Arbor Day is our national holiday to celebrate tree planting and care. As New York City is best known as a paved paradise, you might not expect to hear this greeting coming from here. But that is exactly why
I am writing today.
NYC might not seem that green from first glimpse, even from the air. But there are over 5 million trees in our city! Beyond 6,000 acres of woodlands that stand out on the satellite map, there are trees along our streets, on public property, in commercial and housing developments, and in backyards–yes, we even have backyards here!
We celebrate trees for the vital role they play in the urban
environment, including: improving air and water quality, cooling the
city with their shade, fighting global warming by exchanging CO2 for
O2, and providing a habitat for wildlife. More details on what trees do
for NYC here.
But NYC is a growing city, and we need more trees. Enter the Million
Trees Initiative, an organization that’s name says it all. A
partnership between the NYC Parks Department and Bette Midler’s New
York Restoration Project, the Million Trees Initiative hopes to achieve
its ambitious goal over the next decade.
The Million Trees Initiative is reaching its goal through working with
a network of partner organizations across the city, both public and
private; from city departments to private developers, from community
groups to religious institutions, and lots of private homeowners. It’s
a big city and a big job, as the poster above illustrates.
I am writing on behalf of an educational partner in this effort, the
Academy of Urban Planning (AUP), in Bushwick, Brooklyn. To celebrate
Arbor Day, AUP and a partner school will be planting 16 trees donated
by the Million Trees Initiative on our campus.
It’s not just a matter of planting trees, but making sure they survive.
NYC is a tough place for trees, with lots of challenges to deal
with–11% of young trees planted in the city never make it to adulthood
and have to be replanted. Others die before reaching maturity, injured
by cars, construction, dogs, pavement, or trash. But most of all, trees
suffer from a lack of concern.
It is so easy to live in the Big City and be oblivious to nature and
its intricate relationship with city dwellers. New Yorkers are
surrounded by neighborhood street trees, yet seem to have little
awareness or knowledge of them. That is the idea that inspired our
National Science Foundation K-12 City-As-Lab endeavor, sponsored
through Brooklyn College. As teachers and scientists, we have worked
together to create a Street Tree Study with students as a way to
encourage scientific and environmental thinking through observation and
Over the course of this school year, student groups adopted a tree and
became responsible for learning all the facts and measurements about
their tree: its species type, diameter, foliage density, soil
fertility, tree pit size, and many more details; all abundantly useful
in developing a body of shared tree knowledge.
Throughout this year-long exploration, however, something even more
engaging happened: the students began to form a personal narrative
about their trees. They became protectors, experts, and thoughtful tree
stewards. Their connection to the urban forest was not just
intellectual, but emotional. It was common to see a student aerating a
tree pit, pulling plastic bags out of branches, educating passersby on
carbon sequestration and simply enjoying the beauty of their tree with
peers. Back in the classroom, our students are creating GIS maps to
study trends in street-tree health, part of building scientific studies
around the data they’ve collected.
With the help of the National Science Foundation, our students are
“doing science” while developing a deep understanding of the urban
forest and how it connects to their own health and well-being. And in
the end, it may help their trees to thrive, as well.
At our Arbor Day celebration today, our students will be responsible
for planting new trees on the high school campus provided by the
Million Trees Initiative. These are city kids, getting their hands
dirty, digging and sweating, playing a larger role in whether or not
these trees survive. They are educated and motivated. They are
lifelong tree lovers, or “Tree Huggers,” as one group of students named
There are over 1 millions students in NYC public schools. If we are
going to plant–and sustain–a million trees over the next decade,
those students may be just the ones to do it.
Photos: Andrew Samberg
Adam J Schwartz is My Wonderful World’s Public Engagement
Coordinator for NYC. He teaches Geographic Information Systems and
Global History at the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn (Bushwick),
New York, and is a historical tour guide for the Center for the Urban
Environment. This is Adam’s second guest-blog post for My Wonderful
World. His first, a review of GIS for high school classrooms titled
“Map it Yourself,” appeared during Geography Awareness Week 2008.
Valerie Andrewlevich is a National Science Foundation G K-12 Graduate Fellow at Brooklyn College. She is a visiting scientist in the Academy of Urban Planning classrooms working with the students on a year-long research project
on NYC street trees.