Partnering with Nature
In New York’s Urban Jungle

For nearly two decades, former F&ES classmates Jennifer Greenfeld and Bram Gunther have worked to strengthen nature’s role in an unlikely setting: New York City, where restored salt marshes, healthy forests, and 1 million newly planted trees have given the Big Apple an ecological makeover.
Million Trees NYC
In 2007, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the most ambitious plan in the history of urban forestry: Million Trees NYC, a program to plant and care for one million new trees throughout the Big Apple’s streets and parks. For most Gothamites, the announcement simply heralded a leafier, more inviting cityscape; the singer Bette Midler rejoiced that New York would soon be “cool, green and refreshing.” But for Jennifer Greenfeld ’91 M.F.S. and Bram Gunther ’91 M.E.M., urban foresters with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Bloomberg’s project also represented a monumental logistical challenge: where the heck was New York City going to find a million new trees, and where would it put them?
greenfeld gunther yale fes distinguished alums
Jennifer Greenfeld, left, and Bram Gunther
To the uninitiated, the notion of urban nature may seem a bit of an oxymoron. Since John Muir roamed the High Sierras, nature has tended to conjure visions of unspoiled wilderness fundamentally separate from humanity: the old-growth forests of the Olympics, say, or Yellowstone’s bison-dotted valleys. On this increasingly urbanized planet, however, a growing share of our encounters with the natural world occurs not in pristine settings, but in cities — less backcountry, more backyard. In New York, where 8 million people share space with 5 million trees, the task of preserving and promoting urban nature falls to Greenfeld and Gunther, former classmates at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who will receive Distinguished Alumni Awards during the F&ES Reunion Weekend on Oct. 8.
For Bram Gunther, the director of the Parks Department’s Urban Field Station in Bayside, Queens, and a New York native, a passion for city nature came, well, naturally. Although Gunther studied tropical ecology at Yale, the tug of family and friends pulled him home after graduation. He earned as a job as a ranger with the Parks Department, which stationed him in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park. For decades, the Bronx had been synonymous with urban decay; what Gunther found, however, was a 1,100-acre swath of greenery whose forested interior was inhabited by such improbable city dwellers as foxes, scarlet tanagers, and wood frogs.
“I started seeing the kinds of small changes in the ecosystem that you don’t get to see if you’re just passing through,” Gunther recalls. “And I saw how important it was for people — not only those who lived right next to it, but who came to it from all over the city to appreciate its beauty and natural history.”
Land management cannot be disassociated from the people who live in those neighborhoods, how they feel about those natural areas, and what they want to get from those spaces.
— Bram Gunther
Gunther swiftly rose through the department’s ranks, from director of rangers to, eventually, chief of the division of Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources. In 2006, Fiona Watt, ’89 B.A., ’95 M.E.M. at the time the division chief and later its Assistant Commissioner, founded the U.S. Forest Service’s first urban field station, jointly operated by the Forest Service and the city’s Parks Department; in 2010, the station moved to Fort Totten, a rehabilitated Army installation in Queens. The office, under Gunther’s direction, is today devoted both to conducting environmental research that informs management, and to communicating the value of urban nature to the public. Oftentimes, those spheres overlap: In 2013, for instance, the station partnered with the Natural Areas Conservancy, a private stewardship group that Gunther co-founded in 2012, to conduct a massive social survey designed to determine how New Yorkers use and value 9,000 acres of city parks.
“Land management cannot be disassociated from the people who live in those neighborhoods, how they feel about those natural areas, and what they want to get from those spaces,” Gunther says. The notion of an Urban Field Station likely never crossed the mind of Gifford Pinchot, the legendary Yale forester who served as first chief of the fledgling Forest Service; yet Pinchot’s notion of stewarding nature “for the greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run” is well embodied by Gunther’s conception of urban forestry as public service.
The same civic spirit has guided the career of Jennifer Greenfeld, the Parks Department’s Assistant Commissioner of Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources. Like Gunther, Greenfeld is an urbanite at heart: She grew up in suburban Baltimore, and as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania she conducted a tree inventory with the help of schoolkids in Philadelphia. After leaving Yale, she worked for several years in the environmental sector in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, then drove back across the country with her husband in 1997, headed for New York. Somewhere in Middle America, Greenfeld called her old classmate, Gunther, to solicit advice about seeking employment in the city. Sure, he said — come work with me at the Parks Department.
Urban trees create that connection to the natural world that’s separate from all the built infrastructure — mailboxes, telephone poles, fire hydrants — around you.
— Jennifer Greenfeld
In the years since, Greenfeld has devoted most of her efforts to understanding and quantifying the benefits of New York’s quietest residents: its trees. Although the city is home to hundreds of tree species, most urbanites pay little mind to their leafy neighbors — at least not consciously. “No matter where you are in the city, trees are working dutifully in the background,” says Greenfeld, who spearheaded a census in 2006 that surveyed nearly 600,000 trees citywide. “On a hot summer day, people walk down the street on the shady side, whether they’re aware of it or not. Then there are the benefits we really don’t notice, like cleaning the air and mitigating urban heat island effect — not just creating shade, but cooling down the entire city.”
The greatest contribution of New York’s trees, perhaps, is all but impossible to quantify. “If you work on the fifth floor of a building all day, how do you even know what season it is without the tree canopy below?” Greenfeld asks. “Urban trees create that connection to the natural world that’s separate from all the built infrastructure — mailboxes, telephone poles, fire hydrants — around you.”
When Mayor Bloomberg launched his Million Trees NYC initiative in 2007, then, Watt, Greenfeld, and Gunther were obvious choices to help lead the project. At the time, the city was planting around 10,000 trees per year; installing a million in the next decade would require increasing that work tenfold. To fulfill that lofty objective, Greenfeld and Gunther realized they’d have to completely reshape how New York City obtains its trees. No longer would it suffice to simply purchase whatever stock northeastern nurseries had on hand; instead, the trio rewrote the city’s procurement contracts, entering into long-term agreements with nurseries that would allow New York to dictate the species, size, and provenance of all its trees. With its supply chain secure, the city planted its millionth tree in October 2015 — two years ahead of schedule.
Although most of the inventory was planted in parks, it’s the street trees that have effected the most noticeable changes. “We did targeted planting in these pockets where there was little to no historic tree canopy,” Greenfeld says. “You go into neighborhoods now, and you can feel the difference — you see street after street of young, growing canopy.”
For all their importance, trees aren’t the only form of urban nature in New York City. In recent years, Greenfeld and Gunther have helped install passages for ocean-going fish blocked by dams in the Bronx River; restored hundreds of acres of coastal salt marshes; and trained citizens to collect ash seeds to protect the insect-ravaged trees from extirpation. They’ve also focused on improving the city’s resiliency in the face of climate change — including the possibility of returning to nature the shorelines hammered in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy, the tempest that nearly wiped some of New York’s coastal communities, like the Rockaways, off the map.
“How do you manage an increasingly crowded city, faced with flooding, drought, heat waves, and other unpredictable weather, when you can’t grow in landmass?” Gunther asks. “It’s about learning to use the land to manage and control water, managing the land to mitigate heat, managing the land to benefit communities.” For millennia, we humans have treated our urban areas as a triumph over nature; perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the fate of the world’s most famous city depends on its willingness to partner with the natural world.
Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, High Country News, OnEarth MagazineYale Environment 360, and elsewhere.
PUBLISHED: October 5, 2016
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.