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The Millionth Tree: Street Trees Improve Life in the City’s Poorest Neighborhoods

INTRO: In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg decided to plant trees in the streets of New York. To make the city greener, one million trees would be planted in a decade. The initiative cost the city $400 million… and is now near its goal. As Adélie Pontay reports,  the neighborhoods that needed the most trees were also some of the poorest areas in the city. She went for a walk around the leafy streets of East New York in Brooklyn to see how the neighborhood has changed. [00:26]

When spring time comes, the streets of New York wake up from a long hibernation and fill up with families, teenagers, strollers… and trees!

TRIMBLE: “Let’s see we are now at 958,728 trees as of this morning, for our goal. So we’re getting there. In the fall we’re thinking we’re gonna plant our millionth tree.” [0:13]

That’s Fiorella Trimble, the senior forester for the parks department. We’re walking on Belmont Avenue. Every 10 yards, there is a tree, about 7 feet tall.

TRIMBLE: “this is a sign of new trees, right here.

Each one has a tag that says “I’m one in a million!”

[sound of us walking]

We are At the corner of Milford street. On the right side there’s a purple leaf plum tree and a cherry tree – covered with lovely pink cherry blossoms. Beautiful. But  Trimble points out one of the challenges of planting street trees. Something only a forester could spot. The trees are…

TRIMBLE: … under wires. When we have wires we plant smaller trees. [0:15]

On the opposite side of the street, there are  green gingkos with small round leaves.

TRIMBLE: On this side, where there are no lines, we basically plant much larger trees.

In 2007, the City’s Parks and Recreation Dept started mapping out how they would plant the hundreds of thousands of trees. The department tried to identify areas that had very few trees, and lots of people. Matthew Stephens, the director of street tree planting, says they added another criterion for the neighborhoods.

STEPHENS: they also had high rates of childhood asthma. That’s why they’re called the trees for public health neighborhoods. [0:12]

Six neighborhoods were targeted  – from the South Bronx to East Harlem to the Rockaways.  THEY TENDED TO BE AMONG THE POOREST IN THE CITY. East New York in Brooklyn was one of them.

STEPHENS: That’s where we plant both sides of the streets, up and down, planting a tree every 30 or 40 feet, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood. [0:11]

That’s called block planting, says Fiorella Trimble pointing to a row of five young trees in East New York.

In Brooklyn alone, 47,000 trees were planted.

The pattern of poor neighborhood and scarce trees is common in cities all across the United States.

Kirsten Schwartz, from Northern Kentucky University, directed the research. She says that trees aren’t only pretty, they also have a critical role to play in the city.

SCHWARTZ: For just a tree being a tree. And doing its thing. So things like cooling, shading the ???, improving water quality, reducing run off, all those things are benefits that we can get from trees. [0:16]

On top of that, the presence of trees helps reduce stress, anxiety and anger – and that’s particularly important in poor neighborhoods.

Lindsay Campbell, who works for the New York office for the US Forest Service, says trees make the city more beautiful and more livable. And that’s why people need to have access to nearby nature.

CAMPBELL: “the trees can sort of serve as the gateway into the parks system, and it’s right outside your front door. The pits in which trees are planted are sort of the smallest parks in the system.” [0:11]

The New York City program is on track to be completed 2 years ahead of schedule.  Lindsay Campbell says the city is already looking to the next step: preserving the trees that were planted.

CAMPBELL: “we need people to be involved in helping to care for this green infrastructure. It’s green infrastructure that can live or die. […] People can actually make a difference.” [0:13]

And Campbell says that in poorer areas they have the greatest enthusiasm to take care of the trees.

Back in East New York, Fiorella Trimble is eager to point out the trees that are well taken care of by the residents of the neighborhood.

TRIMBLE: “This is a woman who lives right here is clearly a gardener. Her tree pit sort of has a make shift guard to keep dogs and people out. And she has other sort of perennials in there, looks like daffodils. This is the sign of a tree that’s being taken care of, for sure.” [0:22]

On May 19, the city will be launching its decennial Tree Census in order to keep track of the city’s trees – how they grow and thrive. The city is recruiting residents from these neighborhoods to help count the trees – they’re called the Volunteers.

Maybe the month of May is just the right moment to go for a stroll around your neighborhood and take a look at the tree that’s just in front of your doorstep.

Adélie Pontay, Columbia Radio News.

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