NYC’s Million Trees; that was then

New York City is planting many fewer trees along its streets, slowing efforts to become more resilient in the face of climate change. An empty spot awaits a tree on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens.

By Len Maniace

In October 2015, New York City installed a lacebark elm in a Bronx park for the final planting of its One Million Trees program. Though the city’s ambitious, eight-year plan to combat climate change was officially over, the city aimed to continue it’s sped-up tree plantings to cool sweltering summer sidewalks.

That did not happen, however; beginning with the city’s next budget year, the number of street trees planted began dropping and the decline has continued ever since. Only 6,646 street trees were planted in the 12 months ending June 30, 2019, one-third the 20,545 trees from three years earlier.

The cuts were forced on the city, park officials say, by dramatically rising costs for planting street trees. The average cost of planting a tree is $2,700 for the current budget year, nearly double the $1,400 five years ago.

This previously unreported data comes from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in response to our Freedom of Information Law request.

“It’s a huge concern if the cost don’t go down,” said Nelson Villarrubia, Executive Director of Trees New York , a nonprofit group that organizes a city volunteer effort to maintain city trees and also plant trees.

The drop in plantings slows the city’s efforts to become more resilient in the face of climate change. Extensive tree plantings are credited with reducing temperatures in some neighborhoods, as well as reducing air pollution, providing habitat for wildlife and even reducing the flow of untreated sewage into city waters.

More noticeable, though, are the slew of empty tree pits around the city, with New Yorkers now waiting some 30 months for a tree request to be fulfilled, up from 18 months a few years ago.

New York City Parks did not answer a series of questions sent to them, including the effect of planting cuts on the city’s environmental sustainability effort or whether the rising costs would jeopardize tree planting efforts.

“We can’t comment on hypothetical future increases to tree planting costs,” said Meghan Lalor, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Under the Million Trees program begun Mayor Michael Bloomberg and completed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Parks planted 750,000 trees, most in parks and 155,000 trees along streets. The New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit group founded by singer and actress Bette Midler, worked with community organizations and businesses to plant the remaining 250,000 on land owned by homeowners, churches and other institutions.

The rising tree costs – from $1,400 in 2015, to $2,100 in 2019 and an estimated $2,700 for the current year – tell only part of the story. These were average costs bids accepted by the city from contractors, who plant the city’s street trees. That does not count much more expensive bids were rejected by the city,peventing it from meeting its goal of 20,000 new street trees annually. The average contract bid – both rejected and accepted – came to a staggering $4,300 per tree.

Park officials blame the increase on a shrinking pool of contractors willing to bid on the city contracts, a drop to five last year from 10 a few years ago, Lalor said. Along with planting trees, contractors are responsible opening sidewalks, providing topsoil, maintaining trees for two years, and replacing them if they die during that period.

The city planted 4,400 in the last six months of 2019 and are hoping to plant more at least 10,000 trees in the 12 months ending with June of this year, Lalor said. That increase, however, comes with the city paying an average $600 more per tree this year than last.

These costs are typically higher than those faced outside of city government, NYC Parks officials acknowledge, due to New York City’s prevailing-wage requirement requires contractors to pay workers higher salaries than is typical. This is not a factor in the increase, they say, because the prevailing-wage law around for many years.

In an effort to expand the number of contractors in the hope of lowering its cost, the city is reaching out to more businesses including those owned by women and minorities, city officials said.

NY State Senate to vote on plastic bags law

plastic bags

By Len Maniace

Decades after plastics bags were identified for their damage to the environment, the New York City Council finally took action last month, imposing a 5-cent charge on disposable plastic shopping bags.

But now, in an example of no good deed going unpunished, the New York State Legislature is considering undoing the city law, which affects only the five boroughs of New York City.

The bill is sponsored in the state Senate by Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, who said the city law amounted “irritating people to change their behavior,” upending a well-established environmental principal of making the polluter pay. Local governments across the nation imposed deposits on disposable beverage bottles, which dramatically reduced the amount of bottles, often broken, covering our landscape.

Supporters of the plastic bag fee say it would work similarly, appealing to people’s pocket-book sense to switch to reusable bags, ending blizzards of plastic bags.

What to do with the city’s stinkiest water bodies

Scan 2

Flushing Bay is ringed by sewer outfalls that discharge untreated sewage during medium and heavy rains. Outfalls are represented by circles of various colors. Graphic by Open Sewer Atlas NYC

By Len Maniace

The coming months are likely to be crucial for the future of two of our city’s most odiferous water bodies, both in name and in fact.

New York State is expected to rule on plans by New York City to clean up Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek, which feeds into it – a decision that is likely to determine conditions in those water bodies for the next 25 years, environmentalists say.

Right now environmentalists are worried. The plan for Flushing Bay has not been released yet; the city’s long-term plan for the Flushing Creek, however, consists of adding disinfectant to the largest of several pipes that periodically dump huge quantities of untreated sewage into the creek.

“You can’t put perfume on the poop and expect to resolve the problem,” said Alexandra Rosa, of Friends of Flushing Creek.

Critics point out that while disinfectants would kill off much of the harmful bacteria in the sewage, they also would damage tiny plant and animal life that are essential to the food chain of a once-productive estuary. What’s more, chlorine disinfectants are not without their own human health hazards.

Rosa was one of more than 100 residents, environmentalists, city officials and boaters attending a community meeting aboard the cruise ship Skyline Princess, docked Saturday in the bay at the World’s Fair Marina.

The trouble with the waters in Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek is hinted at by their names: too much of what is flushed down household toilets ends up in these bodies of water. That’s the case, even with the city’s wastewater treatment plants that were built to prevent the release of sewage into the city’s waterways.

Empire Dragon Boat Team

The Empire Dragon Boat Team, a group of breast cancer survivors that’s based on Flushing Bay, urged measures to clean up the polluted water body. Photo by Ruth Fremson/New York Times

While these plants do a great job most of the time, they come up short after moderate or heavy rains. These storms generate so much water that they overload the treatment plants, resulting in sewage being shunted into what are called combined sewer outfalls, CSOs, and then into nearby waterways.

Turns out, Flushing Bay is home to the city’s biggest CSO, which pours out 1.5 billion gallons of sewage and storm water annually. When that’s combined with other nearby CSOs, Flushing Bay receives the most untreated sewage of any body of water in and around our city. As if that isn’t enough, Flushing Creek which eventually flows into the bay, ranks second worse.

Despite the bay’s obvious problems, people use it for recreation, both fishing and boating, including the increasing popular dragon boats. A Chinese tradition, these crafts are attracting a multi-cultural audience in Queens.

Present at Saturday’s event and calling for stepped up effort to clean the bay were members of Empire Dragon Boat Team, a group of breast cancer survivors. For roughly seven years these women have been practicing on Flushing Bay several times a week and competing against other dragon boat teams.

To be clear, city environmental officials have taken steps to clean up Flushing Bay and Creek. Several years ago a huge underground tank was built in nearby Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to temporarily contain some of the sewage during storms until it could then be sent to wastewater treatment plants.

Sea Princess

Saturday’s conference on Flushing Bay water quality was sponsored by environmental and neighborhood groups and took place on the Skyline Princess in Flushing Bay.

What’s more the city is investing in green infrastructure that diverts rain and snow melt from even reaching the sewer system: green roofs, permeable paving, and bioswales, which are curbside gardens into which runoff is diverted. In addition the city plans to dredge a portion of the bay.

More needs to be done to reduce the amount of sewage released into the bay and creek, said Sean Dixon, an attorney with Riverkeeper, a group dedicated to protecting the Hudson River and its estuary. And with the city and state soon to finalize cleanup measures governing Flushing Bay and Creek for a generation, citizen action is needed to do the job right, he said.

“It’s important to tell officials that we want to start the cleanup today,” Dixon said.

The event was sponsored by Guardians of Flushing Bay; S.W.I.M. Coalition (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters); Riverkeeper, and Skyline Cruises.

Flushing: A bay by any name would smell as foul

By Len Maniace

The name of the community at the end of the No. 7 train is an accident of history. Settlers from the Netherlands named their 17th Century settlement after the Dutch city Vlissingen, which was Anglicized to Flushing by  the British who soon followed.

FlusihngBay VintageMap

A vintage roadmap featuring Flushing Bay.

When it comes to the adjacent Flushing Bay, however,  the name seems like some perverse fate.  Despite progress in cleaning up most New York waterways Flushing Bay remains a foul-smelling holdout.

The problem, literally, is due to flushing, as in untreated household sewage. But there’s hope we may soon smell a difference in the bay’s characteristic aroma. New York City is under a state order to produce  a pollution-control plan for Flushing Bay and the nearby Flushing Creek which empties into the bay. The public gets its chance to help shape the plan Saturday, March 5, aboard the cruise ship Skyline Princess, which will be docked at the World’s Fair Marina in what’s billed as a Clean Water Community Meeting.

Like household liquid waste from around the city, the flushes that end up in Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek are supposed to be cleaned in wastewater treatment plants. Even moderate rains, however, can overload those plants, sending untreated sewage into local waterways. That’s because older cities have combined sewer systems that handle both household wastewater and storm water runoff that runs along curbs and into catch basins.

Since it would be too expensive to install another sewer system to separate the two flows, city officials have adopted a variety of strategies to either divert or delay the storm water that would otherwise overload the treatment plants. The city has built some underground storage tanks to temporarily hold rainwater and snow melt, but those are expensive, disruptive and usually not welcome neighbors.

Flushing Bay Photo

New York City is considering plans to address the troubled Flushing Bay. Photo credit: Tara Engberg, Daily News.

Increasingly New York is focusing on what’s know as green infrastructure, such as green roofs, permeable pavement and bioswales, which are curbside gardens designed to divert curbside runoff into the soil in these gardens that typically include street trees and perennials.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has submitted an initial plan for Flushing Creek that is likely to meet some criticism from environmentalists. It would not call for reducing the amount of untreated sewage entering the creek; it would require only the periodic use of a disinfectant at one of its major sewer outfalls. Also planned is the dredging of 17.5 acres of the bay on either side of World’s Fair Marina.

Though Flushing Bay is underused as a recreation area, its cleanup could make this a very different place. Just imagine the water cleansed and the bay fringed by grasses and wetlands; Not only would it be attractive, but it could also be an important habitat for wildlife.

The event is sponsored by Guardians of Flushing Bay;  S.W.I.M. Coalition (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters); Riverkeeper, and Skyline Cruises.

If you plan to go: Saturday, March 5th at 2 p.m. on board the Skyline Princess at World’s Fair Marina (the cruise ship will be docked for the meeting.) RSVP: or email
The marina can be reached by both transit and car. Directions.

Ecotourism: In search of the Digester Eggs of Greenpoint


digester eggs

Visually striking, eight digester eggs loom over the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (Photo by NYC Department of Environmental Conservation)

By Len Maniace

Ecotourism usually conjures visions of rain forests and exotic fauna in Costa Rica and other distant locales. On Saturday I journeyed to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Well, at least my subway trip produced less climate-changing carbon dioxide than a flight to Central America.

My destination was the site of eight gleaming stainless steel structures known as Digester Eggs, which dominate the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant there. On most days, 340 million gallons of sewage are transmuted into clean… well let’s just say, cleaner water.

Sewage – that’s the liquid that comes intermittently from your kitchen sink and toilet. In a city of 8.3 million people, however, those intermittent flushes quickly join up to become swift-moving streams and eventually mighty rivers of sewage.

Where the flush goes

One-third of Manhattan’s sewage travels under the East River, one-fifth of Brooklyn’s sewage flows north, and one-seventh of Queens’ sewage flows south, all into the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest of the city’s 14 such facilities.

digesters in a row

Each Digester Egg contains 3 million gallons of sewage sludge that is digested buy bacteria. (Photo by Len Maniace)

“And we are happy to receive it here,” Ali Zainool, the plant’s manager, told the audience at an 11 a.m. tour, the first of three that day. It’s an annual event known as the Valentine’s Day Digester Egg Tour, even though it came eight days early.

One has to admire the confidence of New York Department of Environmental Protection officials for picking a holiday dedicated to romance and risking jokes about perfume on tours at facility where olfactory is not necessarily the sense one wants to focus on. For the record, neither I nor other visitors I spoke to, noticed any unpleasant odors.

Standing in a plant’s visitors center classroom, the hum of giant compressors in the background, Zainool explained the operation: wastewater entering the plant first meets up with giants screens that filter out branches, toilet paper and other debris; then said sewage is digested by hungry bacteria, before it is treated with chlorine, and piped to the East River, a reasonable facsimile of water that’s clean enough to meet federal and state pollution codes.

If only that were the entire story, however. When skies over New York open, raining down on roofs, roads and parking lots, water rushes into the city’s 148,000 catch basins, racing down 7,400 miles of sewer lines toward sewage treatment plants, Zainool explained.

Wastewater treatment plants are built to handle some of this added storm water flow – an extra capacity equal to each plant’s usual flow. Larger rains, however, quickly overwhelm this added capacity. The overload is then shunted from underground sewer mains into the city’s waterways, releasing huge volumes of untreated sewage.

This is New York City biggest challenge when it comes to keeping its surrounding waterways clean. Newer cities and suburbs have solved this problem by building separate wastewater and storm water systems. New York City, however, is now looking for ways to keep much of the storm water out of treatment plants, or at least delaying it’s arrival.

Gray versus green

One method is the construction of huge underground tanks that temporarily hold this mix of rainwater and sewage, a project that comes under the heading of gray infrastructure. The other method is green infrastructure, working with nature to prevent runoff from ever reaching city sewers.
mapThese include green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement that allows rain and melting snow to penetrate sidewalks and parking lots into soil. Another tool is beginning to transform the streetscape in parts of the city, bioswales. They are street-side gardens surrounding trees that can divert up to 2,000 gallons of water from curbs into soil. Green infrastructure is an exciting innovation, but it’s a tale for another day.

There’s no missing the Digester Eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. They are 140 feet tall and connected at the top by enclosed glass walkways which not only enable workers to oversee the operations, but they also provide spectacular 360-degree views of the city.

Standing in a walkway atop one digester egg, deputy plant manager Kevin McCormick explained that engineering, not aesthetics, was behind the eggs’ design. The shape is ideal for mixing the digester’s contents, helping bacteria to break down the sewage.  The design is so efficient each Digester Egg needs only one 50-horsepower motor to churn 3 million gallons of sludge, resulting in a significant energy savings, McCormick said.

In an egg and the human gut

The breakdown of sewage by bacteria is a biological process similar to how food is digested in our intestines by bacteria. And as happens in the human process, this one also produces natural gas, or methane. But rather than allowing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere, McCormick said the city uses the methane to heat the sludge to 98 degrees, the temperature at which the bacteria are most active, and also to heat water that’s occasionally added to the process, thereby saving energy and money.

The city has even bigger plans for tapping methane at the plant – a composting program that would breakdown food scraps much the way backyard compost piles work. A test project that composts scraps from a New York City elementary school is now underway at the site. If successful, the city would collect scraps from many more school cafeterias and then sell the methane to a local supplier.

Creek Vista

Newtown Creek Nature Walk was created as part of the modernization of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Photo by Len Maniace)

Other stuff side

In Queens, a subway too far


The No. 7 train in Queens. Earlier plans called for it to continue to College Point and Bayside.

By Len Maniace

Last spring Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a major subway expansion in his home borough of Brooklyn and since then the Metropolitan Transportation Administration has taken up the cause with a $5 million study for a Utica Avenue subway line.

Subway-starved Queens, however, still waits relief from overflowing station platforms. Perhaps the difference is that Queens native, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is a well-noted car guy.

While grumbling about the subway is a New York tradition, Queens commuters have particular cause to complain. A glance at the subway map shows vast areas of eastern Queens unserved. Our analysis of readily available subway data goes deeper. It shows that Queens ranks last among the four boroughs served by the subway system, when population is considered. (Staten Island has no subway service, but rather gets by with a commuter rail, which does not enter Manhattan, and its famous ferry.)

The total number of subway stations in each borough provides one glimpse of transit availability around the city: Queens has 81 stations, compared to 170 in Brooklyn (the closest in size and population to Queens) and 148 in Manhattan. Only the Bronx has fewer stations, 70, but that borough has nearly 900,000 fewer people  than Queens 2.3 million and it is less than half Queen’s size. ­

Subway Service Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens
By Population: stations for every 100,000 residents   5  6.5  9.2  3.5
By Area: stations for every 10 square miles 16.7 23.9 64  7.4

See chart below for additional data, including that upon which this analysis is based.

Once population is factored in, Queens has only 3.5 stations for every 100,000 people, well behind Brooklyn’s 6.5 stations per 100,000. Manhattan, the region’s employment center, easily leads the pack with 9.2 per 100,000 people. And that borough is set to get three new stations along Second Avenue this year, the first phase in New York’s first new subway line in decades.

More growth is expected in Queens, especially in Long Island City and Flushing, as well from an ambitious plan to build a massive housing complex atop the Sunnyside rail yard –  further overcrowding local subway lines, despite new technology that will permit trains to run more frequently than is now considered safe.

Growing while other boroughs were abandoned

Although all of New York’s boroughs are now growing, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan still have populations smaller than in 1950, before the great suburban migration, while Queens added 770,000 people through 2014.

As the city’s largest borough geographically, Queens fares even worse once physical size is considered. Queens has 7.4 stations for every 10 square miles, compared to Brooklyn’s 23.9 stations, Manhattan’s 64 stations, and the Bronx’s 16.7 per square mile.

Queens also ranks last or near last in the number of subway lines, major transfer stations,   and bridge and tunnel crossings into Manhattan, a critical factor that limits additional service into Manhattan, most riders’ destination.

The subway doesn’t stop here

The City University of New York was created to provide a quality, affordable education for New Yorkers – an historic commitment to forging one city in a metropolis long divided by great wealth and poverty.

Commuting inexpensively to CUNY seemed to be part of the deal. The colleges are located near subway stations so students, faculty and staff don’t need to own a car. There are two exceptions among CUNY’s dozen senior colleges, though: Queens College and the College of Staten Island, which is located in the only borough lacking subway service.

With 18,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, Queens College is the system’s second largest institution. A decades-old proposal would have created a spur from the Queens Boulevard line to the college.

Private colleges don’t fare better in Queens. The borough’s largest private school, St. John’s University, also lacks subway service.

There have been plenty plans to fix this transit gap through the years. Among previous
proposals, one would build a subway under Northern Boulevard from Long Island City to Flushing and then beyond to Bayside; a super-bypass line that would parallel the Queens Boulevard lines on Long Island Railroad tracks; and various spurs to go to underserved areas of eastern and southeastern Queens.

Screen shot 2016-01-22 at 3.44.15 PM

This ambitious plan for the New York City subway system showed Queens crossed by a grid of transit lines.

But times changed and those dreams never became reality. New York’s Master Builder Robert Moses guided the city away from transit and into private cars in the decades after World War II. The city’s near bankruptcy in the 1970s downsized any surviving plans.

Times are changing, again. Transit ridership is up dramatically. New York’s 1.75 billion riders in 2014 were the most since 1948. What’s more, when it comes to the environment and economic development, subways are golden. The subway system produces less carbon dioxide per passenger and moves many more people faster than gridlocked roads.

A transit resurgence in the future?

Recent plans and projects reflect transit’s growing popularity. The MTA expects this year to complete a 2-mile segment of the 8.5-mile Second Avenue line that ultimately would travel from 125 Street to Hanover Square, downtown. And in recent months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has unveiled one ambitious transportation project after another, a grand vision for the region not seen in at least half a century.

The list includes a rail tunnel under the Hudson, expanding Penn Station, adding a third track along a key stretch of the Long Island Railroad, and rebuilding LaGuardia Airport. These projects come on top of previously announced plans to bring Long Island Railroad service directly into Grand Central Terminal and building a rail link to LaGuardia Airport from the No. 7’s Citi Field station. And then there is the previously cited $5 million MTA study for the Utica Avenue line in Brooklyn.

All told, these projects are expected to cost in the tens of billions of dollars and shape the region’s transportation future for decades to come. They won’t, however, materially improve prospects for commuting by subway in Queens. There are no new lines reaching into unserved sections of the borough and no new connections bringing a growing population of workers into Manhattan.

Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens
Subway stations 70 170 148    81
Subway lines  7   18   21    12
Transfer stations  2   16   23      5
Crossings to Manhattan  4    8      4
Population       1.4 million 2.6 million 1.6 million 2.3 million
Land area, square miles  42    71   23 109

This is our first look at this issue. We welcome your ideas and participation.

I’ve provided links to the sources of the data cited in this report, but the information is not always easy to find. I soon will be posting instructions on how to find the specific data cited.

My city was gone: the case of America’s disposable cities

Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, another of America’s disposable cities.

Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, one of America’s disposable cities.

By Len Maniace

Americans consume a lot of disposable products that are bad for the environment: plastic shopping bags, cleaning chemicals, flimsy furniture and digital devices that are tossed after a few years.

But perhaps the disposable that has caused the greatest environmental and human loss is America’s disposable cities. Once proud, thriving places of industry and culture, these cities are now hollowed out, largely abandoned by industry, government and  retailers  – all who could move away.

A few other low-lights on this list:
* Detroit’s population dropped 61 percent to 713,00 in 2010 from 1.8 million in 1950 – the equivalent of San Francisco and Minneapolis disappearing.
* St. Louis lost an even greater share of its population, 63 percent, falling to 319,000 in 2010 from 857,000 in 1950.
* Cleveland was another big loser, declining 57 percent to 397,000 from 915,000 over the same period.

We usually don’t think of less crowded cities as bad for the environment – after all, don’t people make pollution? The fact is, the decline of American cities is environmentally destructive.  How so?

First, traditional cities are environmentally sustainable and probably essential if the planet is going to cope with climate change. By their compact nature and proximity of mixed land uses, people use transit or even walk to work, school or to shop.

Screen shot 2015-04-30 at 12.08.39 PM

Detroit’s once-glamorous 4,000-seat Michigan Theater was abandoned and turned into a garage. Photo credit: Sean Doerr/WNET

Secondly, the replacement communities are generally far more damaging to the environment. They are sprawling suburbs, or suburb-like cities that are land and energy hogs.

To create them, these new settlements consumed vast amounts of farms, forests and other open spaces that otherwise would help ameliorate the damaging environmental effects of humans. In their daily operation, these places are too-sparsely populated for energy-efficient transportation or for walking to be a feasible means of transportation. Hence they are dependent on carbon-emitting autos. As a result these sprawling settlements lock us on a course to produce more carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.

The recent troubles in Baltimore got me thinking about the disposable nature of American cities. It’s a connection between the environment and justice that’s too often overlooked.  You don’t need a degree in criminology, to realize that neighborhoods where unemployment reaches 50 percent are going to be troubled communities. Baltimore, too, has hollowed out; its population dropping to 621,000 in 2010, nearly 35 percent fewer than the 950,000 in 1950.

It’s no coincidence that these and many other cities started losing population in the 1950s, despite the postwar baby boom. That’s when the nation began large-scale construction of highways into the countryside and to abandon transit and rail travel. In effect, government policies put a thumb on the economic scale, outweighing cities’ historic advantages as places where creative ideas and industrious people came together to create wealth.

Decaying grain silos in Buffalo, a city that’s lost more than half its people. Photo credit: Alicia Whitman

Decaying grain silos in Buffalo, N.Y., a city that’s lost more than half its people. Photo credit: Alicia Whitman

In our economic system, when that competitive advantage is gone and there is no longer a reason to remain in a city, business moves on. The effect is like locusts leaving a stripped-bare field for a new one, or science-fiction space aliens plundering  one planet and then moving on to the next. Only in this case, it’s humans who leave behind exhausted cities.

Not all American cities are being abandoned, but they are exceptions. New York City has rebounded and is growing rapidly. One wonders, however, if that growth is sustainable and whether the city will remain a livable place given the slow pace of infrastructure improvements, such as transit, needed to keep pace with that growth.

I shouldn’t give the impression that disposable cities are a phenomena of the Midwest. Many cities in New York and neighboring states are hollowing out:
* Buffalo, home to 270,000 people in 2010, declined 53 percent from 580,000 in 1950.
* Nearby Niagara Falls’ population declined 51 percent to 50,000 from 102,000.
* Rochester, N.Y. numbered 211,000, down 37 percent from 332,00.
* Camden, N.J., had 77,000, down 38 percent from 125,000.
* Newark, N.J., was home to 227,000, a 37 percent decline from 442,000.

Aside from these numbers, too little hope and too much violence, what are these places like? Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders provided one picture in My City Was Gone, a song about her hometown of Akron, Ohio. Its population dropped 35 percent to 199,000 from 290,000.

“I went back to Ohio,
and my city was gone.
There was no train station,
There was no downtown…”
“All my favorite places,
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces…”
“But my pretty countryside,
Had been paved down the middle,
By a government that had no pride…”
“Hey, ho, oh way to go Ohio.”

Learning to count trees and their benefits

Street trees

New York City is about to embark on its third census of street trees. Photo by NYC Parks.

By Len Maniace

I’d like to learn to play the piano and to speak another language fluently, but instead I found myself learning how to count trees this Friday past. One does what one can.

About 20 of us would-be tree counters gathered at the Arsenal building off Fifth Avenue in the lower 60s, headquarters for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

Soon we were out in a chilly wind that felt more like November learning to identify tree species, taking various measurements of said trees and assessing their health.

All this focus on trees is for Tree Count 2015, the city’s third decennial census of street trees, an endeavor that could strike some as odd. Why not count telephone poles or birds – oh wait, the Audubon Society does count birds every Christmas.

Measuring the urban forest

As we wrote several weeks ago the city will depend heavily on volunteers – from 4,000 to 10,000 – for the count, which is set to begin in mid-May and run through the end of September. Friday morning was one of a dozen classes for volunteers to learn about the count so they can then help train a legion of citizen tree counters.

Sharing their expertise were Charles Cochran, the Street Tree Census Assistant Coordinator, and Philip Silva, co-founder and co-director of TreeKIT, a small nonprofit operation that built the digital tools allowing the census to switch from paper for recording tree details.

Along with a digital tablet for recording tree data, the two were equipped with a measuring wheel that looks like it might be unicycle for a small child. As you role the wheel on the ground it measures distance, sort of like an car odometer, only here we are measuring distances from tree to tree with the accuracy of one-tenth of a foot.

Checking trees: Dead or alive

Along with training, the volunteers will get a tree count guide that tells them how long to spend gathering 16 pieces of tree data: Step Six: Tree Structure: Alive, dead or a stump – five to 10 seconds. Step Eight: Identifying a Street Tree – approximately 60 seconds. To identify tree species there’s a dandy color poster that organizes trees according to characteristics as well as those most commonly found on city streets.

So why is the city counting street trees. The city learned from its two previous counts: it had a big problem with potentially lethal dead trees lining city streets from the 1995-6 census; that street trees produce roughly a $122 million benefit in energy savings, clean water, clean air and the removal of global-warming carbon-dioxide from the air after the 2005 census.)

That information helped shape city policy. After the first census, NYC got serious about removing dying trees. The second tree census led to NYC’s Million Trees program to expand those environmental benefits.

The environmental and civic group I head, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, pledged to count trees on some 120 blocks – a figure that was double our original plan after one persuasive Park employee convinced us we’d barely break a sweat. We’re gathering volunteers now for the Jackson Height effort now.

We’ll keep you posted on the progress of Tree Count 2015. If you are interested in participating elsewhere in NYC click hear.

A crucial role for volunteers in NYC’s underfunded parks

Unequal city parks

A huge gap exists in conditions between the city’s premier parks and others, such as Saratoga Ballfields in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.

If you doubt that New Yorkers love their parks, consider this past Saturday. On what was the nicest day of the spring so far, more than 300 park advocates chose to sit inside NYU classrooms learning how to make their parks better places. Oh, and did we say they were volunteers?

They were an amazing slice of New York, with seemingly every segment of our diverse city, including all five boroughs, represented. The event was sponsored by Partnership for Parks, a program of the City Parks Foundation. P4P serves as the essential connective tissue between an understaffed Department of Parks and Recreation and a public that craves parks and is willing to labor to improve them.

An army of volunteers keep city parks in shape

These volunteers are a determined and practical group. They clean, plant and paint their neighborhood parks, all the while knowing that there is no shortage of money from wealthy donors to lavish these services, and far more, on New York City’s premiere parks.


City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver is calling for a more equal park system.

But after decades of a growing divide in the city’s park system that picture may be changing. City government seems to recognize the problem; Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver speaks openly of the need for equity in a system that numbers more than 1,700 parks, 1,000 playgrounds and covers 29,000 acres.

In his talk to the volunteers, Silver cited some shocking statistics; 215 city parks had received less than $250,000 in improvements over the last 20 years. That figure is especially disturbing when you realize how little $250,000 gets you in park improvements: new playground equipment, sprinklers, new surfacing and benches can cost several million dollars.

To overhaul all 215 parks would cost $1 billion, something not possible without a dramatic infusion of money. As a first step, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Silver last October announced that 35 of these parks would divide $130 million for renovations. And because the work isn’t expected to be completed until December 2017  Silver said Saturday that the department carry out some smaller improvement more quickly.

Parks get a smaller share of budget

Clearly this should be the start of bigger changes. The fact is, when it comes to parks, New York City aims to be world class, but lags behind when it comes to investing in our parks. As someone who has volunteered in parks for more than two decades, it’s clear the fault is not with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The blame goes to our elected officials and ultimately us – the people who elect them.

Central Park

A massive restoration of Central Park, including Bethesda Fountain, was carried out in recent decades by donations from wealthy New Yorkers. Photo credit: Central Park Conservancy

New York City spends less per person than many other American cities. What’s more park expenditures have declined as a New York City government priority through the decades. Our parks get 0.56 percent of the city’s budget, less than half the figure of 50 years ago, Heather Lubov, City Park Foundation executive director, told the assembled park volunteers Saturday.

In recent years, many park advocates and some elected officials have called for a more spending to close the gaps between parks in wealthy neighborhoods and the rest of the city. It’s been a long time coming. The last concerted effort to increase park spending was in a 2001, a campaign to increase city spending on parks to one percent of New York’s budget. The effort seemed to be gaining ground until September 11, when the city’s priorities suddenly changed.

Park spending in Mayor de Blasio recently proposed city budget would increase 3.6 percent, the same amount as the overall spending plan. The Gotham Gazette reported, however, that the budget would cut the number of the department’s park enforcement patrol officers, gardeners, urban park rangers, and maintenance workers. This is clearly a first draft and subject to change before the city’s overall budget for the coming year is approved. We will keep you posted on park spending and how you can have your say.

Building transit for NYC’s future and cutting congestion, too

Fair Plan

A mix of new tolls and lower tolls would produce much needed money to improve New York’s transit system.

It’s not often we point to the New York Post for a socially and environmentally progressive idea, but in all fairness this op-ed article is that.

It supports the Move New York Fair Plan, which through a mix of new tolls on some bridges, lower tolls on others and tolls remaining unchanged elsewhere, would pump much needed money into New York’s transit system.

And if there was any doubt that the system needs improvement, this past winter full of subway breakdowns and delays should erase them. The Fair Plan is the brainchild of transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, a former NYC  Trafffic Commissioner and the man behind the Gridlock Sam column in the Daily News.

Planet NYC wrote about the proposal a year ago. If you missed it, the plan is worth reading about now. More important, it’s worth doing.