Rivera’s Tree Survey Indicates a Healthy but Vulnerable Canopy

While the survey received praise from Rivera’s colleagues on the City Council, including majority leader Keith Powers, her 2023 primary opponent Allie Ryan has called it a poor cover-up for Rivera’s controversial support of a climate resiliency plan that cut down over 1,000 trees in East River Park in 2022.

| 13 Nov 2023 | 07:34

The Lower East Side is shaded by a generally healthy canopy of trees, but there are “areas for substantial improvement,” according to the District 2 councilmember who released the report last month.

The East Side Street Tree Survey, conducted by Rivera’s office and 100 volunteers, takes inventory of every street tree bed—about 5,633 of them—within her district and assesses their stage of growth, state of soil, and other key aspects that determine tree health and resiliency.

“It is my hope that the East Side Street Tree Survey will support the work of City agencies in stewarding a healthy and equitable network of street trees and help raise awareness about the role of trees in our neighborhoods,” said Rivera whose district includes the East Village and Alphabet City and parts of Mid-Town East. “Bolstering the well being of our urban canopy will make District 2’s air cleaner, summers cooler, and communities healthier.”

The survey found that of the 5,633 surveyed tree beds, 5,239 contain planted trees, including 4,444 mature trees and 792 saplings. Of that number, 60.3 percent or 3,396 planted trees, are healthy with no observable concerns. “Overall, our local street tree canopy is healthy and well taken care of, but more must be done to protect this precious resource,” the survey concluded. “Investing in tree guards, prohibiting the placement of garbage bags on the sidewalk, and raising awareness about the negative impacts of compacted soil and litter on tree health can help ensure that we protect street trees.” Lack of sufficient tree guards (fences), heavily compacted soil, and the lack of informational signage about proper tree care were all listed as areas of concern.

The release of the survey comes on the heels of the 1,000th tree planted as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project in late June, which Rivera helped secure. According to the survey, a healthy mature tree can remove up to 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air, while tree beds and roots absorb rainwater and thousands of gallons of storm water out of drainage systems. At the same time, shielding communities from extreme-weather events take its toll, with 258 trees exposed to salt water during Superstorm Sandy and then removed by the Department of Parks. Rivera has called on the City to commit “at least 1 percent of the City’s budget towards the Department of Parks and Recreation” in order to protect the trees from decline.

Rivera’s colleagues in the City Council, including Gale Brewer and Shekar Krishnan, have praised her effort to produce a comprehensive tree survey. But her casting as a fierce guardian of the Lower East Side’s trees has also elicited skepticism in some quarters, especially among people still smarting over her support of a 2022 ESCR plan to demolish the East River Park—including more than 1,000 mature trees—and replace it with a new, 8-foot-tall elevated park. At the time, Rivera insisted that it was a tough but necessary decision to protect her constituents from flooding disasters. Detractors, including East River Park Action (ERPA) and her 2023 Democratic primary opponent Allie Ryan, accused Rivera of ignoring community input and the ESCR plan of causing lasting damage to the environment. According to Ryan, the survey cannot obfuscate the fact that the Lower East Side tree canopy has not fully recovered from Rivera’s decision.

“The survey does not address tree canopy measurements,” said Ryan. “Mature trees make a big contribution to ecosystem services—large shades to lower energy costs, extensive root systems to scour up water, evapotranspiration to cool the surrounding air and return moisture to the atmosphere, and the amount of carbon stored—whereas saplings are still being planted. Tree canopies between mature trees and saplings are significantly different, and the loss of 1,200 mature trees [in East River Park] and their tree canopies will take a lifetime to replace.”

Ryan also criticized the survey for missing information on street tree biodiversity, definitions on mature trees vs. saplings, and the strategic placement of saplings. “Then again,” said Ryan, “Rivera may want to stay away from [talking about] biodiversity since she approved the destruction of biodiversity in the East River Park.”

Rivera did not comment on her involvement in the 2022 ESCR demolition. She did, however, reveal the steps she is taking to address to main concerns raised by the survey, including the allocation of $25,000 in City funds to the Park Department to set up tree guards and additional funding to Street Trees NY and other community-based organizations “to facilitate robust local stewardship of street trees.”