Anyone who has planted and cared for a new tree knows that few things in life are as rewarding as this simple act. Planting day is unquestionably a stand back and be proud moment, but those of you who have planted one tree, or many, know that the real work (and appreciation) is just beginning. The watering, weeding, pruning, and care that is needed is an investment that will pay back dividends in seeing a tree grow bigger and bigger with each passing season.
I happen to fall into a special category of tree planters: someone who can take credit for having played a significant role in planting over one million trees. This is becoming less of an incredible accomplishment given many places are now planting millions or billions of trees to combat climate change. However, there are few who can claim such a large bounty in an urban area, and specifically New York City. Prior to becoming the current President & CEO at Mount Auburn Cemetery, I helped to lead MillionTreesNYC, an effort to plant one million trees throughout all of New York City between 2007 and 2015. We planted trees along streets, in parks, and in cemeteries and botanical gardens—work that will continue indefinitely, just as occurs in nature.
One question I have been asked about my work is, “how do you plant a million trees in New York City?” The answer can be reduced to a simple instruction: one tree at a time! Further, New York City should be applauded for its efforts to use MillionTreesNYC as a springboard to further investment in pruning, permitting enforcement, and staffing tied to managing the urban forest.
Having landed at Mount Auburn in September 2021 as its new President & CEO, I was immediately entranced by the awe-inspiring collection of oaks and beeches. Without question, Mount Auburn has one of the best collections of mature trees anywhere in the United States, with nearly 4,700 trees of varying ages and over 650 taxa on its 175 acres. During a ten-minute walk on the grounds, you are sure to see specimens of multiple species of trees that will be some of the best you’ll ever see! Our trees, some over 200 years old, have seen the world reinvent itself many times over, yet continue to reach for the skies with each passing year. For nearly 200 years our trees have received remarkable care in the form of watering, pruning, and other conscientious landscape maintenance techniques which have allowed them to thrive. Further, trees at Mount Auburn don’t have the same competition as most urban trees.
While tree planting traditionally gets the most fanfare and showy pictures, the years of effort and care leading up to a canopy-covered street tend to be overlooked. A few steps beyond our gates I am reminded of how tough it is to be an urban tree, especially a street tree. Between traffic, dogs, developers, climate change, and countless other variables, these trees face many stresses which shorten their lifespans. Struggling to keep up with necessary tree maintenance, cities worldwide have backed away from tree planting goals—while also minting goals for canopy coverage. Ultimately, it is every urban forester’s hope to invest resources, create policies, and develop stewardship to increase the canopy percentage over time.
Trees happen to be quiet constituents. Rarely will an email, phone call, or press conference intervene when a community tree is suffering, unless an urban Lorax intervenes. Trees take time to grow; a future canopy doesn’t develop on the schedule of and budget cycles. A tree planted today will take decades to equal the annual ecosystem services generated by the biggest and most beloved trees. This is a tough reality for trees in all our communities. However, the data that have been collected over the last three decades enunciate with extreme clarity: mature trees, and especially large shade trees, are exponentially much more significant providers of the ecosystem services. The math is simple: the larger the tree and more leaf surface area, the larger the benefits. For example, a newly planted tree, just a few inches in diameter, may sequester six pounds of carbon, or currently valued at about thirty cents; a mature tree greater than thirty inches in diameter, by contrast, will sequester over 6,000 pounds of carbon, worth some four hundred dollars. A thousand-fold increase! With that, how can trees continue to be overlooked?
Beyond their value as carbon store, trees provide real and tangible benefits in the form of cleaner air, shade for buildings, or stormwater capture among many, many others. Many years ago I remember talking to Dr. David Novak with the US Forest Service who has dedicated his career to studying urban forests. Comparing the urban forest to other forms of infrastructure, he mentioned that we are just starting to fully realize the benefits of trees. Walk down the street where you live, and you will see some permutation of city infrastructure: fire hydrants to ensure buildings don’t burn down, light poles to provide safety, or stop lights to allow traffic to be regulated, among others. Funded through local, state, or federal dollars, these investments improve the quality of life or safety of a given neighborhood. Compared to trees, however, light poles have lower dollar value in benefits—and unlike trees, they decrease in value over time.
Why, then, have trees gone so overlooked as critical parts of urban infrastructure? Simple: trees are rarely considered a capital investment. But, if they were, it would provide urban foresters access to new and necessary sources of funding. Additional funding and pragmatic, focused local tree preservation legislation are long overdue. Trees should be funded, along with highly competent urban forestry managers to manage the urban forest—which, like all critical urban infrastructure, is key to the safety and well-being of residents. In addition, many cities have a mechanism in place to raise capital monies through the selling of municipal bonds—why couldn’t trees be included along with other key infrastructure that elevates the quality of life of a locality?
Many cities are making great strides, but there is still much work to be done. During my time in New York City, I would travel the country helping other cities figure out how to attract more funding for trees. Some cities were incredibly creative, but a clear thread emerged: urban forestry managers must scratch and claw for every dollar they get. And trees get pennies on the dollar compared to other urban infrastructure. In many cities, public/private partnerships are aiming to fill the gaps. From Washington, DC, to San Francisco, to Portland, robust and sophisticated urban forestry nonprofits are filling the gaps left by public funding.
One irony of this struggle is that many cities or towns have left tree management/ urban forestry to a roads and sidewalks or public works department—the areas of government that typically manage infrastructure. As a result, urban forestry programs have modest resources and/or no meaningful political support given they are buried in large public works departments, and must compete against potholes or sidewalks for attention and funding. The reality, however, is that a well-sited tree likely will outlive all its infrastructure counterparts, outlasting sidewalks, stoplights, and even many buildings.
Further, local tree legislation that protects trees on public and private property is also lagging. Every city desires some level of development; however, it has also been the experience of many urban foresters that the impacts trees encounter from new construction, sidewalk/driveway work, or other infrastructure projects lead to a significant number of removals or tree mortality after construction is completed. While a tree may not die immediately from construction impacts, my time working in New York suggests trees must be monitored for several years post construction to fully assess development impacts. When I met with developers in New York, they were quick to point out that they will likely spend more on doorknobs or cabinet handles than they will on trees—even though the trees become part of infrastructure, and a community asset. When replacement is mandated by local legislation, it often merely requires a 1:1 planting ratio—such that an old mature oak tree in its prime, for example, might be replaced with a newly planted red maple. We know from the data, however, that a newly planted tree can’t replace a fully-grown tree in the urban infrastructure. There are few cities like New York City who are using a basal-area replacement methodology, which is a more appropriate way of calculating the true cost of removing healthy trees. That calculation not only more adequately accounts for loss, but protects trees by ensuring that any developer thinks twice before removing a tree.
The time for policy change is now. We need those who will speak for the trees, knowing they are a critical part of the urban infrastructure. Find fellow Loraxes, and organize. Approach your local elected officials and let them know how important the trees are to you and your community. Work with them to move forward thoughtful and pragmatic legislation. It will take time, steadfastness, and collective action by like-minded citizens who can speak and act civilly and passionately to make change—change that will, that must, happen one tree at a time.
If you are in the Boston area, I encourage you to stop by Mount Auburn to check out our incredible canopy in a thriving metropolis. I guarantee you will leave feeling inspired by our one-of-a-kind landscape. Then, find a tree in your own neighborhood and start giving it some care. I am certain the time and energy you invest will be repaid in dividends. Enjoy your trees!
Matthew Stephens is President and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
From “free” to “friend”…
Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.
It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.