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New York Vs Nature

The importance of trees in the world-famous concrete jungle



New York City, the most populous city in the United States, is known for its famous skyline consisting of the tallest buildings in the world and over 6 thousand high-rise buildings most popularly made from stone or brick. This specific design choice led to the well-known nickname “the concrete jungle” as referenced in the worldwide hit song “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z in 2009.


In 1625 the island of Manhattan was 80 to 85 percent forested. Now only a couple thousand trees exist on the island; suspected clearing comes from the 18th-century demand for fuelwood for heating, cooking and basic manufacturing. As the city grew deforestation was one of many important changes that shaped New York and specifically Manhattan into what it is today. This quickly developing urban landscape rapidly became an inhospitable environment for trees. In 1910 it was reported that there were only 13 trees between 14th Street and 59th Street which covers a distance of 2.7 miles.


What issues is new york dealing with?


In the 19th century, New York’s population skyrocketed and with that, the need to house and manage the vast number of residents increased. Overcrowding, hot summers and poor sanitary conditions made the city susceptible to dangerous strains of various diseases. Additionally, without trees, New York’s buildings absorbed up to nine times the amount of radiation, furthering the problems this city faced.


Despite improvements, in 2023, the city still deals with serious problems, especially regarding air quality. Recently, global temperatures have risen causing more erratic wildfires around the world. An extreme example of this is the Canadian wildfires that have produced an immense amount of smoke, which has migrated down to New York creating a blanket of haze that obscured visibility and resulted in a plummet of air quality. Low air quality not only affects visibility but can also cause several other health problems including bronchitis and diminishing lung function.


Without trees to absorb the harmful toxins and produce oxygen, it could take twice as long for the city’s air to clear enough to no longer threaten residents across all five boroughs, minimising disruption to people’s lives.


What are the benefits of planting trees?


In the 1870s, physician Stephen Smith argued that planting more trees was a necessity to save lives. Planting more street trees could mitigate the overwhelming heat of the New York summer and save 3000 to 5000 lives per year. As well as providing shade and protection from heat, they could absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants and emit oxygen which is especially beneficial in the current climate crisis. Trees are important everywhere, especially in low-income areas that have a history of less greenery and higher heat–related illnesses. Trees offer essential shade and produce water vapour; it is said they can cool neighbourhoods by up to 10 degrees. Dr. Rosin Commane an atmospheric chemist talks about the importance of trees:

“In cities, we know that trees have this great benefit of cooling, providing shade and just the fact that they are pretty,” as well as “a bonus of carbon uptake”.

Trees can also be a major factor in increasing mental health. Studies show that the presence of green foliage means an increase in mental well-being, improved attention span and decreased stress levels.

Additionally, trees play a big role in preserving biodiversity, certain endangered species need to survive in these areas. There are over 7000 species of plants and wildlife within the city most of which live in the city’s national parks. Increasing foliage means they can be provided with safe habitats.


Lastly, trees are vital in helping deal with their resilience to natural disasters, the roots of trees help to absorb rain and flood water, filter the water supply which helps control the spread of disease, and prevent mudslides.


Why is this important?


In 2015 the UN created its sustainable development goals, some of which include climate action, life on earth and sustainable cities and communities. Trees are an extremely important part of life and for many of these sustainable goals, trees can be an easy and inexpensive way to move further and protect our precious planet.

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