Murray Hill Locals Want City to Address Neighborhood’s Tree Shortage



A neglected, empty tree bed in Murray Hill. Photo by Audrey Gibbs

A group of Murray Hill residents want more trees planted in their neighborhood but said a lack of communication from the city’s Parks Department has kept them waiting for more than three years.

The Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, a membership group of volunteers, has submitted over 120 requests and counting about planting new trees and removing old stumps to the New York City Parks & Recreation Department. Yet, these requests have been backlogged, while fertile plots remain empty or occupied by tree stumps. Now residents, frustrated with waiting, face several hurdles trying to make their neighborhood more green and environmentally friendly. 

Michael-Ann Rowe, chair of the association’s Green and Clean Committee, has been pushing the Parks Department and its forestry division to plant the trees since before the pandemic.

To increase awareness, Rowe launched the Adopt A Tree program fundraiser in September, with the goal of planting at least 10 trees this fall.

“We have a tree problem in New York,” said Rowe, adding that Murray Hill is littered with tree stumps, 40 of which have been reported, though none have been removed.

At a September community board meeting, Shena Kaufman, a recreation manager for the Parks Department, said the timeline for tree-stump removal and plantings are left up to the forestry division within the Parks Department, who are the “tree experts,” she said, adding that “how they prioritize it, we don’t know.”

Requests for stump removals and tree-plantings are made to 311, the city’s customer service portal that fields calls and online requests to local governmental agencies. After 311 gets a request, it’s sent to the Parks Department who then forwards it to the forestry department, which has a backlog of requests that Rowe attributes to low budgets and staffing shortages. 

“The forestry department has a list somewhere where trees will be planted but then they call upon a different agency to remove the stumps,” said Rowe, turning it into a multi-step process.

There are currently 1,687 trees in Murray Hill, according to data from the NYC Street Tree Map, but many are in rough shape. Because of construction, wooden tree guards are mandated to protect trees but the barriers turn into dumping grounds for pedestrians, leaving tree beds covered in trash. 

“There’s been some incidents where the trees have outright died because of so much garbage in the tree bed, because we couldn’t get to the tree,” said Rowe. 

Environmentalists cite several benefits of having trees in urban spaces. Trees create oxygen while reducing air and water pollution, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation‘s website.  Trees also provide shade, sound barriers and reduce energy costs, improving quality of life in monumental ways for city residents. 

Nicole Giacco, who’s lived in Murray Hill for about 11 years, wants to beautify the area outside her child’s elementary school, Public School 116. “We’ve requested trees, we’ve requested stump removals. We’re not getting any response,” she said.

Giacco explained that when she requested trees in the past, they were usually planted the next fall. Though, following COVID, there’s been a lack of response from the city.

There is a way for residents to plant trees themselves but it’s not an easy process, said Rowe. The Parks Department must come out and inspect the plot to make sure a tree can survive in a designated area. Unfortunately, this kind of approval process can get backlogged too. 

“Requests for new street trees are first-come, first-served,” said Dan Kastanis, a senior press officer for the Parks Department. “Much of the timing for fulfilling a request depends on funding and contract availability, but the process can take up to an average of three years for a tree planting request to be fulfilled.”

Even if residents get approved to plant their own trees, there are still challenges, primarily financial.

After inspection, only 35% of all new tree-planting requests result in a new tree. If a forester approves a tree plot, or orders a tree bed expansion (which is common), residents have to pay for the entire tree-planting process. 

According to the program Keep Murray Hill Green and Clean, a single tree has the potential to cost upwards of $6,000. The planting costs $2,000, a tree-bed expansion runs between $1,200 to $1,500, a tree guard costs $2,000 and stump removal is upwards of $1,500. But if the city did the job, then planting an individual tree in 2021 cost the Parks Department an average of $3,550, said Kastanis. 

With a goal of planting 10 trees, the Adopt A Tree program fundraiser may need to raise upwards of $60,000 to fulfill its fall goal, when all the possible expenses are considered. The Green and Clean program estimates that they must raise $400,000 in order to replace all missing and damaged trees. Otherwise, residents must wait for the city to remove stumps and plant trees for free, a process that can take years.

Giacco is tired of waiting for the city to improve the green space at her child’s school. “The PTA may just pay at this point to get the tree replaced because it’s been so long,” she said. “It’s just been hard to make it look like a place where I want my kids to walk around. It’s kind of sad right now.”