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June/July 2004
It’s Not Easy Being a Street Tree
By Catherine Clyne

Ever wonder about the trees along New York’s sidewalks? You know, those brave unappreciated souls that try to stretch their limbs into the air and eke out a little greenness in the city streets?

I recently went through the arduous process of searching for a new apartment and became familiar with some of the jargon used to describe desirable locations. One key phrase that kept popping up is “tree-lined” street. After spending time checking out different streets, I think I know what it means now: some blocks have glorious green canopies arching overhead; while others are just stark, dirty concrete as far as the eye can see. Obviously, people would prefer living on a tree-lined block.

It may not seem like it but street trees are actually on the city’s agenda. In fact, you can get a tree planted in front of your home for free. All you need is written permission from the property owner. And … some time (in some cases, a couple years). Or, you can “adopt” a neighborhood tree by taking care of it to keep it healthy and thriving. This includes maintaining healthy soil and putting up guards to keep dogs from doing their business (yes, sigh, dog urine is actually toxic to trees). But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why should people care about city trees and greenery in the first place?

A Little Green’ll do Ya Good
Well, for starters, trees and plants are nice. They calm the mind and sooth the soul. They offer refuge to local critters and help protect us from the elements. Now that I’ve moved, I have a half-hour walk to work, and I’m discovering the best most heavily tree-lined blocks to walk along when it’s raining or the sun’s beating down.

But there’s a lot more to trees than just that. When you crunch information into a bottom line, things get quite surprising. A survey released last year found that New York City street trees are far more valuable than anyone imagined. A pilot project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service gathered detailed data in Hunts Point (Bronx), the Lower East Side, and New Brighton (Staten Island) and discovered that 322 neighborhood trees were worth more than $1 million, with each tree valued at more than $3,000. Part of their value is that they remove and store more than 200 metric tons of carbon and remove more than 500 pounds of pollutants each year—and that’s just 322 trees. (See for the data, including maps of the trees surveyed.) For those who already know trees are valuable in-and-of themselves, this is a real duh! moment. But giving a sticker price to a tree tells decision-makers that they really are valuable, and it gives residents leverage to get trees and green spaces into their neighborhoods. And with an urban forest of some 2.5 million trees, it’s incentive to treat our green treasure with just a little more care.

We know the rainforests of the world are the fragile lungs of the planet; but clearly, city trees are just as important. Observations of surgery patients in a Pennsylvania hospital indicated that those with window views of natural scenes, namely trees with foliage, recovered faster and required less medication than those with windows looking out on a brick wall. Prisoners with views of greenery have been found to require less medical care and reported fewer symptoms of stress and anxiety than inmates in cells with no view of the natural world. Somewhere deep in our psyche, greenery has a profound healing effect, and whether or not we’re conscious of it, there’s a natural thirst for trees and greenery in our lives.

So, we’ve established that green really is good for people. This brings us back to city trees and how to get one planted in front of your home. To bring health and beauty to your neck of the urban forest, here are some steps to take to green up your hood.

Resources: Fill Your City with Greenery

American Forests:

Canopy (Palo Alto):

City Farmer’s Urban Agriculture Notes:

Friends of the Urban Forest (San Francisco):

How to calculate carbon in urban trees:

International Society of Arboriculture:

National Alliance for Community Trees:

National Arbor Day Foundation:

National Tree Trust:

Seattle Tilth:

Tree Canada Foundation:

Treefolks (Austin):

Treelink—Community Forestry Resource:

Urban Trees sequestration spreadsheet:

Source: Guy Dauncey’s Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers). Reprinted with permission.

Getting a Tree Planted for Free
Well, you’ve got to work if you’re going to get something for nothing, and of course, there’s bureaucracy and paperwork involved. The first step is to get written permission from the property owner. Then, contact your local Community Board and ask for a Street Tree Request Form. To find your Community Board’s contact information, visit the official New York City Government website ( Your request will be turned over to the Department of Parks and Recreation for planting during the appropriate season at no cost to you—in due course.

The reason it can take up to three years for the city to plant a tree is they’re in high demand. There’s a long list of neighborhoods that are most in need of greenery and have little in terms of resources. It doesn’t take reams of research papers to determine the demographic most in need: low-income areas where the majority of residents are not white.

Naturally, if you make noise, things might move a little faster: neighbors have banded together to keep pressure on which has made authorities attentive to their block. But if you’re not willing to wait or make a stink, you can speed things up by, of course, forking over some greenery yourself: you can either pay the Parks Department to plant your tree in the next planting season or…do it yourself.

DIY Sidewalk Tree
For DIY tree planting, you first have to obtain the proper permit from the Central Forestry Office of the Department of Parks and Recreation (; 718-760-6794). It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it through your co-op or condo, community group or block association, local merchants group or just in front of a private home, you’ll need a permit.

And you can’t plant just any old tree. The city has a long list of approved tree species, which they’ll provide or you can find online. A little research and common sense on your part will determine whether or not the tree will flourish. You should consider the conditions of the soil and the immediate environment to help decide what kind of tree to plant (there are tips for this on the list of approved trees). Keep in mind they will also need to inspect the planting location, which is a whole other issue. If there’s an existing tree pit, meaning a specific patch of sidewalk that’s been cleared of concrete, you’re on easy street and you can skip to the next step. But if you are creating a new tree pit, you will have to get a street opening permit from the Department of Transportation (which will cost $135) and you’ll have to remove the concrete at your own expense and according to DOT guidelines.

Then, you can plant your tree, although Trees New York, a tree-planting advocacy group, recommends you hire a professional landscaper to do this for you. Trees New York estimates the cost of the whole tree planting process at $500-$800. Also, be aware that all trees planted within the city’s “right of way” (both street trees and some lawn trees) become the property of the city after a certain period, regardless of who plants them or pays for any planting procedures.

You can also plant a tree through Trees New York, which has privately funded planting projects that have substantially greened the East Village—Tompkins Square Park and East Third Street—and the Lower East Side.

A third option is to help trees thrive by adopting a neighborhood tree (see flyer) or becoming a citizen pruner. Trees, especially young ones, need a little tlc to make sure they grow to become strong, hearty city dwellers. With 2.5 million city trees and a declining Parks Department budget, the trees need all the help they can get. Trees New York, in conjunction with the Parks Department, offers a twelve-hour citizen pruner licensing course—eight hours of classroom time, including basic tree biology and a primer in NYC tree species, and four hours of field instruction. Their fall course begins in late September and costs only $90. Not a bad price for a bit of green goodness on our city streets.

Community Gardens
Another way to integrate green into your life is to visit and support your local parks and community gardens. A great way to explore 100 gardens in the five boroughs that are open to the public is the Garden Guide: New York City, a pocket-sized (but surprisingly thick) little book by Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry with lovely color photos by Joseph De Sciose ($19.95; The Little Bookroom). Many New York City community gardens were rescued from trash-strewn rubble by local residents and are lovingly cared for. To find your local community garden and learn how to become an active member, contact Green Thumb (, where you can link to an excellent database of the hundreds of NYC’s gardens; 212-788-8070).

To learn more about Trees New York, visit or call (212) 227-1887.



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