a similar project was completed in 2015, one started by Mayor Bloomberg and finished under Mayor de Blasio. Bloomberg’s Million Tree project reached its goal, however 25% of the trees planted have already died or gone missing. This term’s administration hopes to use the mistakes from the first initiative as lessons on how to improve the current initiative.
Several policies have already been adjusted from the last effort, one of which includes no longer requiring consent from a landlord prior to planting in front of a building. The City will also be managing separate contracts with tree nurseries, rather than relying on tree-planting contractors who tend to supply cheaper, weaker trees.
Planting a million trees is no easy task. If funded, the Administration will have to face many obstacles to ensure the long-term success of the project. One such challenge will be procuring the right trees, such as avoiding species with roots that tend to upend sidewalks. As the climate intensifies, the City will need to have a diverse array of tree species that can withstand more intense heat, flooding, and droughts. Diversifying trees also protects against insects and diseases that spread from tree to tree.
The initiative plans to plant about half of the new trees in parks and other pre-existing natural areas, and only about a quarter along streets. Public schools, community centers, and senior centers are also prime targets. The Borough Presidents also highlighted the fact that low-income communities and communities of color still have noticeably less trees than higher-income areas, emphasizing the need for environmental equity across all boroughs.
As of right now, Mayor Adams has yet to pledge the half-billion dollars for the campaign. It is also unclear which department the money would be invested into, as the Mayor still has not met his commitment of allocating 1.0% of the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget to the Parks Department. With all Borough Presidents on board, they may be able to wield more significant power in pushing the initiative to the Administration. As put by Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, “Trees don’t care about political parties. They just want to get planted.”
In order to achieve success, support must also come from the community. Strong partnerships with small businesses and residents for funding and flexibility is essential. Seeds can only be planted with the support of those who are ready to make a decade-long commitment to our environment and community.