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Who Cares About Urban Trees?

Tree identification classes aim to cultivate amateur arborists with an eye for stewardship.


“It seems like there’s nothing to look at,” the urban arborist Lisa Nett admits to a group of early risers who have trudged to a tree identification class in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park. “But you’ve all got more faith and gumption than that!”

A few times a year, Nett teaches tree ID courses through Brooklyn Brainery, a skill-sharing company that hosts crowdsourced classes. Interest peaks in spring and fall, when the buds are just peeking out of branches or the leaves have burst into ostentatious shades of orange and red. I tagged along on a tree ID walk one chilly February morning. Nett calls February and March “liminal months.” There are more leaves, crunchy and brown, on the ground than there are on the branches.

“It’s a tough sell,” Nett says. But there’s still plenty to see.

It can be hard to entice folks to look at bare trees. (Darren Kirby/Flickr)

She invites the group to gather around a tree trunk—“past the very sad stroller in that trash can”—and to rub their palms over the bark. They decide whether it’s coarse and rough, or smooth; how deep the gashes are; whether the lenticels, or breathing pores, are big enough to see. Even in the absence of leaves or flowers, the group can conclude that it’s a Japanese pagoda tree, with dangling seed pods that look like waxy beads.

The dozen or so attendees that gather on the sidewalk to turn their gazes upward come for a variety of reasons. On a recent Saturday, one attendee said that he was a poet, and that being ignorant of tree names somehow “felt like cheating.” Another was an artist who makes abstract sculptures out of fallen branches. Yet another attended because her boyfriend loves trees, and she wanted to learn the lingo.

Nett also thinks that the attendance points to something more abstract—a yearning to connect with something familiar and enduring. Especially in the winter, she says, looking at the trees is a “longing for that source of life, that fresh vitality” of spring. “Even I’m a sucker for it.”

It’s easier to woo tree enthusiasts in the spring. (Several seconds/Flickr)

And in a city where the hectic pace can suck people into a vortex of solipsism, it may be pleasantly humbling to see something so much larger and more rooted than themselves. Like, for instance, a 450-year-old tulip tree, known as the “Queens Giant,” in Alley Pond Park. “All of New York civilization is happening, wars were being fought, and it’s just doing its stuff,” Nett says. The tree, of course, has been indifferent to rent hikes and the shuttering of beloved dive bars and punk haunts. It’s comforting to find permanence amid so much change.

The importance of street trees

Recent research has solidified the centrality of urban green spaces to residents’ well-being. We need trees. Yes, they help purify the air, but they do more, too. My Atlantic colleague James Hamblin wrote in the magazine’s October issue about the rise of ecotherapy—that is, doctors writing prescriptions for time outdoors. Here at CityLab, Eric Jaffe’s encyclopedic run-down of the benefits of city trees pointed to studies showing a relationship between nature and a decrease in stress and depression, as well as improved cognitive focus.

Research cited by the U.S. Forest Service nods to the way that trees can ameliorate other uniquely urban quality-of-life issues, such as noise pollution. Tall, thick plantings paired with soft ground cover can abate up to 10 decibels, according to a Forest Service report.

City trees are nice to look at, but they also benefit psychical and psychological health. (blink+/Flickr)

Trees at risk

But in general, life is hard for an urban tree. The 3.8 billion trees scattered across U.S. urban areas face a variety of dangers: their roots are chewed up by construction or severed by concrete; their trunks are nicked by car doors, and peed on by dogs.

The architecture around tree beds can help mediate some of these risks. Tree guards, for example, can remind people to curb their pets and avoid trampling the soil. The Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership, a local BID, recently reached out to the surrounding community to solicit designs tree guard designs inspired by local history and art. (The winning ones will be installed in mid-2016.)

How ID classes can help

In the most immediate sense, ID classes can help people determine how and when to spring into action when something looks amiss—maybe by recognizing tell-tale signs of disease and diagnosing pests plaguing their trees. That’s the aim of classes at some extension programs at Ohio State University, for instance.

They can also foster street tree stewardship, or nurturing the trees that grow up around us. And there are more trees to take care of than there have been in recent memory. The Million Trees NYC initiative planted its last sapling in November; in partnership with a number of local botanic gardens and horticultural non-profits, the group also organized an ongoing stewardship corps to weed, water, and mulch the tree beds. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge program is a permanent outreach arm that aims to teach residents how to care for their leafy neighbors. There are similar programs in Portland, Tampa, Richmond, and countless other cities.

“We take care of the things that we love,” Nett says. Maybe to know a tree is to love it.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.