The Million Trees NYC program, designed to provide more shade and cool the city amid climate change, has met the ambitious planting goals set by the public-private partnership in 2007.

Yet global warming is not the only obstacle to keeping New York’s trees healthy. The high price of care and maintenance also endangers the program’s success.

The city says it costs around $3,500 for a private contractor to raise and care for a single street tree for two years. The Parks Department doesn’t “really have enough resources to take care of all of the street trees,” said Emily Nobel Maxwell, New York Cities program director for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.

That’s why the department and the environmental group are asking New Yorkers to be volunteer tree stewards. They hosted the first City of Forests Day last month, organizing 53 events across the five boroughs.

Care grows in Brooklyn

In the New Lots section, volunteers armed with shovels and cultivators picked up trash, aerated sidewalk tree beds and spread mulch. They cared for nearly 50 trees.

“I’m a much happier person when I’m connected to nature,” said Piper Worley of Ridgewood, Queens, who is a “super steward”—one of the volunteers who take the lead on caring for neighborhood parks. “I feel so much better having gotten my hands in some dirt.” 

Tara Seawright, who owns an interior-design firm and lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said she and her husband decided to volunteer after coming across the event on the Parks Department website. She wanted to know how she could get rid of a branch of a street tree overhanging onto her property.

“This is my first time participating in a street-tree caring event,” she said. “And I am loving it.”

The need for volunteers likely will only increase as the city’s budget faces pandemic challenges. In addition, the city’s borough presidents joined an alliance this year urging Mayor Eric Adams to fund plans to plant a million more trees—and honor his campaign pledge to spend one percent of the budget for parks. 

First rule: show up 

Cindy Zapata, a field associate for the department who leads street-tree care events, said signing up is easy but finding adult volunteers is not.

“High school students often join us,” she said. “Sometimes they have some after-school programs. And they also request projects to complete with us as a team.” 

Older New Yorkers can be less reliable.  “Sometimes just half of them show up,” she said of volunteers who commit to cleanups.

For City of Forests Day, “turnout has been terrific,” Maxwell said. 

“We want to focus on carrying out street-tree caring events in heat-vulnerable districts where tree canopy coverage can be increased—and summer temperature can be brought down significantly.”

To attract more volunteers, Seawright suggested that organizers could reach out to more businesses to partner with residents to help beautify their streets blocks and foster more green space. 

Modern marketing is key, she noted: “We just need one really hot celebrity to magnify this issue.”