The Social Cost of Planting Trees

October 20th, 2011

I recently read Henry Kissinger’s new book about China. As part of the Communist approach to central planning, the party rewards people for planting trees–not cultivating trees, taking care of trees, or tending them; just planting them. So what do you think happens? People plant as many trees as possible, and then they die, become rotten, and harm the area. Stupid central planning.

Looks like there is a similar problem in New York. Mayor Bloomberg initiated a Million Trees Campaign that only focuses on planting new trees. Shocker, similarities between Maoist central planning and New York City.

That is what New York City has been aiming to do, and as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg installed the 500,000th tree in St. Nicholas Park in Upper Manhattan on Tuesday — reaching the halfway point in the Million Trees campaign — officials extolled the role of trees in making the city more sustainable. Trees help fight asthma, reduce storm water runoff, absorb carbon dioxide and lower ambient temperatures.

The Million Trees campaign, which is a year ahead of schedule, is a partnership between New York City and a nonprofit agency founded by Bette Midler, the New York Restoration Project. The city is overseeing new trees on streets and in parks, which will make up most of the plantings. The Restoration Project, meanwhile, is focusing its efforts on libraries, churches, cemeteries and housing projects, while encouraging New Yorkers to plant trees in their own yards through tree giveaways.

But there is a (not unforseeable) problem:

But as callery pears, honey locusts and white pines grow in all five boroughs — on sidewalks, along medians and in parks — so, too, have New Yorkers’ grumblings.

Residents worry that the saplings will eventually lead to buckling sidewalks, dangling limbs, excessive shade and leaf litter, among other things. Three of the top five categories of parks-related calls to 311, the city’s help line, involved complaints about trees. One Queens homeowner begged the city not to plant a tree in front of her house by arguing that her dog would get confused by the introduction of a new smell; she got a tree anyway.

Even elected officials who profess a love of trees say they fear that the city may not be putting the necessary resources into caring for the trees once they are planted. They cite instances of premature deaths, as well as a pruning backlog, made worse by recent budget cuts. The regular pruning cycle of street trees is now once every 15 years to 20 years, down from once every 7 years.

“I’m all about trees — trust me,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, a city councilman who represents western Queens. “But we’re not going to get what we want unless we commit to the ongoing maintenance of these trees as they grow older. These are tough economic times, but more trees means more maintenance and pruning. It’s got to mean that.”