Trees of Home: Pruning Red Tape in the Urban Forest

By Davis, Norah Deakin | American Forests, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Trees of Home: Pruning Red Tape in the Urban Forest


Davis, Norah Deakin, American Forests


When the nearest tree is outside your apartment door or down at the local park, taking care of it or planting a new one can be a monumental hassle. Here's how New Yorkers work the bureaucracy.

In 1991 when Felix Arias moved to a public housing project in an Hispanic neighborhood on Manhattan's east side, he would see four or five people sitting in chairs under each of the trees on his block. The shade offered the only relief from summer's 95-degree heat at the Washington Heights housing project. But trees on that street were few and far between.

Residents of large, densely populated cities may not have a tree outside their dwelling to call their own, but they can still have a strong connection to the urban forest. Sometimes their "Trees of Home" reside on their block or in a nearby park. Arias, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was eight years old, characterizes himself as a nature lover. "You can have a little slice of heaven on your block by having plenty of trees," he says.

Arias ran for the Washington Heights Tenants Association and decided to make it his mission to beautify the neighborhood by planting trees. "Caring is contagious," he says. He figured be could start with himself, and if he then could persuade another person to care, and then another, it would spread.

Firing up the tenants' association was the easy part. Then Arias ran into the New York bureaucracy.

His first step was research to find out how to get trees planted in a low-income neighborhood where people don't have the money to spend on "non-essentials" like trees. "I thought it would be a simple process to have trees planted," he says. "I thought you would just ask the parks department."

But the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation receives thousands of requests for trees each year. Someone has to set priorities, and that someone is the local community board. New York City has 59 community boards that decide on complaints and requests for services, including who receives funds for tree planting.

"Then I found out that it takes five or six years to get a tree planted," says Arias.

Officials say the waiting period is more like one or two years, but they admit the process can be frustrating. Arias runs the housing project's day-care center, and he and his wife have a six-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. The children need shade where they can play. Arias couldn't wait five or six years, or even one or two.

Luckily, someone told him about Trees New York, a nonprofit organization dedicated to caring for New York's trees. The group helps citizens find their way through the Byzantine process of obtaining permission to plant a tree.

Even if you have the money to plant a tree yourself, you may still have to obtain several permits before you can put shovel to dirt. First, there's the "street-tree planting permit" from your borough forestry office. Then you may also need a "utility-line clearance and pavement-breaking permit" from the city's Department of Transportation. You'll have to shell out $135 for that one - the fee for pavement removal. And if your neighborhood is a designated landmark district, you may not be able to plant a tree at all. You'll need to call the Landmarks Preservation Commission to find out.

Getting back to Arias' odyssey, he heard about a course offered by Trees New York for learning how to plant and care for trees. "It was a wild stroke of luck," he says. He took the course, and the instructor gave him the name of the state forester to seek funding. Arias wrote a letter.

The state's Department of Environmental Conservation is small and understaffed, but after a number of phone calls the state forester made a site visit to the Washington Heights housing project and was able to help Arias plant 12 blocks.

The department fills a specific urban forestry niche within New York. While the city Parks Department provides forestry, the DEC provides environmental education to block associations, technical nonprofits, and botanical gardens, and channels federal and state funding to local agencies and citizen organizations.

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