Mapping the Trees of New York, One by One

The TreeKIT project aims to make it easier for residents to help care for neighborhood trees

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Philip Silva and Yi-Wen Lin with a London plane tree in Queens. (Sarah Goodyear)

Philip Silva is standing on a sidewalk in Queens, quite literally hugging a tree. It’s an enormous London planetree, more than five feet around, shading the sidewalk in front of a modest rowhouse that serves as both tutoring center and mosque.

Silva strains to pass the end of a tape measure to Yi-Wen Lin, a New York City Parks Department worker who is helping him out with a project called TreeKIT. It’s an ambitious effort to map every single tree in the city of New York (and every single empty tree bed, as well). The finished map would be an online resource for everyone who is working to help these trees survive and thrive in the concrete jungle.

“There are a lot of people invested in helping to care for the urban environment,” says Silva, 29, who has a diverse background in urban sustainability initiatives. “From folks in government whose day job it is to care, to people who just love the tree in front of their house, and everyone in between.”

In 2010, the TreeKIT crew mapped the entire neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. This past summer, with funding from the Parks Department, they took on western Queens, which is how Silva and his TreeKIT partner, grassroots mapping expert Liz Barry, have ended up wandering the streets of Woodside on a beautiful fall day. (Money for this phase came from utility Con Edison, which is funding the planting of 1,000 street trees as part of a community settlement resulting from a massive blackout in the area a few years ago.)

Working with teams of volunteers, Barry and Silva use rolling tape measures to pinpoint the location of every single tree on a block, as well as the size of each tree bed, an approach that leads to greater accuracy than some other tree-mapping efforts. Then they measure the circumference of each trunk, record the species of tree and its condition, and note the address of the closest building, where the people most likely to care for the tree might be found. After that, it’s back to the computer, where all the data gets entered into a mapping format that will ultimately be interactive and available to all.

Silva says that trees are a perfect entry point for volunteer stewardship of the urban environment.

“The beauty of starting with trees is that they appeal on a number of levels,” he says. “They increase property values. They increase sales on retail streets. They provide buildings with shade and protection from wind. They decrease storm water runoff. They filter particulates that cause asthma.” That’s not to mention the mental benefits afforded by the simple sight of greenery.

Silva says that an accurate and open map of tree location and condition will be an invaluable tool for urban forestry professionals in the Parks Department (which has committed to a three-year funding cycle with TreeKIT), and also for citizen stewards, the neighbors who are willing to keep the trees watered, pick up garbage, and post signs admonishing dog owners to take their pets to the curb. With TreeKIT's map, they could enter data about their own tree, meet their tree-loving neighbors, and connect with municipal officials when they need help.

“We’ve essentially deputized the entire city to be forest workers,” says Silva, who hopes to expand the TreeKIT effort by training local community organizations to do the data collection on their own.  “We should give them the tools they need to be active participants. There are smarter ways to manage these trees.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.