Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights Association working to expand and improve tree pits on Brooklyn Heights streets

August 4, 2016 By Ella Spungen Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photos by Ella Spungen
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The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) is making a move towards larger tree pits in the streets of Brooklyn Heights, in the hopes that this will lead to healthier trees and a healthier city.  

According to Inger Yancey, the chair of the committee involving trees in the BHA and the formerly self-proclaimed “tree lady” of Brooklyn Heights, the BHA has always been committed to street trees.  There wasn’t always the abundance of street trees that we see now in Brooklyn Heights.  “We planted the first ones back in the 40s,” she said, “about 1,000 trees.”  Now, however, is the first time that they have focused on the tree pits.  

Many, if not most, of the tree pits in the area are not large enough to allow the trees to spread their roots as far as is needed.  Furthermore, the lack of soil area leads to less water and nutrients getting to the roots.  There are issues with the existing tree guards, as well.  

If one pays attention to the trees when walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights, some of these issues become obvious.  Some tree pits are so small that they begin to “girdle,” or seemingly strangle, the tree, often killing it.  The sidewalk around a tree may begin to buckle or push up if there isn’t enough soil space for the roots to extend into.  The soil around trees that do not have a tree guard to protect them is often compacted and unhealthy from people walking on it and from urinating dogs.  

Tree guards, while not required by law, may be vital to a tree’s survival.  They protect the soil and roots of a tree from passers-by and from becoming compacted, and warn off dogs and other animals.  They can also give a drab-looking tree or street a facelift.

However, they only work if done properly.  Many guards don’t have the proper gap from the base of the guard to the sidewalk, which is required to allow water to flow into the pit from the sidewalk, even though it is a requirement.  Others aren’t high enough to protect from dogs or people, and only serve as a tripping hazard.  The 2014 standards set by NYC Department of Parks & Recreation stated that tree guards should be around 18 inches tall.

Some complaints have been made about car doors being blocked by tree guards, but as Yancey says, “It’s illegal to have a tree guard that goes along the curbside.”  All of the tree guards recommended by NYC Parks only have three sides, and they state in their “Tree Planting Standards” that tree guards “should be three sided, leaving the street side open.”  

When asked why proper tree guards are not very common in Brooklyn Heights, Yancey simply said that they are fairly expensive.  What can help alleviate the cost, however, is doing a mass installation of tree guards.  If a whole block or a series of houses puts in tree guards all at once, Yancey said, working together with the same contractor and under the same permit, the total cost is much less.  The same holds for expanding tree pits.

The standards for the dimensions of tree pits have recently been updated.  The minimum width of a tree pit is five feet (although this length may be flexible in smaller sidewalks) and the minimum length along the sidewalk is ten feet, with a length of ten to twenty feet recommended.  Many of the tree pits in Brooklyn Heights do not conform to these standards, and this is why the BHA is stepping in.

“The BHA…wants to help people enlarge the tree pits,” Yancey said.  Although the BHA can’t independently fix tree pits, they are working to support any property owners that wish to do so.  “The BHA will contribute some of our money that we’ve reserved for the tree fund,” said Yancey about this support system.  According to a notice that the BHA sent out to its members, they will “contribute up to 50%” of the cost of enlarging a tree pit to most property owners who want to do so.  Yancey continued, “And we will also help connect people with a contractor, who will help them deal with the permitting and the actual, physical work of enlarging the tree pit.”

However, small tree pits aren’t the only thing that can harm street trees.

Yancey stressed that sidewalk deicers, or any kind of sidewalk salt, is a main factor in the death of street trees.  “There are a lot of new trees…that haven’t even lasted three years.  They die because there is too much salt being used on the sidewalks.” When the sidewalks are being hosed down, especially in front of larger buildings, the salt is often swept into the tree pit.  “They don’t realize that they’re killing the trees, so there’s an educational thing that needs to happen,” Yancey said.  

Signs that are put up around a tree can girdle that tree, similar to a small tree pit, effectively killing it.  Another issue is when trucks hit the side of a tree and gouge the bark, cutting off the flow of nutrients and killing that section of the tree.

But why should we care about the trees and the tree pits?  How do they affect us?  As Yancey says, trees “cool streets and buildings by providing shade, provide habitat for animals and birds, add natural beauty to the landscape, and absorb stormwater, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.”  

Not only do well maintained and properly sized tree pits provide a better, healthier habitat for our trees, they help the city with multiple issues.  For instance, trees and tree pits help control the level and route of excess stormwater, leading to cleaner waterways and less flooding in New York City.  Opening up more tree pits also helps lessen the amount of impervious surfaces in the city.  Trees give our neighborhood its character, and they help our urban environment in ways that are rapidly becoming more and more important.


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