How to get a tree planted on your block

You ever look out on your block and want to see something more than residential trash piled up on the curb? Good news: you can get a tree. For free!

How to get a tree planted on your block
Photo by Dave Colon.

By Dave Colon

You ever look out on your block and want to see something more than residential trash piled up on the curb? Have you spent a lot of time wondering how we might get carbon out of the atmosphere without having to wait around for weird science fiction devices? Sounds like you could use a tree near where you live. After all, it’s hot right now and will only get hotter in the future. Good news though: You can get a tree. For free!

Tree tree tree! I want tree!

Hey, that’s great. Not only are trees nice to look at and give birds a place to live, they play an important role in the city’s fight against — if not climate change itself, — some of the worst aspects of climate change. Trees soak up water from hundred year storms that don’t wait a hundred years between downpours anymore. They also provide shade, and fight the dastardly heat island effect on days when it is very, very hot out.

Yes yes great. How do I get tree?

Right. If you want a street tree on your block, you can ask for one. Rent? Own? Whatever. The Department of Parks and Recreation’s Tree Request Service system exists specifically to take your requests for a street tree, or you can call 311. The city has foresters who can then check out your location to see if the spot you asked for is tree-friendly, as in putting a tree bed there won’t fuck up any undergound utiilities, get in the way of a fire hydrant or bus stop, or grow into another existing tree. They’ve got a pretty cool graphic for it, check it out:

(Courtesy of NYC Parks)

If your requested location meets the tree qualifications, then your request goes on the Parks Department’s list for tree planting season in the city, which goes from March to May and October to December depending on what species the city is planting.

Wow that’s it? I fill out a form and get tree?

Would that it were so simple.

Oh no.

Oh yeah. The Parks Department does say on its website that tree requests are taken on a first-come, first-served basis, which means you could be waiting over a year for your tree. But you’d be lucky to wait just a year.

Back in 2019, the average wait for a tree request took an interminable 909 days from the initial ask to getting a leafy friend in the ground, the longest it’s ever been. That’s such a long time you could conceive a child, birth the child and be on the cusp of the child getting into that phase where they keep yelling “No!” between the time you ask for a tree and the time you get the tree.

Planting trees in the concrete jungle is not as easy as planting one in the regular, snake-filled jungle, as it turns out. Mostly it’s a matter of resource allocation and increasing costs. It cost the city $1,300 to plant a tree back in 2010, but that price has risen to $3,500 per tree this year due to factors like rising labor costs, constricted resources that limit long-term planning and a limited number of contractors to take care of trees once they’re planted.

In a June hearing in front of the City Council, Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Commissioner for Environment and Planning Jennifer Greenfeld said that the agency is on pace to plant 15,000 new street and park trees in Fiscal Year 2023, after planting 13,000 in Fiscal Year 2022. An improvement, but it’s also less than the 20,000 Mayor Eric Adams said his administration would plant, and obviously doesn’t really help you if you’re waiting around for a tree.

Despite Mayor Adams campaigning on a promise to give the Parks Department one percent of the city budget per year, something that would help to plant and take care of more street trees, the money has yet to materialize in either of the mayor’s first two budgets.

So, the list of tree requests grows, even as it gets hotter and more carbon gets spewed into the atmosphere because everyone keeps buying cars and trying to kill the city’s big building emissions reduction law.

We need a tre-ro!


A tree hero!

Fine but who’s doing something about this?

The city’s borough presidents, all five of them, are counting on people’s love of sequels by hyping up an effort they’re calling A Million More Trees, a follow up to the Million Tree NYC effort to uh, plant one million trees in NYC, that started in the Bloomberg era and was completed in the de Blasio era. That effort hasn’t taken root in City Hall yet, and when Greenfeld was asked point-blank if the mayor was interested in the reboot, she left things at “our goal is to plant as many trees as possible … so we are supportive of initiatives that seek to aid this goal.”

Council Member Erik Bottcher introduced a bill this year that would compel the city to create an urban forest master plan, something that he and advocates say could help New York increase its tree canopy from covering 21 percent of the city to 30 percent by 2035. That bill has yet to make it out of the Council, however, and a Council report found that the city would need to significantly pick up the pace of planting in order to meet that lofty goal.

Council Member Lincoln Restler has been running an effort to fill every available tree bed in his northwest Brooklyn district, which would mean 3,400 street trees in four years, with the Parks Department covering 2,200 trees and Restler’s office taking care of the other 1,200.

Photo by Dave Colon.

Restler’s tactic has been to use a combination of his own discretionary funding and a district-specific tree fund, as well as working with the Parks Department and TreeTime (a public-private partnership focused on urban forestry), to make a long-range plan for planting trees. So far, it seems to be working, as each tree in District 33 costs about $1,000 less than elsewhere in the city.

“In this current budget, we funded about $785,000 for new street trees in our district that will plant approximately 220 new trees,” Restler said. “The Parks Department is going to be planting 600 trees this year in the highest needs areas in our district. We've fundraised $25,000 from neighbors to support planting new trees around our community.”

What if Lincoln Restler isn’t my Council member but I still demand trees, many trees? We’ve gotta pick up the pace here!

Statistically, this is probably the case. Restler noted that some of his fellow legislators have expressed interest in the idea, but issues that need resources and focus vary from district to district, so it’s up to the city to support ideas like Million More Trees and giving one percent of the budget to the Parks Department. But even if a City Council member can’t do the exact same thing Restler is doing, he encouraged being a squeaky wheel and the value of long term plans.

“What fits for us here may not be applicable everywhere. We crafted this model that is tailored for our district, but is replicable in concept,” Restler told The Groove. “And so I would strongly encourage community groups and Council members to partner with the Parks Department and assess: what is the maximum number of trees that could be planted over a three or four or five year time period? And what are the different funding strategies that could be deployed to make it happen?”

What if my block or my neighborhood is already full of delicious, life-sustaining trees?

Look, no one loves a braggart, so just keep it to yourself. But you also can and should learn how to volunteer as a tree steward by signing up for a free street tree care workshop run by the Parks Department. Not only will you learn how to take care of street trees here, but you’ll even learn how to properly ID the trees that dot our sidewalks.

The department is running the workshops in multiple boroughs, and you can even request to do group tree care activities if you’ve got a bunch of people you want to volunteer with. If you finish tree steward training you can also get on the road to becoming a Super Steward, which sadly does not involve being bit by a radioactive tree, but does allow you to take care of trees all on your own.

Imagine how smart you’ll sound walking home from the bar with that night’s hookup when you point to a tree and go “That’s a Carpinus betulus, also because I volunteer for stuff like this, I help keep it alive.” Do NOT lie about keeping the three alive if you don’t keep that tree alive though.