As Climate Change Intensifies Heat and Flooding, New Study Characterizes the Urban Forest of New York City, Highlighting Vulnerabilities and Opportunities for This Essential City Infrastructure
November 12, 2021 | New York, NY— The Nature Conservancy in New York has released a first-of-its-kind report, The State of the Urban Forest in NYC, evaluating the New York City urban forest through multiple lenses, and establishing a common baseline understanding of this vital resource. The urban forest in New York City is composed of more than 7 million trees, as well as the associated physical and social infrastructure that supports it. Amidst trends of urban forest loss nationwide, this new report suggests that New York has an opportunity to lead cities across the country in establishing innovative and ambitious approaches to caring for its tree canopy. Due to its ability to reduce the urban heat island effect and energy demand, retain stormwater, and absorb and store greenhouse gases while providing habitat for biodiversity, the urban forest can help the city and its residents address the challenges of climate change. Yet, as the report highlights, climate change is also a leading threat to the NYC urban forest, exposing trees to the stress of rising temperatures and increasingly frequent and intense of extreme weather events. Disparate and at times insufficient funding, management, and protection also jeopardize the forest’s future.
Emily Nobel Maxwell, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Cities Program in New York said, “We offer this report to help a cross section of audiences including policymakers, land managers, advocacy groups, and researchers better understand this important asset so they may support, cultivate, and drive policies and practices that will allow it to thrive and promote equity, justice, and quality of life. That is essential work, as the myriad of benefits the forest offers New Yorkers include the ability to mitigate the effects of extreme heat and flooding. As New Yorkers and their urban forest face the realities of climate change, these benefits and the future of our urban forest itself are at serious risk.”
The report offers fresh and at times surprising insights into policy related to the forest as well as into the forest’s distribution, management, funding, and social context. The comprehensive and unique synthesis offered by the report draws from and overlays existing research and data on trees and their canopy in New York City, with information on land use and ownership, neighborhood socioeconomic status, and public funding. Key findings include:
- Despite citywide efforts to maintain tree cover and ongoing strategic tree planting in individual neighborhoods, many areas are still lagging in canopy cover. Moreover, the positive trends are not guaranteed to continue without ongoing and increasing care, protection, and investment.
- Stemming in part from historic policies and zoning, there is generally less canopy in lower-income communities and communities of color—this despite of recent efforts to plant more trees in these communities. Historical inequities have led to an uneven distribution in the benefits of the urban forest. The recently planted trees are generally still small, needing stewardship and time to provide their full benefits.
- Climate change poses a major threat to the urban forest—localized loss in tree canopy often appears to be associated with extreme weather events which are projected to become more frequent and more intense; rising temperatures can make trees more susceptible to threats such as pests and diseases.
- Just over half of the urban forest, based on the distribution of canopy, is within the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and therefore afforded ongoing management and some requirements for replacement if removed. The remainder, however, most of it on private properties, generally has few to no protections. From 2010–2017, there was a decrease in forested natural areas within private property.
- Budget data from approximately the last 15 years shows that funding for the urban forest in NYC is highly variable, short-term, and insufficient to meet the ongoing needs of the resource, though recent related City initiatives and approaches could help address this if sustained.
- Parts of the NYC urban forest are cared for by a wide variety of entities and individuals, including public agencies such as the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, private arboriculture firms, property owners, and volunteer stewards. More resources are needed for this important sector which can support both the urban forest and economic development, while offering fulfilling career opportunities for New Yorkers.
As the most populous city in the United States and with 520 miles of coastline, New York City is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including increasing temperatures, more frequent and intense storms, and rising sea levels. While the NYC urban forest faces threats from climate change, maintaining and expanding this resource presents an important opportunity to ensure that all New Yorkers benefit from the urban forest as it makes the city as a whole more resilient. Prior research led by the USDA Forest Service estimated benefits of the New York City urban forest to include the removal of 1,100 tons of pollutants, storage of 1.2 million tons of carbon, and carbon sequestration equivalent to taking over 38,300 cars off the road each year, as well as reducing energy costs citywide by an estimated $17.1 million for residential buildings.
“New York City has an incredible community of researchers and practitioners who have laid an invaluable foundation of work that we were able to build upon,” said Mike Treglia, Lead Scientist of The Nature Conservancy in New York’s Cities Program. “I hope the new analysis and synthesis offered by this report supports effective advocacy and policy, while making a case for ongoing research and monitoring of the urban forest.”
The State of the Urban Forest in NYC follows the spring 2021 release of the NYC Urban Forest Agenda by Forest for All NYC, a growing coalition of over 40 nonprofit, governmental, and for-profit organizations dedicated to justly and equitably protecting, maintaining, and expanding the New York City urban forest to benefit all New Yorkers. The reports are complementary and attest to the need for New York City to prioritize this critical resource by setting a target for the size of the overall tree canopy along with other citywide goals for the urban forest.
“It is important to understand the condition and context of the urban forest in order to more effectively and equitably manage it into the future,” said Lindsay Campbell, Research Social Scientist, USDA Forest Service, NYC Urban Field Station. “The State of the Urban Forest in NYC provides a synthesis of the state of the science and practice of urban and community forestry in New York City and provides insights to the Forest for All NYC Coalition and others working toward a resilient, just forest for all New Yorkers. In addition to understanding tree canopy, this report celebrates the people and organizations that care for and sustain the forest as stewards and activate our public realm to support community well-being.”
Sarah Charlop-Powers, Executive Director of Natural Areas Conservancy said, “The New York City urban forest is a vital, but often overlooked resource. The forest in New York City mirrors the complexity and diversity of its residents, and the State of the Urban Forest report offers a compelling and clear-eyed snapshot of the current condition, threats to forest health, and opportunities for investment and growth.”
“As the stewards of just over half of the City’s urban forest, we are proud to champion, protect, and look to expand this vital natural resource wherever possible,” said NYC Parks First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh. “The State of the Urban Forest in NYC is the first in-depth report of its kind, and we echo the call for all New Yorkers to work to support and sustain this vital living infrastructure.”
“Nature-based solutions are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for all communities. NYC’s urban forest helps mitigate disproportionate heat vulnerability and air quality issues, particularly in environmental justice communities that deal with lower canopy coverage stemming from inequitable historic policies and zoning,” said Annel Hernandez, Associate Director, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “The State of the Urban Forest in NYC report provides integral information to understand where we are today and where we need to go in order to grow and maintain a thriving urban forest. It is clear that to build a more resilient city, we need a healthy and equitable urban forest.”
To read The State of the Urban Forest in New York City, visit nature.org/ny. To learn more about Forest For All NYC and the NYC Urban Forest Agenda, visit ForestForAll.nyc. This project was made possible by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, The JPB Foundation, and Con Edison.
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About The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners.