Stories in New York

Future Forest NYC

Growing an urban forest for all New Yorkers.

London Plane trees line a busy NYC soccer field.
Our Future Forest A healthy urban forest makes our city more livable for all New Yorkers and helps tackle both the causes and effects of climate change. © Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

Did you know that all the trees across New York City make up a forest? Across NYC, about 7 million trees live in tree beds on our sidewalks, in public parks, in natural areas, in backyards, and at the institutions where we live, work and play. Together, these trees make up NYC’s urban forest, a vital system that serves all New Yorkers. Trees enhance quality of life and improve health and wellbeing for people by cleaning and cooling the air and reducing heat-related illness. But their many benefits do not reach everyone equitably. 

“Extreme heat is the leading weather-related cause of death nationally. Here in NYC, heat waves are projected to increase in frequency three- to five-fold by 2050, and they are expected to get longer,” says Emily Nobel Maxwell, Cities Director for The Nature Conservancy in New York. “We know that areas with more trees and plants are generally cooler, but as we mapped these dynamics across the five boroughs, it became easy to see that trees are not evenly distributed across the city. In fact, the most heat vulnerable neighborhoods tend to be low-income communities or communities of color with less tree cover.” 

What’s more, despite the importance of the urban forest and its perennial needs for stewardship, there is no dedicated, long-term funding or committed plan for managing NYC’s trees in the years ahead. There are also few protections from being cut down for trees on public or private property, and trees face a combination of threats from invasive pests and pathogens to accelerating climate change. 

Our Future: A Healthy and Equitable Urban Forest

For New York City’s communities to thrive, our trees need a clear, coordinated vision and more champions. A healthy urban forest makes our city more livable for all New Yorkers and helps tackle both the causes and effects of climate change.

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The Power of Street Trees A Young Dawn Redwood tree in Brooklyn, New York. © Diane Cook & Len Jenshel
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Tackling Climate Change The city's urban forest helps fight the effects of climate change, benefitting both people and nature. Future Forest NYC will help expand these benefits more equitably. © Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

That is why The Nature Conservancy has launched Future Forest NYC, an initiative to assure the future of New York City’s forest―and the social and environmental benefits it provides―in a just and equitable way. To do so, we need good science, an inspired vision, a powerful and effective voice, a diverse community, and opportunities to connect New Yorkers to their trees.

To that end, Future Forest NYC has three main efforts underway:

  • Communicating the latest science through our forthcoming State of NYC Trees report.
  • Activating a diverse tree leadership group, the NYC Urban Forest Task Force.
  • Coordinated tree stewardship efforts (as soon as it is safe to do so).

By producing the State of NYC Trees report, The Nature Conservancy will provide a novel assessment of all city trees on public and private land. This report will paint a clear picture of the status of the urban forest, how it is managed, regulated, regarded, funded and stewarded as well as opportunities for improvement. 

The trees of Queensbridge Park along the East River in Long Island City (Queens), New York provide more than shade and aesthetic benefits—they also filter air pollutants and particulate matter coming from traffic on the Queensboro Bridge. As New York City sees more intense heat waves and frequent storms due to climate change, planting and tending its urban forest will help cool the air and absorb the torrents of rain. Understanding this vital role of the city’s trees, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and local nonprofit New York Restoration Project completed an eight-year project in 2015 to plant one million trees.
GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE The trees of Queensbridge Park along the East River in Long Island City provide more than shade and aesthetic benefits—they also filter air pollutants and particulate matter coming from traffic on the Queensboro Bridge. © Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

To establish the vision and voice for NYC’s trees, The Nature Conservancy convened the NYC Urban Forest Task Force in November 2019. The Task Force is a diverse coalition of nearly 50 organizations committed to creating a healthy, biodiverse, accessible and resilient urban forest that justly and equitably delivers benefits to all residents of New York City. The Task Force will develop an ambitious Urban Forest Agenda that includes specific recommendations for how to improve and enhance New York City’s urban forest through planning, stewardship and policy; local action by the public; and increased investments in trees across public and private lands.

Every New Yorker deserves to live in a neighborhood rich with healthy trees and all the benefits they provide.

Because volunteer stewardship of trees is essential for ensuring longterm survival of new and established trees, The Nature Conservancy will also engage in neighborhood-based stewardship activities that address locally relevant challenges, as determined by project partners and volunteers. Tree stewardship also provides an important opportunity to foster social connection and sustained commitment to tree care over time. 

“Science helps us make better decisions, and there are real people, lives and stories behind the data. Working in partnership with leaders and communities is critical,” added Maxwell. “Every New Yorker deserves to live in a neighborhood rich with healthy trees and all the benefits they provide.” 

Generous support from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation/Land Trust Alliance, The JPB Foundation, and Con Edison has made this work possible.