By Len Maniace
This May’s census in New York City won’t be as historic as the one ordered by Caesar Augustus and later recounted in the Bible, nor as vast as the U.S. government’s decennial census.
Still, it would be a formidable challenge – counting every street tree from the northern tip of the Bronx to the southern tip of Staten Island, and from the eastern end of Queens to the westernmost point of, again, Staten Island.
From mid-May through the end of September and perhaps beyond, an army of citizen volunteers and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation will be counting each honey locust and London plane; every Ginkgo and sweet gum; in all, an estimated 170 tree species.
The mission is to document New York’s urban forest, specifically its hardiest and most-abused segment – street trees. With that information in hand, the city hopes to better care for and manage all these trees, as well as develop polices to make our city a more livable and environmentally friendly place.
NYC’s ambitious census
The 2005 Street Tree Census counted 592,130 trees. Based on a growing body of research, the city estimated those trees produced $122 million in annual environmental benefits, such things as cleaner air and water, cooler streets and homes, and the capture of carbon that otherwise would have contributed to global warming.
Armed with that data, Mayor Bloomberg launched the city’s Million Trees program, begun in 2007 and expected to be completed this fall. That census found 19 percent more street trees than the 498,470 counted in the 1995-1996 census.
The earlier census uncovered a hazardous situation on city streets, 10,000 dead trees, which led to an effort by the city to remove dead trees and prune street trees on regular basis.
Volunteers do most of the counting
The city is now recruiting community groups and individuals to volunteer for the census and will soon begin training them. Among the lessons to be taught: how to identify the tree species they are counting.
Tree species is one of 16 pieces of information to be gathered for each tree. Others include tree condition: is the tree dead, alive, are roots overgrown, is there evidence that trees are being care for? That last point makes a difference in the long-term survival of a street tree, said Katerli Bounds, the Parks Department’s Director of Stewardship; trees with three or more signs that they are regularly being cared generally will live longer.
“The fact that people are paying attention and know that the trees are there really does have an impact,” Bounds said
Parks expects anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 volunteers, many more than 10 years ago. The census will also benefit from digital communications improvements; it will rely on a smart phone app to provide satellite images of tree locations and to record tree data.
“In 2005 there weren’t smart phones,“ Bounds said. “It was all paper data collection, which meant we got Xeroxed copies of data sheets back at the end.”
How many more trees?
This year’s Census is expected to find another increase in street trees, largely because of the Million Trees program. That effort has planted 143,000 street trees to date; the rest going to parks, around schools and other institutions and on private property.
Perhaps out of caution officials are predicting only a modest, a total of somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000. Along with the natural loss as trees dying due to age, New York City was hit with unusually severe storms in recent years that upended a huge number of trees, Bounds said.
A tough life on the streets
“Hurricanes Irene and Sandy; there were tornadoes a few years ago; a couple of microbursts,” Bounds said. “There’s been all these extreme weather events so we know we’ve lost a significant number of trees.”
Those storm losses have not made the city less enthusiastic about street trees, however. When it comes to environmental benefits – as well as aesthetic and others that are hard to quantify – trees have a unique place in making cities livable, Bounds said.
“They are incredibly important pieces of the city’s infrastructure and it is very important for us to replace them,” Bounds said. “They cannot be replaced by any known technology.”
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