Despite the proven effects of trees in combatting the urban heat island effect (and the disparity of cover in poorer neighborhoods, especially those with greater numbers of minorities), New York City isn’t exactly a forest. According to environmental nonprofit Nature Conservancy, only 22 percent of the city is under tree cover, and there are approximately 7 million trees versus 8.8 million residents.
Now, all five borough presidents have put out a collective call for Mayor Eric Adams to bring back the Million Trees NYC initiative begun under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and completed in November of 2015 by former Mayor Bill de Blasio. The eight-year program ultimately expanded the city’s tree cover by 20 percent and was intended both to bolster parks and shore up the city against the worsening effects of climate change.
Although there are about 650,000 street trees already in place throughout the city, the Nature Conservancy estimates that there’s room for an additional 250,000—and the ones that do exist are noticeably denser in richer zip codes. (That excludes the areas flooded in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy, according to the Nature Conservancy, which noted in its “The State of the Urban Forest in New York City” report that these neighborhoods have lost the greatest amount of tree cover in recent years.)
Trees pull carbon dioxide from the air, shade pedestrians, provide habitats for migrating birds, improve peoples’ moods, and can keep soil in place during flooding to prevent erosion. So it would make sense for the ideologically diverse borough presidents to come together (including Staten Island Borough President and Republican Vito Fossella) and ask Mayor Adams for the $500 million needed to begin another one million trees campaign.
As the New York Times noted, Adams would seemingly be the mayor to spin up such a program. During the mayoral campaign, he pledged to put 1 percent of the city’s budget toward the Department of Parks and Recreation (most other major U.S. cities commit 2 percent), which manages half of New York’s trees. The pledge came after two years of disinvestment by the de Blasio administration after tax revenue was decimated by the pandemic, even as New Yorkers fled to parks as one of the only safe places to gather. In 2020, despite parks taking up 14 percent of the city’s surface, the Parks Department budget was cut to $503 million, about 0.5 percent of the city’s total budget, leading to downed trees, overflowing trash cans, and uncut lawns as the city struggled to hire seasonal workers.
Then, in 2021, things started looking up as the city put aside $620 million for the Parks Department, noting the importance of green space as urban oases for classes, socializing, and places for cabin fever-crazed residents to leave their apartments for. Last week, Kate Smart, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adams, reconfirmed the administration’s commitment to putting 1 percent of the budget toward the Parks Department in a statement to the NYT last week.
Flash forward to February 21 when the Adams administration released its first draft budget of his tenure, and… Parks Department funding was reduced back down to about $500 million of the total $98.5 billion budget, 0.5 percent. With the end of a federal stimulus infusion, Adams had also mandated that every New York City department cut its spending by 3 percent, which will slash about 250 positions from the department.
However, despite the disappointing budget, open space advocates are hopeful that they can negotiate the promised $1 billion ahead of the full City Council vote this June. There is no indication of whether Mayor Adams would set aside the additional half-billion for the million tree campaign between now and the summer, or if that money is added to the Parks Department budget, what it would go towards.