Arborist Exchange to the Wilds and Streets of NYC

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Durable tree tags support public awareness of tree planting efforts and are integral to the system used to track watering by contractors. Photos by Marty Frye 

The Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA), with funding from the Urban Forest Foundation, sponsors municipal arborist exchanges. The purpose is to create a way for municipal arborists to exchange urban forestry expertise, management ideas, and technology through in-person contact and on-site experience. What better way to find out how other forestry practitioners operate than to spend time with each other?

In the past year, NYC’s Director of Street Tree Planting Matthew Stephens visited Casey Trees in Washington, D.C. (you can read about his experiences here) and Casey Trees Arborist for Residential Plantings Marty Frye came to NYC Parks. Here’s what Marty learned from his time in the City. [Side note: The SMA is exploring opening up the exchange to utility arborists and to nonprofit community forestry professionals.]

Marty Frye headshot
Marty Frye

Marty Frye: 

New York City Parks is exemplifying what strong, informed municipal work in the public interest should look like. I had the distinct pleasure of spending time with members of the New York City Parks Department, digging into the nuts and bolts of how this work gets done. I also had the opportunity to compare both the wild side of the “back woods” of New York with its street side counterpart. This arborist exchange was professionally exhilarating and left me craving more knowledge.

A treatment area of Alley Pond in early stages of regrowth after native herbaceous seeding and tree planting. This area was once a giant swath of invasive vines.
A treatment area of Alley Pond in early stages of regrowth after native herbaceous seeding and tree planting. This area was once a giant swath of invasive vines.

The first stop on my tour of the greener side of NYC was the Alley Pond Park natural area at the outskirts of the borough of Queens. Most of my visits to New York land me towards the center of the city, so getting to explore a vast natural area at the city’s edge gave me a fresh perspective of the Big Apple.

Entrance to the Alley Pond natural area and Christina Pedros, one of Marty’s superb hosts during the exchange.
Entrance to the Alley Pond natural area and Christina Pedros, one of Marty’s superb hosts during the exchange.

My guides for the day were Christina Pedros and Kip Stein, who were both excited to share their work with me. Christina and Kip are foresters with the Department of Parks responsible for the ecological restoration of degraded lands. With them, I got the chance to walk through part of the many-hundred acres of Alley Pond and see the NYC Parks restoration regime in three different stages of progress.

The three different phases were roughly 10 acres (4 ha) each. Most notable in their process was the commitment to site preparation. Two years of mowing and herbicide application comes before a seed or tree is even put in the ground. I was also excited to see very successful seeding of native wildflowers, which gave an excellent cover to the soil between the roughly four-foot-tall (1.2 m) trees planted four feet on center. Such dense planting combined with the wildflower seeding seemed to be doing a great job, and invasive vine presence was little to absent.

Through many years of doing this work, NYC Parks has developed a thorough process for reliably restoring native biodiversity and suppressing the pressure from invasive species, as demonstrated by their work at Alley Pond. Alley Pond is the second largest park in Queens and its value as an urban natural area is clear. There, just a few hundred yards from a roaring highway, I got the sense that I was outside of the city. In comparing the degraded vinelands to the areas in restoration, it was clear that the site truly was being improved and that the hope of restoring robust ecological function and biodiversity to severely impacted urban sites is more than just a dream.

Matt Stephens
Matthew Stephens

For the remainder of my two days in New York, NYC Parks Director of Street Tree Planting Matthew Stephens served as a gracious host and diligent imparter of knowledge and perspective. With Matthew I got the chance to tour various iterations of street tree plantings, take a look at some higher-dollar planting projects funded through public-private partnership, and get a peek at their data and project management processes.

What stood out most with the City’s street tree work was, as with their restoration work, a commitment to thorough site preparation. Tree boxes were first widened to 5 by 10 feet (1.5 by 3 m). On the day of planting, tree boxes are then completely excavated and soil is replaced with a prepared mix of sifted site soil, sand, and organic matter. High standards for nursery stock and a tree selection system that tailors species choices to one of eighteen urban “biotopes” helps ensure that the trees are primed for success. The process was further bolstered by a strong system of contractor management and third-party verification to ensure that standards are being maintained.

Successful street tree plantings. New tree boxes were cut at locations significantly set back from the curb to minimize damage caused by activity close to the street.
Successful street tree plantings. New tree boxes were cut at locations significantly set back from the curb to minimize damage caused by activity close to the street.

Newer plantings were adorned with a durable aluminum tag used by watering contractors to verify that they have visited and watered the trees. A QR code is scanned by the contractor and watering data can be tracked back in the office in real time. The proof is in the pudding and sure enough, plantings at six-plus years old were showing strong growth and low mortality numbers. Seeing significant canopy on streets with plantings under a decade old makes this work feel all the more worthwhile. I was excited to hear that ~45% of street tree plantings city-wide are actually resident requests, suggesting that residents, too, are excited about trees.

Investment in a typical street tree in New York City is already quite high compared to other municipalities and cities. But I also got the chance to tour some plantings that took it to the next level. Matthew Stephens’s side project is running the New York Tree Trust, a non-profit that is able to leverage funding and community support to provide for advances in the NYC urban forest.

The Tree Trust projects that I witnessed were able to use funding from businesses and residents to conduct more intensive site preparation for planting. In one case, structural soils covered with pervious surface lined the planting strips for blocks at the heart of the city. Only time will tell, but I will be excited to revisit these sites and check for increased growth rates. It is clear that partnerships involving public, private, and non-profit entities can yield novel new funding models and create planting projects that may never have happened otherwise.

In addition to geeking out about tree box sizes and methods of seeding wildflowers, there were some other notable moments of my trip. I got to sit in on a conference call with the urban forestry office of Melbourne, Australia, where they discussed a new method for inventorying the expected life spans of their existing trees. I had the opportunity to present to Matthew’s staff on my own work with Casey Trees managing our residential planting programs. (The difference in average residential yard size in New York City compared to Washington, D.C. is, of course, drastic.) I was also thoroughly impressed with the geospatial information software that NYC Parks has developed in-house.

Trees planted near the heart of New York City. A long strip of structural soil as well as iron tree guards and good mulching practice should provide for some very healthy urban trees.
Trees planted near the heart of New York City. A long strip of structural soil as well as iron tree guards and good mulching practice should provide for some very healthy urban trees.

New Yorkers often seem to think they are the first or the best at anything and I will admit that New York City Parks sets a high bar for urban forestry work. Both in their restoration planting and their work in intensively urbanized settings, they maintain high standards and continue to innovate. Their commitment to making the urban forest both viable in the center city, as well as ecologically robust in large parcels off the beaten track, is particularly commendable. Many thanks to my chief host Matthew Stephens, as well as to Christina and Kip for a fun and informative couple of days, and to the SMA for making this rich Arborist Exchange possible. I look forward to continuing my own arboricultural work in the spirit of knowledge-sharing that defines this exchange program.

Thank you to those SMA members who support the Urban Forest Foundation and the annual conference silent auction and 50/50 raffle, all of which make the Arborist Exchange possible.

 

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