How You Can Make a Difference: Trees

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Nellie Van Driska, C+S ’16

What we learned in C+S over the past year did not prepare me to make an actual difference. It is easy to go over the theory behind climate change and imagine solutions and have it seem so easy when you are sitting in a classroom. In the real world, there are no easy solutions but that doesn’t make it any less important to try to find them, especially at the local level.

I knew going into my internship that I would be involved in something smaller than a lot of my fellow classmates. Some of them were working on bigger topics at a more global scale. People often talk about making a difference in their community, and this summer I was involved in making an actual difference in an actual community.

The Human Impacts Institute (HII) is a small environmental non-profit in Williamsburg with only two full time employees and a rotating supply of interns (this summer I was on of five such interns).

Nellie 1

Tara DePorte, a C+S alum from the first year the program was offered, founded HII with “a mission to foster sustainable human impacts through community engagement, collaboration, knowledge-building and creativity.” To achieve its mission goals, HII is involved in programs that educate communities about climate change and the environment around them as well as introduce people to ways in which they can make a difference towards creating a better earth. This is the story of one such program.

New York can be pretty disgusting. It smells and has trash lining every street. Harsh words, I know. It used to be worse a few decades ago and while the city has made progress to be sure, there’s still a ways to go.

New York has some laws against littering, but those laws are under-enforced and ineffective. This leaves us, as New Yorkers, to have to put up with streets lined with plastic bags and broken umbrellas. And for most part we do put up with and turn a blind eye. But there is danger in our continued apathy towards trash-filled sidewalks. We are ignoring the other denizens of our city, the ones who can’t speak for themselves, who can’t clean up after us.

Trees and plants are also living members of New York, yet they are forced to deal with their sometimes negligent human neighbors. We humans can go inside and leave the grimy streets behind, but trees are trapped in place.

Trees in our city are not just there for shade and a place to toss your cigarette butt. There are multiple benefits of urban trees, including improving air quality, decreasing asthma and obesity, reducing stormwater runoff, storing carbon and reducing energy expenditures among countless others.

Nellie 2

This summer I was part of a small, local effort to make street trees happy. Every Tuesday, HII leads something called “Tree-Care Tuesday.” We worked with with volunteers that have in the past included classrooms of children and mentally disabled adults to care for street trees. This involves first cleaning the area around the tree of garbage, then digging up any weeds or invasive plants living around the base of the tree, planting small plants around the base (part of the Parks Departments’ effort to re-introduce native species back into New York), and finally spreading mulch around the trees roots to protect it and keep in moisture.

I never imagined that I would be gardening for my internship, but this is exactly what I found myself doing every Tuesday. Seeing trees go from being surrounded by cigarette butts and broken needles (yes, we actually did find several broken needles) to flourishing in a bed of native plants and fresh mulch was inspiring. Climate change doesn’t have a single solution, and actions that you take might not seem like a big deal on a planetary basis. But taking care of our leafy neighbors is a simple way to make a difference in our everyday lives and the lives of the people around you and the ecosystem that we share our city space with.

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