In July, fencing went up at Washington Square Park barricading the Northwest lawn, adorned with signs with Washington Square Park Conservancy logos on them stating “Lawn Restoration Work Ongoing” and pointing to a page on the private conservancy’s web site. This was curious in itself since Washington Square Park is run and managed by the New York City Parks Department – unlike other parks such as Bryant Park and Madison Square Park where private entities (a Business Improvement District and a conservancy) run those parks. Any work on the lawns at WSP has traditionally been done with NYC Parks signage and under the city agency’s jurisdiction.
I’ve noted since the “murky” advent of this private conservancy in 2013 — this entity was created behind closed doors and amidst the four wealthy founding members’ misrepresentations of the truth when they finally appeared before the public — that this could only lead down a slippery slope, with this private organization angling to take on more and more turf. It’s text book and only some members of Community Board 2 chose not to see it. The community that uses this public space has wanted the park to remain under public, not private, oversight, and this was a big battle for years. The “arrangement” was supposed to be that this organization raised funds, planted (too many) flowers. That’s one issue here which I’ll come back to.
The larger issue at the moment pertaining to this “ongoing work” is alarming concerns being voiced by arborists that this extensive “lawn restoration” will be the death of the park’s trees. So many have died already (see perpetually dying trees around fountain, for one).
“The Making of a Tree Disaster”
In late July, I received an email from NYC-based certified arborist Carsten Glaeser, an urban tree expert, after he witnessed the work underway:
To my astonishment and dismay the bulldozer operation was occurring within the park and under a grove of a dozen plus large historic trees that populate an open grassy field. The Kelco operator informed me he was just following the plans handed to him by the Conservancy architect and to bury by mounding this open area underneath these trees in order to halt soccer pick-up games. Are you kidding me!
Here’s the issue. If you were to think and function like a tree where you derive much of your mineral, moisture and oxygen needs (yes tree roots breath O2 via root respiration) from tree roots just under the soil surface and then had a 5-6 ft depth of top soil dumped from large dump trucks across the trees wide spreading root system (and along with that of your neighboring tree cohorts and their root systems)- the long-term outcome for tree health and tree survivability is not good. Add the back and forth movement of a cleated bulldozer weighing several tons not only compacting the subsoils but every layer of the newly placed top soil, and you have the making of a tree disaster.
This is not to forget the accumulative tree impacts over much of the tree’s lifespan from general pedestrian use (people pressure), weekly Parks tractor lawn mowers and other Parks maintenance operations over the years.
Yet this lawn restoration project occurred when there exist a number of alternative tree-friendly methods available that both manage park user activity and more important to optimize the health of this vital tree resource by not diminishing it.
There were so many issues – and a lawsuit – related to the trees of Washington Square Park during the redesign construction and what would amount to inadequate protection OF them which was predicted all along.
Glaeser later added: “The calamity really is why such an effort and cost for grass and lush lawns when tree biologist have been well aware that lawns and trees and tree roots do not mix well. So … we now know what element in landscape is secondary to the park and park user needs- its trees. But think about it, the one living organism that delivers so much more in ecosystem services over grasses, in harmful particulate matter interception, improving air quality, absorbs and intercepts volumes of storm water absorption (thousands of gallons annually per tree), sequesters and stores carbon in tons annually and does this for decades and decades- and for free.”
He continued, “Yet the behavior by that bunch at the WSP conservancy ignores and dismisses the organism (and its needs- yes, the TREE’S NEEDS) entirely in its management plans as if feet deep of heavy wet top soils is of no consequence to those trees being buried by it.”
Another certified arborist Naomi Zurcher, an expert in urban forestry issues on a global scale, weighed in, stating:
“It’s gross mismanagement of a critically important resource at a time when we can ill-afford to undermine the integrity of this resource. The NYC double-speak continues unimpeded. On the one hand, there’s all this chatter, documented in the NYC Urban Field Station 2018 Annual Progress Report about Cool Neighborhoods (page 6), the Healthy Tree, Healthy Cities Initiative and the Urban Tree Health Monitoring Protocol (page 7) and yet there’s NYC reality as evidenced by what you have witnessed in WSP but which happens all over the City – chatter is abundant but walking the chatter is non existent.”
She continued, “The inadequacy of management and the gross disdain which government agencies have for the urban tree resource borders on fraud – the defrauding of the NYC taxpayer who is being cheated out of essential resources they have paid for. That combined with the undermining of their personal health and well-being by diminishing the effectiveness of trees’ ability to mitigate the effects of Climate Change should be grounds for a class action suit against Parks and their cohorts.”
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Washington Square Park Blog reached out to the New York City Parks Department and has additional information from the agency and arborists which will be published next in Part II.