This is the second in a two-part series on Jersey City’s trees
In early 2020 Debra Italiano, founder of Sustainable Jersey City, a local nonprofit dedicated to making Jersey City “the greenest, most sustainable and most resilient city in New Jersey,” asked the Spatial Analytics Lab at the University of Vermont to do a spot check of Jersey City’s tree canopy. She was concerned because the canopy — the layer of tree branches, stems, and leaves that provide shade — had not been measured in five years. And it had never been measured using technology recommended by the U.S. Forest Service.
The results were far worse than she expected: Jersey City’s tree canopy had shrunk 6.1% since 2015 and now stood at a paltry 10.9%.
Equally shocking was Jersey City’s tree canopy compared to that of other places. A study published in 2016 ranked the tree canopies of 44 communities in North America. Had Jersey City been on the list, it would have come in better than only Howard Beach (Queens), which was decimated by Hurricane Sandy, and Las Vegas, which is in a desert.
Jersey City Times has spent months researching how Jersey City has gotten to this point. Our investigation revealed a longstanding lack of political will coupled with bureaucratic dysfunction.
For many years, scientists believed a community’s tree canopy should be about 40%. Now, however, scientists recommend a range of coverages rather than one size fits all. How many trees a community should have depends on many things: its density, its type of development (residential vs. commercial), its ordinances, and, of course, its climate. The conservation organization American Forests still holds that a 40-60% urban tree canopy is “attainable under ideal conditions in forested states.” But it posits that “20% in grassland cities (which applies to Jersey City) and 15% in desert cities are realistic baseline targets.” Higher percentages are possible “through greater investment and prioritization.”
The benefits of trees are well documented. During a one-inch rainfall, one acre of urban forest will release just 750 gallons of runoff while a parking lot will release 27,000 gallons, according to the 2015 Jersey City Tree Canopy Assessment. By catching stormwater, trees prevent flooding.
The Assessment details other benefits. Trees provide shade that lowers residential utility bills by up to fifty percent. Trees can increase property values as much as thirty-seven percent. Perhaps because they help combat depression and stress, trees are also associated with significant decreases in crime. And since trees filter the air, they lower asthma rates and promote public health generally, social goods equating to about $550,000 per year, we are told.
According to The New York Times, poor urban neighborhoods “can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city” because of a lack of trees and an excess of heat trapping concrete. Thus, trees can also be a force for social justice.
Trees also slow climate change. Indeed, $4 million worth of carbon is captured by Jersey City’s trees every year. According to a study published in the magazine Science, “The restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation.”
Talking the Talk
Jersey City’s history is full of political rhetoric about the importance of trees.
Just last month, in a story given to Tap Into Jersey City after the city became aware of Jersey City Times’ investigation, the Fulop administration touted its tree planting efforts. According to the article, “Jersey City maintains that it is constantly working to improve its tree canopy by tracking the current tree population, while conducting a sustainable tree maintenance and planting program.”
And over the years, the city has submitted “community forestry management plans” to Trenton setting ambitious forestation goals in exchange for state funding. These 100-page tomes written by the Division of Parks and Forestry (a division of DPW) have been sent to the state three times since 2005.
In its 2010 CFMP, the city proposed creating a database of the species and health status of each of tree on its property (deemed high priority); to prune every tree in the city every ten years (also deemed a high priority); to increase its spending on trees twenty-five percent; and to plant 1,000 trees per year through 2015, among other things.
In the 2015 CFMP, the city set a goal of planting 700–1,000 trees per year. It also said collecting “assessment data such as hazardous conditions, species, size, condition, pruning needs and removal” on the city’s 75,000 trees “by walking from tree to tree is a tremendous task but must remain a goal.”
But whether due to lack of funding, lack of manpower, or poor management, the Department of Public Works has proved incapable of achieving anything close to these goals. A member of the Jersey City’s own Shade Tree Committee recently dismissed them as mere “wish lists.”
Tough talk about preserving trees preceded the city’s 2018 decision to allow a three-person condo board to clear cut 80 mature London Plane trees in Society Hill.
“The City will NOT permit any trees to be removed!” wrote Department of Public Works Director Rodney Hadley in 2010. Mayor Fulop threatened significant and severe fines and penalties if the trees were removed, according to activist Denise Bailey. In the end the trees came down.
A Credibility Gap
This gap between the city’s words and deeds has been hard for tree advocates. Laura Skolar, who until recently was president of the Jersey City Parks Coalition, experienced this first hand. In 2016, the Coalition launched a campaign to plant 5,000 trees by 2020, part of the city’s plan to increase the tree canopy by three percent. But it soon became clear that the city’s support would be nowhere near sufficient for the campaign to meet its goal. Rather than plant 5,000 trees over five years, the Coalition planted only 1,000. And soon the Coalition abandoned its mission to plant trees at all, perhaps the ultimate sign of capitulation to the prevailing priorities in city hall.
“After our initial year’s work towards our goal of getting 5,000 trees in the ground through 2020, we found it unrealistic due to the city’s inadequate departmental infrastructure,” said Skolar. Given this reality, “We redirected our initial mission of planting to education and advocacy.”
Former Jersey City Forester Ryan Metz, a certified arborist hired by the Division of Parks and Forestry in 2017 to manage the forestry crew and oversee tree planting citywide, was less diplomatic. Although Metz was highly experienced and excited about the chance to make an impact, he resigned in disillusion after only nine months.
“It was very clear to me that Jersey City had no political will whatsoever to implement any kind of forestry program,” Metz explained.
Metz described a DPW rife with disorganization, rigidity, and internal politics in which “people just showed up and did what was in front of them for the day with very little forward planning.” He recounted how his strategy to double annual tree plantings was stymied because colleagues were averse to changing their ways. And he said he was routinely told to pick “a political team to support” before anyone in city hall would help him get anything done.
But Metz saved his most searing criticism for Mayor Fulop.
“I found actually the mayor to be the most difficult person to work with because he changed his mind every day about what needs to be done.”
Fulop often micromanaged Parks and Forestry, according to Metz, asking staff to abandon critical jobs in order to do work important to him. This lowered departmental productivity and morale, Metz said. Metz also questioned the mayor’s sincerity saying, “The mayor had no appreciation for [what we were trying to accomplish] … he pretended he was … all for the natural resources of the city and investing in the city and getting new trees and better protecting them and all that, and he just was not concerned with that.”
In light of this leadership vacuum, it’s no surprise that since 2015 the city’s tree canopy has diminished. Jersey City Times obtained a table showing the number of trees planted, removed, and trimmed every year from 2007 to 2019. According to that data, from 2014 to 2019 — the mayor’s first full six years in office — the city planted 212 trees per year on average as opposed to the 700–1,000 recommended by the 2015 CFMP; and when taking tree removals into account, Jersey City lost 104 trees on average during this time period.
There’s also no escaping the fact that the city’s budget for forestation has shrunk. The National Arbor Day Foundation recommends cities spend at least $2 per resident per year toward the planting, care and removal of city trees. In 2010, under Mayor Jerramiah Healy, Jersey City budgeted just over three dollars per person on trees, well in excess of the recommended minimum. But by 2018, the last year for which this information was made available, that number had fallen to $1.28 per person, fully 36% below the recommended amount.
It’s also no surprise that those advocating for greater enforcement of existing forestry standards and laws — and for more spending, stricter requirements, and greater transparency overall — are in a legislative tug of war with the Fulop Administration.
One example of this fight has been the city’s on-again-off-again dalliance with shade tree commissions. While Jersey City has a Division of Forestry tucked within the Department of Public Works, some tree advocates believe a statutory shade tree “commission” with exclusive control over the regulation, planting, and care of shade trees and shrubbery on city property, would more effectively steward our trees. Nodding to this thinking, in 2005 the City Council re-established the city’s shade tree commission —one that had lain dormant for years. However, Mayor Healy never filled any of the commission’s seats.
Aware of the vacancies, in its 2015 CFMP the Department of Public Works called for the city to “fill and kick-start” the commission Healy had signed into law:
“One of the most apparent issues (or opportunities),” according to the report, “is the fact that there are multiple initiatives by several agencies and groups within Jersey City which are directed at establishing and taking care of Jersey City’s trees, but to date all the efforts have not been consolidated under one authority … Jersey City can benefit from a more coordinated effort related to its tree resources.” The fact that shade tree commissions “expand community involvement” would also make the city’s community forestry efforts more effective, the report adds.
But the city never took its own department’s advice. In fact, it did just the opposite. In 2019 the City Council killed the shade tree commission entirely. In its place, it created a Shade Tree Committee that lacks regulatory and budgetary power.
That is not to say the committee has no responsibility. Its members review and comment on the city’s forestry standards, issue an annual report summarizing tree-related activities within the city, and review informational copies of tree-related work orders submitted to the DPW every month. But its power to enforce the city’s regulations or implement its own recommendations is virtually nil.
Should a developer violate the forestry standards, the committee has no power to fine him (or her); should the city remove and replace numerous trees, the committee may “recommend” it do otherwise, but it cannot enforce such recommendations; should the city divert budgeted forestation dollars to other areas, the committee has no ability to intervene. In sum, the Jersey City Shade Tree Committee gets to have lots of input but is purely advisory.
The city has also given property owners and developers leeway to remove trees. One 2017 ordinance amendment deleted a key provision that had required a public hearing before three or more trees in the public right-of-way could be removed. The new language allowed property owners to have trees adjoining their properties removed if “required for the development of the property or the improvement of the sidewalk.” This vague wording created a sizable loophole for developers.
A Path Forward
Hoping to close such loopholes and toughen the city’s tree protections in general is Deb Italiano and Sustainable Jersey City. For the third time in three years, the city is amending its tree regulations. One of seven voting members of the Shade Tree Committee, SJC has been lobbying hard for the ordinance to have real teeth:
“SJC would urgently like the city to amend the current tree ordinance to remove loopholes that allow for indiscriminate tree removal; to add best practices for tree management suggested by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection Urban and Community Forestry Program and the U.S. Forest Service; to coordinate with the county and other city divisions that have a hand in tree business rather than act alone; and to provide a funding mechanism for trees that would not only ensure the city spend $2 per capita on trees annually but also establish an earmarked Shade Tree Fund to manage budgeted city funds, donations, and grant monies that would be inviolable,” Italiano said.
But if recent meetings of the committee are any indication, Italiano is not getting her way. So contentious are meetings that by August the committee had still not adopted the minutes from its meeting in February. (Italiano had wanted the minutes to reflect detailed substantive matters that had been discussed; the other members did not.) And not a single one of the protections SJC has been trying to add to the law made it into the ordinance’s final draft.
That final version, which may come before the City Council on Wednesday, December 2, will ensure that the Shade Tree Committee remains a body with solely advisory powers and that ambitious goals for the city’s reforestation will remain checked.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Division of Parks and Forestry is a lack of funding and manpower. The revised ordinance also leaves the committee without any budget to spend on planting; it leaves unsaid anything about enforcement; it removes many of the requirements for public hearings for tree removals; and it ignores the visionary community forestry management plans completely.
But these changes appear to be by design. Granting SJC many of the changes it had requested would “transform the Shade Tree Committee into a governing body rather than an advisory body,” said city Assistant Corporation Counsel John McKinney. And this wouldn’t “make sense,” he said, because the city adheres to the Faulkner Act (the Optional Municipal Charter Law), which gives the Mayor ultimate sway.
The Faulkner Act, McKinney explained, is also the reason the city should not have a Shade Tree Commission. Shade Tree Commissions are fine, he argued, in municipalities that don’t have a “strong mayor” and that lack departments of public works. But should a shade tree commission in Jersey City ever go to court against the mayor, the mayor, he said, would win. McKinney acknowledged exceptions such as Hoboken, which is Faulkner Act city with a shade tree commission. But, he said, Hoboken does not have a department of public works. But in discussing other Faulkner Act municipalities that have both shade tree commissions and departments of public works (such as Brick and Jackson Township), he suggested that these towns “don’t understand what a commission is.”
Italiano is also prodding Jersey City to change its ways technologically. Indeed, SJC is offering two powerful technologies to Parks and Forestry, but so far, the city isn’t biting.
One is tree mapping software called Open Tree Map that not only identifies the species, age, and condition of each tree but verifies the species and calculates to the dollar the economic benefit of each tree in the database. It also features a powerful reporting module that would enable the city to better prioritize its planting and preservation efforts (for example, it can compare tree coverage by neighborhood.)
SJC tested the software this past year. With the help of 300 “citizen science” volunteers trained in basic tree science, the group measured, photographed, and classified 6,000 trees citywide. Italiano revels in this crowd-sourced data because she envisions these volunteers as ongoing “stewards” who can not only update the information in their areas regularly but offer ongoing support to the city’s own foresters.
Developing this data — and all the reporting that goes along with it — has been rhetorically important to Jersey City for a long time. It was one of the highest priority tasks listed in the city’s 2010 CFMP; as recently as 2018, former Jersey City Forester Ryan Metz described this type of inventory as “a must have that we do not have.”
On a parallel track, the city has been conducting a tree inventory as well. Its latest tree mapping project began in 2019 with help from NJCU and expanded in 2020 with support from Montclair State University students and faculty. The students, who worked in Wards A, B, and F, inventoried the wards’ trees and used infrared gas analyzers to measure how much carbon the city’s trees were sequestering. A public dashboard provides snapshots of their findings.
Italiano is all for community engagement but thinks it makes more sense to have trained Jersey City residents inventory the city’s trees rather than Essex County college students. With SJC’s “citizen science” volunteers, she argues, the city will have a steady source of technical help for years to come. SJC’s software is also way more powerful than the city’s, according to Italiano. Indeed, Italiano describes the city’s technology as “a spreadsheet and a dashboard only.” The city’s former forester, Ryan Metz has called this mere combination “unacceptable.”
Italiano would also like the city to use more sophisticated and powerful technology to update its 2015 canopy assessment. That study did not meet U.S. Forest Service standards nor did it reveal the reasons for and effects of the city’s canopy’s loss. (It showed the direction and the amount of the change only). This is a serious limitation.
Italiano wants the city to contract with the University of Vermont since its technology is state of the art and comes highly recommended by cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. But it would cost $9,700. According to Italiano, this would be money well spent. At the very least, she hopes the Shade Tree Committee will be open minded and do its due diligence and give UVM an in-person opportunity to make its case.
Unsurprisingly, the city claims to be addressing many of Italiano’s concerns. Says Wallace-Scalcione,
“The city has taken multiple steps in recent years to improve the health of the tree canopy, including adopting forestry standards in 2018 that require proper placement and planting of trees by developers and property owners, increasing the required number of street trees planted as part of new development, beginning an accurate tree inventory to help manage trees across the city, and parallel efforts to assess tree canopy using LIDAR.”
And the city is changing its tree maintenance practices here and there.
“One difference now is we are caring for [trees] more closely from the day we plant them. A watering truck goes around the city at least once a week depending on heat and rain conditions,” said former city Business Administrator Brian Platt this past spring.
Regulations for replacement trees on sidewalks and for trees in front of new developments have also changed. They call for tree pits larger than last year, if possible, depending on sidewalk size.
And the city is attempting to mitigate problems when a tree’s roots crack and dislodge surrounding sidewalk concrete over time. According to Platt, the city’s newest trees will have roots that travel downward and be less expansive.
But, in the end, it’s a numbers game. According to the JCEC’s 2015 report, in order for Jersey City to increase its tree canopy by a mere one percent, the city would need 10,000 additional trees — net. According to the city’s open data, this year the city planted 557 trees. At this rate, and assuming no trees die or are cut down in the meantime, Jersey City will reach the twenty percent tree canopy considered adequate in 2180.
A Question of Priorities
Ultimately, it’s a question of priorities. Since taking office, Mayor Fulop has positioned himself as a champion of the environment. In 2014, he was lauded by the Sierra Club for his call to reduce carbon pollution. In 2015, Sierra Club New Jersey Director Jeff Tittel called Fulop “one of the state’s ‘champions of fighting greenhouse gas emissions.’” In 2017, Fulop signed the Mayor’s Climate Commitment to uphold the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement; in 2018, he signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy; that same year, Mayor Fulop created an Office of Sustainability.
And, indeed, the city has implemented splashy green initiatives like bike and ride sharing, composting and plastic bag bans. In June, Mayor Fulop pushed through a contract to build “vertical gardens” for the purpose of growing dark, leafy greens for city residents. The cost: close to one million dollars. The City Council approved this expenditure with virtually no proof that the program would achieve its goal of encouraging people to eat healthier foods. The same expenditure would have paid for the planting of approximately 1,000 trees with all of their proven benefits.
To some advocates, these green initiatives only make Jersey City’s failure to maintain and grow its tree canopy more perplexing. Says Italiano:
“The mayor and council clearly know that sustainability is critical. But they need to back it up with actions, some of which will cost money. Certainly, the business case for urban forestry investment is apparent. There is no other municipal asset that pays dividends year after year in the way trees do.”
Ron Leir and Aaron Morrill contributed to the this article.
Featured photo by Aaron Morrill