Regular gbNYC readers are familiar with our complicated relationship with Mayor Bloomberg. Yes, the diminuitive orange squillionaire is perhaps a bit too eager to put the brakes on progress at the behest of NYC’s mega-developers, but Bloomberg has also contributed mightily to New York City being one of the greenest big cities in the world. Is he tacky, jerky, peremptory? Yes, yes, and yes, but given his aforementioned good works and the fact that local government is where the green action is these days, gbNYC has basically no choice but to give the Mayor a modified, limited hat-tip on sustainability. That said, his vaunted MillionTreesNYC thing is another story. While it’s hard to argue with it in theory — trees are objectively pretty sweet, and everyone from Robert Frost to baby beavers knows this — the multimillion-dollar private/public project to boost the number of NYC trees by (yes) a million by 2017 fairly smacks of fatuous, celebrity-style green activism. We might just be thinking that because of Bette Midler’s prominent role in the MillionTreesNYC program, but we also might be thinking it because… well, we’ve got bigger problems (green-related and otherwise) than NYC schoolkids not understanding how awesome trees are. As Mike Jaccarino of the New York Daily News reports today, MillionTreesNYC is increasingly edging into the realm of “problem” in its own right, thanks to ham-fisted, under-thought implementation and the fact that tree roots and sewer pipes have traditionally had a fairly fraught relationship.
It’s easy to take MillionTreesNYC lightly — interestingly, the Daily News did just that only a few days before running Jaccarino’s expose. “It’s a given that tree-lined streets look more beautiful and can boost your spirits,” Holly Reich wrote back on Feburary 24. “Trees can also help improve property values and increase neighborhood business. Beyond that, trees clean the air and help to reduce the pollutants that trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses. Trees can also lower energy costs by acting as an umbrella to cool the sidewalks on hot summer days.” And of course that’s all true — c.f. Robert Frost/baby beavers above, trees are great, and etc. But the problematic implementation of MillionTreesNYC complicates this picture somewhat.
Jaccarino’s piece paints the picture of a program that — while still blameless in its conception and generally adequately implemented — is being executed very poorly. “So far, the city and the New York Restoration Project have planted 303,000 trees, with a total budget of just under $125 million,” Jaccarino writes. “The city has spent $14 million since 2005 to fix 6,624 sidewalks torn up by tree roots, according to the city Parks Department…The city is responsible for any trip-and-fall cases involving tree roots in front of a three-family home or smaller. The city Law Department said it had to pay out $39 million in judgments and settlements last year for cases involving sidewalk defects.” Those sidewalk repairs can take over a year to get done, thanks to the expected byzantineries of city bureaucracy, and repairing sewer lines that have been compromised by tree roots requires plumbers to file for Parks Department permits and the consultation of an arborist. So, no, not so good.
Of course, those of us on the wonkier side of green building issues know well how frustrating and frustratingly frequent this kind of thing misallocation of political resources is — it’s harder to get famous people psyched at the prospect of laws requiring more insulation or banning nasty heating sludge or whatever. But those dorky, academic things are both inexpensive and very effective. They’re not as literary or lovely as a tree, of course — one love, Joyce Kilmer — but those are silly criteria to bring to decisions as important as all this. I imagine I’m not alone in being a sustainability-dork type who winces a little bit every time something like MillionTreesNYC makes “greening a city” look like a fatuous ladies-who-lunch project, instead of a way to actually make a city a better and healthier place in which to live. Maybe someone should send Bette Midler a copy of the New York Green Codes Task Force report?