The ambition of the project was what made it so memorable. The million trees program, started in the Bloomberg administration in 2007, helped the city better position itself to combat climate change. Now, all five borough presidents are pushing Mayor Eric Adams to add another million by 2030.
The woman who would be in charge of such an endeavor is Melinda Clancy, a procurement forester for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Ms. Clancy selects the different species and cultivars of trees that are planted on sidewalks and in parks, which total about 9,000 each year.
Ms. Clancy visits nurseries on Long Island and as far away as Maryland four to five times a year. “Nurseries are my second home,” she said.
In the city, she charts how much space she’ll need for what type of tree, coordinating with utilities, telecom and cable companies, and other city departments to make sure there is enough space under and above ground.
Trees in urban spaces can cool temperatures during peak heat weeks, and their roots can absorb storm water and help minimize flooding. They can also serve as air filters, Ms. Clancy said.
“I think about how much shade a particular tree can provide 40 years out,” she said. “So a lot of thought and planning goes into picking the right tree for a particular street and neighborhood.”
Ms. Clancy recently spoke with The New York Times about her work. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. How did you end up with this job?
A. I graduated from the State University of New York, Cortland, in 2013 with a degree in forestry. I landed an internship with Parks assessing street tree mortality. After that, I was offered a job as a forester. After several years, a tree procurement position opened up, which is rare. There are only one or two existing positions in the city, and people lock them down for a long time. I’ve been a procurement forester for about four years now, and it’s simply an incredible job.
What did your tree mortality internship teach you?
We got to see which trees thrived in which areas. For example, you have to plant trees with high salt tolerance in Staten Island or the Rockaways in Queens because they’re close to, or surrounded by, the ocean. It seems obvious to do this, but in the past, this wasn’t the case.
What have you learned about how climate change affects the city’s growing environment?
We have started to source more Southern species to adapt to climate change, which ultimately means we have more days with higher temperatures. I also noticed that the tree planting and harvesting season is getting shorter and shorter. I now have a limited time to get our work done. We need to harvest trees when they’re completely dormant in the fall. Then we have to quickly ask our contractors to plant them before the ground freezes. And it’s the same in the spring: You have to harvest and plant trees before they leaf out.
What type of trees are we going to see planted this year?
A significant portion of the trees will be planted in areas where the heat vulnerability index (a measure of how heat affects the health of residents) is high. We plan to plant various maples, oaks and elms in Williamsbridge, Woodlawn, Eastchester, Edenwald, Soundview and Morris Park in the Bronx. In Manhattan, we’ll plant large canopy trees in West Harlem, East Harlem and on the Lower East Side. In western Queens, like Hunters Point, Sunnyside and Long Island City, we’ll go with beeches and Kentucky yellowwood. In Staten Island and eastern Queens, including Elmhurst and Laurelton, we’ll plant hackberries and junipers.
Brooklyn is interesting — it still has a lot of aboveground wires, so we have to go with shorter trees, like cherry, lilacs and golden rain.
You started working for the Parks Department right as the MillionTreesNYC initiative finished in 2015. There’s been some criticism about large-scale tree-planting programs that just focus on the sheer number of trees planted. Did this program teach you anything?
This program was extremely important. Besides all the health benefits trees provide, this helped the city streamline its procurement process. In previous years, various contractors picked out trees for the city, and there wasn’t much science behind the purchases. Now the city has taken over the procurement process, so we use science and data to figure out which tree will thrive where. If you look around, some streets have the same large species of trees lining the street. That’s fine, until you have a disease that comes through that can wipe all of them out in one shot. For example, there was an emerald ash borer infestation in 2017 that wiped out about 2,000 ash trees. To prevent this from happening again, we now plant several different species of trees on the same street.
Now that the MillionTreeNYC program has ended, how large is the department’s tree-planting program? We’ve planted anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 trees in various parks and streets every fiscal year. Our current budget for tree procurement and planting is $62.6 million. I would prefer it be more. Most people love trees.
You would think every New Yorker would want a tree, but that’s not the case. I’ve gone back to a tree that was planted the day before to check on it, and it was already cut down. Sometimes people run them over or pour gasoline or propane on them. I think some people see the sidewalk space in front of their homes as their own property, and if they don’t want a tree, they’ll stand in the way of that.
How do you handle the tree haters?
We now have it in our contract that if something like that happens, the contractor will replace the tree. I would estimate that maybe 3 percent of the trees we plant annually are vandalized. We have our staff attending community board meetings to inform the neighbors about what is about to happen, and the benefits of having trees. We put up signs to let people know a tree is coming so it’s not a surprise.