MillionTreesNYC: planting and tending the urban forest

MillionTreesNYC was an urban forest initiative that formed part of PlaNYC, which focuses on encouraging sustainable projects across the city. It involved a partnership between a city department, NYC Parks, and a New York not-for-profit, The New York Restoration Project. MillionTreesNYC had a dual objective: to plant – and care for – a million trees, with a focus on community outreach and engagement. It achieved its tree-planting objective by 2015; the tending and maintenance of the urban forest is a continuing endeavour.

The challenge

New York City has suffered many of the environmental disadvantages of a large metropolis: poor air and water quality, a lack of open spaces, and high levels of pollution. “A changing climate, a growing population, aging infrastructure, and an evolving economy with increasing inequality pose challenges to our city’s success and quality of life.” [1]

The initiative

MillionTreesNYC is part of PlaNYC, a collection of sustainability initiatives overseen by The Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency. It is “an ambitious campaign to plant and care for one million new trees in New York City”. [2]

It is being implemented by the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation (“NYC Parks”) in partnership with the not-for-profit New York Restoration Project (NYRP). “NYC Parks was tasked with planting wherever possible on the public right-of-way (sidewalks and traffic medians), reforesting city parkland, and tracking tree planting by city, state, and federal government agencies within the five boroughs.” [3]

The tree-planting is a key feature of the city’s urban forest. “The main aim of the campaign is to enhance the entire ‘green matrix’ of the urban forest across streets, recreational parks, natural areas, schools, public housing campuses, and private yards.” [4] The project is overseen by the MillionTreesNYC Advisory Board. [5]

The public impact

By Autumn 2015, a million trees had been successfully planted in the city.  city. Asked about his proudest moment on the job, Drew Becher, the former Executive Director of NYRP told the story of planting trees in New York’s East Harlem neighbourhood. Becher and his team had just finished their work for the day when an older woman approached him. “I’ll never forget that this one lady was like ‘I went to work and now I came home and my street looks so much better. I can’t put my finger on why it looks so much better but thank you.’ We had planted trees on her block while she was at work,” Becher explained. “That’s what it was about: making the community better. She knew something had happened and she felt better about her community.”

The other aspect of the project was to care for the newly-planted trees and to focus on outreach, training and education. “MillionTreesNYC has steadily increased the number of people that it reaches each year. [6] As of 2012, it had offered over 1,000 free tree care workshops, reached over 12,000 volunteers, and planted over 5,000 trees that are being cared for by committed volunteers.“

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The main stakeholders are the city government agency, NYC Parks, and the not-for-profit, NYRP, which “partners with over 100 organisations each fall and spring on a variety of programmes such as Tree Giveaways, Gardens for the City, volunteer events, and educational workshops". [7]

There were other city agencies involved in the programme: the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Buildings (DOB). There was involvement at the federal level from the US Department of Agriculture, whose Forest Service were involved in activities such as drafting the report and in analysing the results of MillionTreesNYC.

There were other not-for-profits involved, such as TreeKit, which is “dedicated to using innovative mapping techniques to engage residents in monitoring and caring for the urban forest”. [8] It carried out this function as part of the programme.

Political Commitment Good

MillionTreesNYC is part of the city’s major PlaNYC initiative, and the city provided significant funding to ensure the dual objectives of planting and caring could be met.

Adrian Benepe, the Former Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation recalled pitching the project to the top officials in City Hall and the positive response he received. Benepe said research by the City and the U.S. Forest Service showed the project would deliver a return on investment (ROI) of over 500%, measured on its environmental and social benefits. “Their eyes kind of lit up and they said ‘I like that ROI’, said Benepe of the pitch meeting.

Yet Benepe noted it wasn’t just the numbers that attracted City Hall’s attention. It was also the fact that the Mayor’s senior team believed in the value of parks and green spaces. “The Deputy Mayor that we reported to, Patti Harris, really liked parks and cared about them. The Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, Dan Doctoroff, thought they were important, and the City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden thought that parks were important.” Strong political will helped ensure the various government agencies that had a role to play took their jobs seriously.


Clear Objectives Strong

The eponymous objective could not have been more clearly expressed and has been the focus of MillionTreesNYC throughout. It applies to the dual objective: planting and caring for a million trees. However, as Becher of The New York Restoration Project explained, it took convincing to get the name “MillionTrees” to stick. “We put on our marketing hats and came up with the name,” recalls Becher. “But the Government entities involved did not want to name it MillionTreesNYC.” Some individuals were concerned that publically stating the number could backfire if the City was unable to plant a million trees. Others thought it was too reductive given that the program was about more than just about planting trees, but also the care and maintenance of the City’s urban canopy. “There was a big push in order to get that name changed,” said Becher. “We couldn’t sell ‘tree canopy coverage.’ It actually went to the Mayor and a couple of other senior people in the Mayor’s Office.”

Evidence Good

New York City’s own analysis of the existing urban forest was used for MillionTreesNYC.  “The 2005 Street Tree Census informed the MillionTreesNYC street tree-planting strategy in communities across the city. NYC Parks used this baseline data to project forward what would be possible to plant in the public right of way. Before MillionTreesNYC, tree-planting was driven by individual resident requests; MillionTreesNYC introduced the block planting approach which was based on low street tree-stocking levels and on other criteria such as public health needs and water quality goals.” [9]

The project team also drew evidence from the research conducted by the advisory board. “Existing studies affirmed the need for long-term urban forest data and analysis because managers need to know the number, health, and distribution of the trees they are responsible for in order to manage them effectively.” [10]

Feasibility Good

NYC policymakers evaluated the various feasibility constraints by conducting surveys. The Street Tree Requester Survey was conducted to gauge the readiness of citizens to engage in tree care. The 2005 Street Tree Census was used to identify where trees could be planted as part of MillionTreesNYC (see Strength of evidence above).

Policymakers prepared a sound business case: “the research noted that New York City’s tree planting initiative was integrated into the City’s long-term sustainability plan and had an ‘exemplary’ business plan that leveraged public and private resources”. [11]

The most significant feasibility study used STRATUM and UFORE, two USDA Forest Service-developed methods to measure and analyse urban forests. “The data from these studies set the stage for policymakers to commit PlaNYC capital funding to tree planting and initiate the City government half of MillionTreesNYC." [12]

The fact that the project formed part of PlaNYC ensured that it had sufficient funding and legitimacy as part of the city’s overall sustainability programme.

However, one significant challenge to successful implementation was the lack of available trees from nearby nurseries. So the city began to talk with nurseries about establishing long- term growing contracts. The idea was to guarantee future payment to nurseries for trees they were planting but wouldn’t be able to harvest for years to come. Benepe, the Former Commission of the Department of Parks and Recreation said this financing arrangement required a change to the City’s contracting procedures. “Normally in city government it’s all zero-based budgeting, meaning you can’t carry forward expense dollars. So, if those dollars are not physically spent in that year they are lost the next year. That doesn’t work when you say to a nursery person ‘hey, we’re going to need a bunch of trees 10 years from now, so can we order the trees now and you deliver them over the next 10 years?’ They said to us, ‘OK, give me a contract that shows me you’re going to pay me every year for these trees’”. Benepe said he and his team were able to secure legal permission from the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services to develop a multi-year purchasing plan from the nurseries.


Management Strong

MillionTreesNYC was overseen by an advisory board. “The MillionTreesNYC Advisory Board, was set up to advise NYC Parks and NYRP staff on tree planting, education, stewardship, public policy, research/evaluation, and marketing. It brought together diverse stakeholders whose expertise continues to shape the initiative’s programmes In order to be a truly citywide movement.” [13]

The advisory board was then divided into subcommittees to address each of those topics. “The Advisory Board consisted of seven discrete Subcommittees focusing on tree planting, education, stewardship, public policy, research/evaluation, marketing, and green jobs. Each Subcommittee had three co-Chairs: one representative from NYC Parks, one from NYRP, and one from an outside organisation or agency.” [14]

Although the City contributed funds, the project needed private sources of funding as well. NYRP dedicated much of its energy to fundraising. The organisation’s founder, the celebrity actress Bette Midler was a strong proponent of the project. Having a not-for- profit partner like NYRP provided an effective vehicle for people to give to a City initiative without actually having to give money to the government. “People just don’t like to give money to cities,” said Becher. “So creating another way to give was important.”

Measurement Strong

All the measurement functions are incorporated effectively in the delivery of the policy. MillionTreesNYC tracked all progress and coordinated the implementation of plan goals for each of the seven subcommittees. "From the beginning, the Research [and Evaluation] Subcommittee focused on and facilitated a range of academic research, applied research, and programmatic evaluation.” [15]

The Research [and Evaluation] Subcommittee was not surprisingly the focus of measurement activities. “The people involved in the MillionTreesNYC campaign are committed to constantly evaluating the campaign’s efforts and progress. They conducted a comprehensive evaluation at the midpoint of the campaign in order to understand its effectiveness and challenges.” [16]

This subcommittee also engaging other research: “current doctoral research is examining the MillionTreesNYC campaign in the context of PlaNYC and comparing it to urban agriculture practices in New York City in the same time period”. [17]

Alignment Good

MillionTreesNYC involved significant level of cooperation within the city administration: “PlaNYC also strengthened inter-agency collaboration (among the NYC Parks Department, DEP, DOT, DOE and DOB in the implementation of the MillionTreesNYC campaign". [18] There was also collaborative involvement from USDA’s Forest Service in feasibility analysis and reporting.

The not-for-profit, NYRP, was a major actor which collaborated with NYC Parks. "Shared communication and decision-making between NYC Parks and NYRP helps to build on the strengths of each and allows MillionTreesNYC to plant trees across a wide range of land jurisdictions.” [19]

There was also alignment with other not-for-profits, such as TreeKit. It mapped “portions of multiple neighbourhoods in Western Queens, all of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, and portions of Gowanus in Brooklyn and East Harlem in Manhattan. In total, they mapped more than 10,000 tree beds on more than 600 city blocks”. [20]

There is good alignment with New York’s citizens and institutions. “MillionTreesNYC has drawn upon the resources and expertise of public, private, and civic groups through its Advisory Board and subcommittees and, after the launch of PlaNYC 2.0 in 2011, through efforts such as the ‘Grow our Grassroots’ conference and the ‘Change by Us’ online forum.” [21]

This was demonstrated in complementary tree-planting. "Tree plantings on private and institutional property (such as NYC Housing Authority and City University of New York properties) complemented the City agencies’ planting efforts.” [22]