The number of new trees planted across New York City’s public spaces fell to the lowest level in 15 years, the latest sign that Mayor Eric Adams is failing to keep pace with the growing calls to expand the urban forest.
In the first four months of the fiscal year, which began in July, the city’s parks department planted 2,748 new trees, a 45% drop-off from the same time period in the previous year, according to a report released this week that tracks the performance of municipal agencies.
The total represents the fewest trees planted over that period since 2008, when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg first announced an ambitious program to plant 1 million trees across the five boroughs as a bulwark against intensifying heat waves and storms.
In the years since, as new research has reinforced the role of greenery in absorbing the city’s human-caused emissions, local officials and environmentally conscious New Yorkers have pushed the Adams administration to think big about expanding the city’s tree canopy.
But the mayor, who did not meet a campaign promise to double funding for the parks department, has so far resisted those goals, which could see the city plant another 1 million trees by the end of the decade. Instead, he has budgeted for approximately 20,000 trees annually, a slight dip from prior years.
As it stands, his administration does not appear on track to meet that modest goal. According to the figures from the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, the parks department planted just 500 trees on city streets and around 2,200 in parks and natural spaces in the first four months of the fiscal year.
“The city has to scale up, but they’re not even maintaining the status quo,” said Timon McPhearson, the director of the Urban Systems Lab at the New School. “This is really a problem if we want to deal with rising heat, rising stormwater and the fact that not everyone has access to the benefits of the trees in the city.”
At the same time, maintenance of the city’s existing tree stock has fallen precipitously, after the indictment of a key contractor forced the suspension for pruning services in Queens and Brooklyn for much of the last year. Fewer than 5,000 street trees received pruning during the four-month period covered by the report, compared to more than 18,000 trees in the previous period – a form of neglect that can lead to falling branches, particularly during storms.
Dan Kastanis, a spokesperson for the city’s parks department, said the declines in tree planting were partly attributed to weather patterns, after a mild autumn necessitated a later start to the planting season.
He declined to say if the city would hit the 20,000 tree total this year, but said the agency hoped to surpass its previous total of planting more than 13,000 trees on city streets, with a focus on lower-income, heat-vulnerable neighborhoods. Additional trees are also planned for parks and other wooded areas.
Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, called the current rate of new trees “disappointing,” adding that it underscored the need for increased funding to the parks department.
While the mayor dedicated a little over $600 million toward parks last year, the loss of federal stimulus money and city budget cuts has led to the elimination of roughly 500 positions.
His preliminary budget for this coming year calls for further cuts to parks department spending, amounting to roughly half of the $1 billion allotment Adams promised on the campaign trail.
“It’s basically staffing and resources,” Ganser said. “What we’re seeing is an investment in parks that gives us some hope, but at the same time we’re seeing the elimination of so many unfilled positions that there’s a lot of treading water.”
Others have pointed to the ballooning costs of basic garden work, after agency leaders testified last year that the cost of planting a single tree had grown to $3,600.
The problem stems in part from the limited number of contractors available to perform tree work. After landscaping firm Dragonetti Brothers was indicted in a massive insurance fraud scam, the city was forced to suspend pruning services in Brooklyn and Queens for most of last year, Brooklyn Paper first reported.
Despite the legal problems, the city went back to the scandal-scarred contractor, awarding them several multimillion-dollar pruning contracts. Dragonetti Brothers' work in Brooklyn resumed earlier this month.
In an email to Gothamist, Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who chairs the Parks Committee, said the city’s “reliance on deeply problematic tree contractors like the Dragonetti Brothers [that has] further aggravated this situation and the delays.”
“The mayor has fallen so far behind on their planting and maintenance, and even further behind on his promise to provide 1% of the city's budget for our parks,” he added. “I, and the entire City Council, look forward to holding the mayor accountable as we negotiate a budget on behalf of New Yorkers who love and deserve their green space."
A previous version of this story included an incorrect reference to the cost of tree planting in Jersey City. The figure has been removed.