Three years after the mayor set an ambitious goal of planting 10,000 trees in five years, New Haven has come nowhere near meeting that target—and may even be losing more trees than it’s gaining.
Thanks to a combination of tightened budgets and powerful storms that have downed or damaged more trees than usual, the 10,000-tree goal is likely out of reach, at least within five years.
The city is still committed to meeting the 10,000-tree target, but it will take more time than originally intended, said Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts.
In October 2009, Mayor John DeStefano announced that the city would pay for the planting of 1,000 trees each year for the next five years. The plan called for another 1,000 trees per year to be planted with private funding.
After the first year of the program, however, the city cut funding by two-thirds in a tight budget year. Only 333 trees were planted. The following year, funding was increased, to half of the original, enough to pay for planting 500 trees.
In the meantime the city parks department removes about 500 trees a year, Smuts said. That number includes only “planned removals,” not the extra trees that come down during major storms, of which the past three years have seen several.
The original goal of the 10,000-tree plan was to increase the city’s tree canopy, Smuts said. Tightening budgets have forced the city to “contract back to what would be a replacement level,” that is, replacing trees that die or fall down, rather than increasing the net total of trees in the city.
“We packaged it as a five-year, 10,000-tree campaign,” Smuts said. “We have to modify that packaging, but the overall goal is still there.”
For half of the 10,000-tree push, the city has been encouraging private parties to plant trees of their own, by conducting site-plan reviews for new development projects and by working with larger entities like power companies, Smuts said. He said it’s been difficult to keep a count on the privately planted trees.
“It’s been hard to get a good number on that just because of the nature of it,” Smut said. He said the city relied on Urban Resources Initiative (URI) to keep count.
“It’s a really common challenge to figure out how to track the privately planted ones,” said URI chief Colleen Murphy-Dunning. URI has worked with the city to reach the 10,000-tree goal.
New York City, which has been working towards a million-tree goal under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has had similar problems, she said. Even global tree-planting efforts like the United Nations one-billion-tree program have trouble with “verification,” she said.
It’s also hard to track all the trees the city plants, Murphy-Dunning said. When the 10,000 tree goal was established, URI was counting trees it planted in coordination with the parks department. But recently URI has started working with the traffic and parking department, to plant 40 trees on the Boulevard near I-95, for instance. Do those count toward the 10,000-tree total?
“There’s a little bit of an accounting question,” Murphy-Dunning said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Murphy-Dunning (at right in photo) was on Fitch Street, where a crew of Southern Connecticut State University students worked with URI trainees to plant three cherry trees and a Turkish filbert tree between the sidewalk and the road.
The plantings there are the result of a conversation with Jim Travers (at left), the city’s traffic chief, about slowing cars down on Fitch Street, and work done by Southern faculty member Suzie Huminski and her students. The students went door to door in September on Fitch Street to find people willing to care for trees. Buy-in from neighbors is a prerequisite for URI plantings.
As Southern students dug a hole nearby, Murphy-Dunning listed some of the many benefits of planting trees in cities. In addition to helping to add color and “soften an urban landscape,” trees can increase property values. They can also mitigate the “heat island” effect of paved areas, where lots of asphalt can raise the ambient temperature of a city. Treeshelp reduce stormwater runoff by directing more water down into the ground. Trees improve air quality by trapping airborne particles with their leaves.
Trees can also help slow traffic, said Travers, who showed up to see the planting on Fitch Street. And they can lead to an increase in walking: a tree-lined “corridor” is more inviting to pedestrians than a bleak street, he said. “It’s adds so much value to the neighborhood.”
More and more cities are buying into tree-planting programs as science shows that trees aren’t just for show but may be essential for a community’s long-term viability, Murphy-Dunning said.
She said New Haven has done what it can do during difficult financial times to continue to support tree-plainting: “They could have zeroed it out.”
Murphy-Dunning said she’s confident the city will meet it’s 10,000-tree target. But it will take longer than five years.
Whether the city will see a net gain or loss after 10,000 trees are planted, she said, remains to be seen.