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.