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Brooklyn Botanic Garden President Adrian Benepe speaks on the power of trees and the 30% tree coverage goal

In a recent City Council hearing, the Parks Department was called on by environmentalists and officials to increase New York City’s tree canopy from the current 22% to 30% by 2035, an ambitious goal that would see the city investing in trees as actors against climate change. Adrian Benepe, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), believes that the goal is one worth fighting for.

“There are so many good reasons to do this,” Benepe said in an interview with the Eagle. “Trees have superpowers, and we’re now understanding more and more the huge value of trees in communities. It’s always been accepted that if you live on a tree lined street that’s a very nice street…So part of the purpose of the building trees campaign is to get equity and get every neighborhood to have trees because of the benefits it brings: trees make neighborhoods cooler while absorbing pollution, giving out oxygen, and increasing real estate value by making a prettier block.”

President and CEO of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle about the recently proposed plan to increase New York City’s tree canopy to 30% by 2035. Photo: Lucien Clough

Benepe does realize, however, that this 30% quota will not be an easy one to hit. “A lot of the low hanging fruit has already been picked, so to speak. A lot of the areas where we could plant trees, trees have already been planted…A lot of the canopy…will have to be added and preserved on private property.” During his time as Parks Commissioner, Benepe helped launch a similar initiative called the Million Trees Program. “Part of the Million Trees Program was to encourage people to plant trees and give away trees for people to plant. So they’ll have to do an equivalent and really push hard for planting trees on private property.” This isn’t the only obstacle course getting in the way of the 30% quota, however—half of the battle is maintaining the trees that currently exist. 

“The city can’t prevent owners from cutting down trees on private property…we’re never going to get to that 30% if people keep cutting down trees on their private property.” Additional costs will also have to go to keeping the trees that really matter. “Maintaining the Big Oak trees, the woodlands, is important, we’ve learned, because they’re storing the most carbon … Of all the carbon that’s stored in trees in New York City, 80% of it is in woodland trees, which only make up 25% of the canopy cover. So they’re outperforming the street trees because they’re so much bigger, and have so much more wood mass to store the carbon.” 

Photo: Lucien Clough

Benepe has been a long proponent of the power of trees, building his career in New York City’s parks, first as a park ranger and later as the Commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department. He now works at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, whose latest installation, The Power of Trees, examines both the science and culture behind the garden’s tree collection. The exhibit will run until October 22nd, and features six sculptures depicting the role of trees in communities as well as an upcoming installation by Jean-Michel Othoniel opening on July 18th.

Through a series of plaques, sculptures, and events, viewers can learn about how trees fight climate change, benefit the mental wellbeing of individuals, and act as community pillars. Benepe says the inspiration for the exhibit came initially as a way to “encourage people to look at the trees. Many people come to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden just to see the flowers … and tend to walk past the trees. There are 3,700 trees here in the garden…part of this is to educate the people on the importance of the tree collection here generally, because there are really interesting specimens from all over the world.” The exhibit features trees originally from North America, South America, Asia, Northern Europe, and more, an image that Benepe calls a microcosm of Brooklyn. “We’re a city of immigrants who are all putting down roots in the same soil.”

Benepe hopes that the exhibit pushes people to fight for more trees across the city and brings more people to the garden, whose membership has seen a steady increase since Covid. “ I think people are realizing the importance of parks and of gardens…being extraordinarily beneficial to their physical and mental health…The restorative powers of nature are not to be understated.”

Photo: Lucien Clough

DON’T MISS IT!

ON THE RECORD: See the one-on-one here with Adrian Benepe on the rich immigrant population of trees that have been transplanted in Brooklyn soil.

 

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