In the Fight Over N.Y.C. Sidewalks, Tree Beds Are the Smallest Frontier

Over 660,000 trees line the streets of New York City, and the beds around them take up more than 400 acres, according to a city estimate. While many people just walk by the rectangular openings in the sidewalk from which the trees spring — or, worse, use the spaces as trash cans and doggy litter boxes — others lay claim, unofficially, to these pocket-size patches of land.

As the weather warms, these caretakers swing into action.

They plant flowers, post signs to ward off dog owners, and fashion fences from broomsticks, linoleum tiles and old skateboards. Some create mini memorials to departed loved ones.

It all makes sense. In a concrete jungle where few residents have yards, the tiny parcels offer New Yorkers a rare chance to dig into the soil, connect with nature and make something beautiful grow.

“The tree bed is the unsung hero of the urban forest,” said Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, which has “ambassadors” in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn who watch over young trees and fill their beds with native plants. “If we’re going to build a robust tree canopy for the city, we need to be thinking about the ground and caring for the ground.”

Not everyone is enthralled with such ad hoc acts of stewardship, though. After a picket fence was erected around a tree on the Upper East Side not long ago, a man ripped it out to make it easier for his dog to do its business. He was hauled into court.

Len Maniace, who organizes the Tree LC team for the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, uses a lopper to trim a tree.Credit…Emma Rose Milligan for The New York Times

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