The Urban Forest
Towering trees line some New York streets, like this one in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. The trees soak up rainwater, helping to prevent flash flooding and reducing stormwater runoff by approximately 69 million cubic feet per year, according to a 2018 Forest Service study. Recent tree census estimates have found 234 different species of street trees in the city.
A Different View
Governors Island sits in New York Harbor near Manhattan’s southern tip. Once home to three active forts and a landfill, much of the island is now reclaimed parkland with thousands of trees. In Queens, The Nature Conservancy, Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service led a similar planting effort, installing 28,000 salt-tolerant trees and shrubs in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to replace vegetation uprooted by Superstorm Sandy. All told, the city’s trees store approximately 1.2 million tons of carbon. Each year, these trees remove an additional 51,000 tons of carbon and 1,100 tons of pollutants from the air.
Before Governors Island became the urban refuge it is today, it was one of the longest continually operated military outposts in the United States, with military connections dating back to 1755. Much of the island’s forests were cut down to build forts in the early 1800s. After major replanting efforts in recent years, though, Governors Island now has more than 140 species of trees. Military operations ceased there in 1996, and the 172-acre island is now managed by the National Park Service and the City of New York as a public amenity.
Urban life is hard on trees. Street trees endure poor soil, limited space and restricted water, not to mention road salt, dog urine and accidental car strikes. Many young street trees, like this dawn redwood in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, cannot survive without help from human caretakers. To improve trees’ rates of survival, groups including Trees New York, Gowanus Canal Conservancy and TNC are building a network of certified volunteer stewards to water and prune neighborhood trees.
Founded as a rural cemetery in 1838, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is now very much part of the urban city. But because of its early founding, the sprawling cemetery provides something of a green refuge of trees and lawns in the city, providing habitat for birds and small wildlife. Like many rural cemeteries in the 1800s, Green-Wood became a popular picnicking spot for city dwellers. Its popularity inspired city leaders to create other recreational parks.
The Old Forest
At the northern tip of Manhattan, Inwood Hill Park gives New Yorkers a glimpse into the landscape that once covered the island, long home to the Lenape people before colonists arrived in the 1500s. Trails and a nearby monastery-like art museum—the Met Cloisters—provide a calm, quiet corner far from the bustle of Midtown. The trees here haven’t been logged since the Revolutionary War and the “caves,” created by tumbling rocks, date back to glacier activity more than 30,000 years ago.
It’s hard to imagine, but Brooklyn Bridge Park was once a busy cargo shipping and storage area. Now, it’s a 1.3-mile stretch of rolling lawns and newly planted trees with a raised bank built to dampen sound from a nearby highway. It’s one of many industrial areas in New York that the city has transformed into green spaces to improve residential life.
Trees are found even in the most urban of places in New York, offering shade and respite from the city’s urban heat. In Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District, formerly known as Liberty Plaza Park, 54 honey locust trees shade the thousands of tourists and locals who walk through. The trees themselves must be hardy to survive: In such a dense, paved environment, they endure salt, runoff, drought, pollution and limited space for their growing roots.
London plane trees shade a soccer field in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The London plane is one of the most common trees in the city. It’s a hybrid of two types of sycamore, able to withstand pollution and space constraints and live for 200 years or more. There’s a growing body of research indicating that trees positively affect the health of people who live near them—quantifying some of the benefits early city reformers first suggested. And for those who walk along shaded streets or play under its branches, the London plane, dubbed the “New Yorkiest of trees” by the New Yorker, is a beloved symbol of home.