This episode considers the future of forests and what equity and repair in land management could and should look like. We start with a roundtable on the future of urban forestry in New York City with advocates from the Forest For All NYC coalition. In part two, ecologists and educators Dr. Angelica Patterson and Dr. Suzanne Pierre discuss the intersection of climate change and human inequality.
Diya Vij (DV): This is The Last Stand podcast, a mini-series on the social life of forests, reparative land management, and just climate futures on the occasion of Creative Time’s newest public art commission, Kamala Sankaram’s experimental opera of the same name.
Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world, and even in outer space. We work with artists to contribute to dialogue and debate on the most pressing issues of our times, and to foster dreams for our collective future.
Kamala Sanakaram is a composer and performer, moving freely between the worlds of experimental music and contemporary opera. Expanding over five parts and ten hours, Sankaram’s The Last Stand invites us into 300 years of sonic history told entirely through field recordings. As the years unfold, the human impact on the forest becomes visceral: species disappear, storms intensify, and the drone of highways and planes becomes constant. At the heart of The Last Stand is the fundamental truth that our planetary survival depends on collaboration with our natural neighbors.
Welcome to The Last Stand podcast. I’m Diya Vij, Creative Time’s curator and your host.
This episode considers the future of forests and what equity and repair in land management could and should look like. We start with a roundtable on the future of urban forestry in New York City with advocates from the Forest For All coalition.[music interlude]
Alexander Bender (AB): My name is Alexander Bender. I’m the co-founder and managing partner at Tri-Lox. We are the New York City sustainable wood resource. We do design and fabrication projects and offer an array of sustainably sourced and handcrafted wood products for architectural and furniture applications, and we are in Brooklyn, New York City.
Villarrubia (NV): My name is Nelson Villarrubia, I’m the executive director of Trees New York. Our mission is really to train and mobilize volunteers to care for New York City’s urban forest and plant trees.
Lindsay Campbell (LC): I’m Lindsay Campbell. I’m with the USDA Forest Service. We have a Northern research station. I’m a research social scientist. Here in New York, the Forest Service doesn’t own or manage any land, but we partner with the city, like the New York City Parks Department, with NGOs, with universities to understand the city as a social ecological system. And so a lot of my work focuses on stewardship, people’s relationship to the urban environment, and environmental governance.
Joe Chara (JC): My name is Joe Chara and I’m the Director of Horticulture at the Greenwood Cemetery, which is a 478 acre cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. We’re really interested in trying to figure out how to manage Greenwood, not only as an urban forest, but as an urban grassland, and consider the impact that our landscape management practices have on the greater community of Sunset Park and beyond.
Tami Lin-Moges (TL): Hi, my name’s Tami Lin-Moges. I am with The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization that’s focused on conserving water and land on which all life depends, and that definitely includes people. I am the Deputy Director of our city’s program in New York.
And, you know, for us at the city’s program, we really focus on building healthy cities that are prepared to face a new climate reality. And over the past two years, we’ve been working on this initiative called future forest NYC, which has really focused on how to better protect, maintain, and grow New York city’s urban forest. It’s a coalition that we have formed over the past two years and is made up of different sectors: public, private, and government entities, all working together to advance the shared vision for the urban forest.
And some of the goals that we have is that we would like to advocate for a 30% canopy cover by 2035. That is an increase from our current goal of 22%. And that is an ambitious goal. But to do that, there are many things that we would like to see happen and the coalition is working towards. One is creating a long-term master plan for the urban forest on both public and private land. We would love to see an increase and more equal distribution of funding for trees. We want to strengthen regulations around trees that relate to protection, maintenance, and growth. We want to cultivate urban forestry careers and invest in workforce development opportunities in this industry as well.
AB: We have almost 7 million trees in New York City and they are composed of different areas of the city. How do those different areas impact the way that we manage these trees?
NV: One of the interesting things about thinking of New York City’s urban forest is it’s something that a lot of people don’t think about until they’re introduced to the concept and introduced to trees in the urban forest. Once they understand a little bit more about the tree or the trees on their block they start, it opens up a new world for them. So once they don’t just see the tree in front of their house, but they now see this Honey Locust, and there’s Pin Oak. They start viewing this urban forest differently and it starts coming together, so we start looking at how the natural and the built environment work together.
TL: The 8.8 million people in New York City rely on the 7 million trees here to survive and vice versa. The trees rely on people to take care of them as well. So our survival and our ability to thrive are really intrinsically connected. And so that’s why we really need to make sure that we’re continuing to invest in this asset and invest in the maintenance and invest in the people who take care of these assets as well.
And adding to, kind of, think about where trees are physically located, I think a lot of people think of trees on streets and in parks and the natural forest areas throughout the city as well. But, you know, just to give a few numbers, about 53% of our urban forest canopy— think of canopy as the cover, not the individual stands, but we’re the shape that the trees provide—, 53% of it is managed by New York City Parks. But the rest of it is not. About 35% of it is on private property. So that spans on single family homes, private institutions, campuses, you know, apartment buildings that might have some green space and have trees on their properties as well. The balance of it is a mix of other city agencies, federal and state properties in the city as well.
But again, think about the 35%, that is really up to each homeowner and property owner to take care of. And right now there really is this real mix of managers and owners of where trees are, and that also sometimes leads to a really, you know, uncertain future for the urban forest. So a lot of those trees could be removed at any time, and they’re not protected. And so when we think about the future of the urban forest, we really want to think: how can we better protect, maintain, and grow the urban forest as a whole, too?
LC: Trees in the city are a space or a place where we can express our care and our concern for our neighbors, our non-human neighbors, our communities. It’s sort of a third space, you know, especially as we’re all pent up in our, in our homes, where we can come together and do collective work sort of beyond the private sphere.
And there’s a lot of research that shows that tree planting and tree care can be an on-ramp to other forms of civic engagement and activism. And also that stewardship has a role to play in the long-term recovery from disasters and disturbances. So they’re all of these, all these obvious air quality, water quality noise, sort of biophysical buffering, but they’re also really enmeshed in our, in our social systems as well.
AB: Joe, I wonder if maybe you could speak a little bit about managing a large area of land with climate change in mind. I know you guys have done a bunch of interesting research on this, and having the benefit of a controlled, defined area as a way to model what could happen in a larger area or thinking about it on a wider level for our whole urban forest, here in New York City.
JC: At Greenwood, we most acutely are aware of the fact that there may be social impediments or cultural impediments, that for those in our community, to access Greenwood as a green space, or to accept it as one, we sort of recognize that. Our goal is to really avail the community of what we have at Greenwood: over 8,000 trees, a wide variety of species, and documentation on those trees.
We’ve started a partnership with you guys, at Tri-Lox about reclaiming and milling the wood that we removed from Greenwood. That’s such a representative project of a lot of the things that we’re trying to do at Greenwood because it removes, you know, we have to remove large trees every now and again, and we ship the wood and we deliver it to compost facilities throughout the city. But if we could reclaim that wood and use it for both educational purposes and potential reuse, it provides a much more robust avenue than just putting it in compost facilities or in the dump.
TL: As we’re planning and designing and building our cities under extreme climate variation, we have to plan for multiple forms of disturbance, and we can’t only adapt to the prior disturbance. And in doing that, we have to prioritize the most urgent needs and the voice of frontline communities in that work. And our research, our social science research, has found that local stewardship groups are really important and that they foster social cohesion and social trust. Those are some of the building blocks that we need to invest in in order to be resilient to any disturbance, whether it’s a heat wave or a flood or a pandemic.
So, just really emphasizing that, yes, we need to rework these whole infrastructural systems, but we also need to invest in human capacity in fostering local leadership. In thinking about that whole system of stewardship, where we have capacity, where we have gaps and how we can take a community forestry approach, to work really thoughtfully in that context. So I just wanted to sort of tie together some of the equity questions and some of the climate crisis questions. They sort of come together in how we engage communities in their place and sort of center their voice and action.
LC: I think that we need to re-center the role of community in urban and community forestry. That is our field, urban and community forestry. Sometimes it becomes this shorthand of urban forestry, which is a bit more technocratic. And we need that technical expertise, yes, but we also need to really think about the power dynamics that are involved in decision-making, in the way resources flow, you know, what Nelson described as sort of showing up in a community, building relationships with people in place, centering the voice and priorities of the folks that live in that place. That’s a paradigm shift. That’s a way of doing community forestry that not everyone does. It’s in our roots, it’s what community forestry looks like in the global south. But, can we take the best of our sort of highly professionalized approach to green infrastructure, but also truly marry it with a community forestry approach that is a bit more bottom up?
You know, as a federal agency, president Biden made the recent executive order that said we have to look at the racial equity implications of all federal programs. Well, that includes our urban and community forestry program. That includes research and development, so I see that as a call to action, you know, for all feds to really think critically about how they’re going about this work. You know, I wrote about this in my book about the million trees campaign. You can plant a million trees with robots, you can plant a million trees with paid workers, you can plant a million trees with volunteers, you can plant a million trees in a workforce development context. Where you plant those trees, how you plant those trees, with whom, and under what decision-making context makes all the difference in how, sort of, power is shared and what ends are achieved.
NV: The days of a politician or an elected just showing up with a shovel and a film crew to plant a tree is over. That hasn’t worked and planting a tree alone doesn’t mean that that’s where it ends. That’s really the very, very beginning of this whole equity issue and addressing climate change. It’s really what Alexander just we’re just talking about is like management and maintenance through the whole life cycle of the tree. So it’s really about thinking from that beginning point to that end point and working with the community to do that.
TL: All of these issues are very interconnected and all of these are very intersectional too. Right? We talk about environmental justice or climate vulnerable communities, and that we already know that those are the same areas that are disproportionately affected by high incidence of air pollution and respiratory illnesses and extreme heat too. And these were the same communities that have been saying this for a very long time and have been advocating for themselves for a very long time, too. And we’re seeing that that also connects with the environment, right? And I do think that it requires a huge paradigm shift, you know, and I think one of the things that, you know, our Forests For All NYC coalition is advocating for is that we need a long-term plan for the urban forest on both public and private property. And it really takes all of these issues into account and not just looks at a very top-down approach of, “we need trees, this is how you maintain it.” Yes, we need that. But also we want to make sure that the process in creating this plan is also equitable and that we have those diverse and inclusive voices at the table and have those communities there and be able to advocate on these issues and really think about this holistically as a, “what is it that they need in their communities?”
Original story here.