Tree-Planting Goal Slips Out Of Reach

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThree 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.”

Who’s Counting?

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.

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posted by: robn on November 15, 2012  5:01pm

My gosh, you mean a politician was hyperbolic about a tree planting program?
Its still a good program and better than losing trees every year because of planting nothing.

posted by: anonymous on November 15, 2012  11:25pm

What a disaster. New Haven won’t improve until it actually begins meeting these goals. The Board of Aldermen should be voted out if they don’t correct this negative trend line immediately.

Worse still, the problems of a poor tree canopy disproportionately impact residents of the Hill and Fair Haven, not our better off neighborhoods. The people in charge of the city budget all live in neighborhoods like Westville and are not impacted.

Planting a healthy tree canopy over time is not terribly expensive and is by far the most cost effective thing that a city can do, for the reasons URI explains. It should be #1 on the priority list.

No elected official can be serious about improving the fiscal health of this City unless they take this issue seriously.

posted by: Seth Poole on November 15, 2012  11:52pm

We must all do our part.  I am at 12 trees & counting.

posted by: Pat from Westville on November 16, 2012  6:52am

a tree-lined “corridor” is more inviting to pedestrians than a bleak street, he said.

And the upper stretch of Whalley Avenue that was recently widened? True, trees were planted along one side. But the opposite side now has a new continuous multi-block sidewalk without the canopy of trees that were totally demolished in the first phase of the project. Not inviting at all.

posted by: anonymous on November 16, 2012  9:21am

Pat - the newly-widened Whalley Avenue (which should be renamed DeStefano highway, after the person who went ahead with the project with no changes even after hundreds of neighbors protested) is an absolute, unmitigated disaster. All the gains that the city has made in parts of downtown have been wiped out by poor decisions like this one. The widened Route 34 will be even worse.

And you’re right, the tree canopy is the single most important physical feature in our city, perhaps even more important than having sidewalks - for example, nobody in their right mind walks down Route 34 on a hot summer day but you’ll see many people walking along shaded streets with generous street trees. Unfortunately everyone at City Hall drives everywhere, which explains why they have failed to meet their promises and why they want to widen every road in town.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on November 16, 2012  11:59am

It’s a great program and I’ve participated in it both as a volunteer and a recipient. I hope it continues and expands, but to say that this should be the top priority of the Board of Alderman is off-base. The tree-planting program will continue to grow and expand as employment & job security grow & expand.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on November 16, 2012  12:05pm

18 new trees trees around my area and my main reason of doing this effort; mother nature brings people together and she keep us healthy mined.

posted by: Martha Smith on November 16, 2012  1:54pm

Sadly, my URI planted tree, thriving until it was destroyed in the recent snowstorm, is one of many to be replaced.

There are so many benefits when New Haven increases its tree canopy.  Walkability is one.  On a hot summer day, I’ll cross the street to walk on the shady side.
People in air conditioned cars can’t understand the HUGE difference between walking on a tree shaded sidewalk or on a tree-less barren stretch where the heat beats down from above and is reflected from pavement and sidewalks below.

We are lucky to have URI advocating for more New Haven trees.

posted by: Jessica Feinleib on November 17, 2012  7:29am

URI is leading the way forward.  If anyone is moved by this news then they should mobilize their neighbors, friends and family and contact URI for planting opportunities.  If we all work together we can reverse this situation.

posted by: anonymous on November 19, 2012  11:24am

SteveOnAnderson, short of the government paying more people to have jobs, and/or radical changes to Federal policy that make us more like Germany (both of which, in many cases, I strongly support), I think that you have the situation backwards in New Haven.

Perhaps there are street trees in the neighborhood where you live (Anderson Street is beautiful, for example).  But not all people in New Haven are as lucky as you.  Spend a day walking around the Hill when it is 100 degrees out.

Our employment & job security will grow & expand only as much as we meet our most basic goals on social infrastructure such as tree planting, keeping transit service at current levels, and including more diverse voices in the power structure of our city.

It is an absolute travesty that City Hall has been so far away from meeting its own goals for more than a decade now. It’s also sad that the policies of the new Board of Aldermen seem to be making things much worse.  Comments like yours are surely well meaning (and perhaps more relevant at a Federal level), but on the ground here in New Haven, they are sending us in the wrong direction and causing a continuing loss of jobs from our declining neighborhoods.

As Martha points out, if you don’t have street trees, you don’t walk on that side of the street. Among other things, that means that you have no jobs there. It is as simple as that.

If the Board of Aldermen cared about jobs for residents (not just for Union members), they would make these things their absolute top priority - and they certainly haven’t yet.