New York City street

The Sidewalk Gray Zone

As landscape architects, we are often under the impression that because we love urban trees and seeing new trees planted, that everyone around us will love these plantings as well. Some city dwellers do in fact welcome trees with great excitement, but others may see the trees as an intrusion of their private space or territory.

A recent paper titled, “Public Reactions to New Street Tree Planting” by Rae, Simon, and Braden looks at the MillionTreesNYC program, which was part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC – a project focused on creating a greener, greater New York City. The MillionTreesNYC program intended to plan one million trees by 2017, thereby increasing the overall tree canopy of NYC – and in fact, they beat their goal handily, planting the millionth in November 2015. According to an estimate from 2001, city’s canopy is at 24%. The Mayor promised to use all available sidewalk spaces allocated for street trees, increasing the street tree stocking level from 74% to 100%.

The Million Trees effort aside, a more typical tree planting in New York City was done on an individual request basis, meaning citizens could contact the city and request a free tree to be planted in front of their property. These requests were fulfilled on a first come, first served basis, as the number of requests often outnumbered the available supply of street trees. In addition, city foresters identified other areas which were good candidates for street trees where no request had been made. In these instances, building owners were given the opportunity to refuse the tree planting.

Trees are still planted to fulfill requests from citizens, and approximately thirty to forty percent of trees planted are in response to individual requests citywide. However, the majority of new street trees planted by the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Central Forestry & Horticulture (DPR CF&H) follow the policy priority of mass block planting. Block planting brings trees and their benefits to neighborhoods that previously had few or no trees, while also making significant strides towards accomplishing planting goals. With this new program, the City enforced its legal authority over the sidewalk and implemented a planting policy that no longer allowed building owners the ability to deny a suitable tree planting in the public right-of-way.

But while the city has legal authority over the sidewalk, responsibility for this zone also lies with citizens. This “Sidewalk Grey Zone” is one reason the public can have negative reactions to tree plantings. In this example, The City of New York owns the space between the curb and the property line, but the home or business owner is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the sidewalk.

The collective history of New York’s tree and sidewalk laws reflect competing interests and conflicts between property owners and city agencies. In the case of trees, these laws can cause frustration and trigger feelings of territoriality. Human territoriality is linked to concepts of personalization and privacy (Sommer 2004), and can range from positive feelings and caring about a place, to negative emotions to changes in the conditions or users of an area. This is why the “Sidewalk Grey Zone” can be a contested area. The sidewalk belongs to the City and is a public right of way, but not every resident wants a tree planted there, regardless of the public benefit. Sidewalks are both public and private spaces. They must allow for public access, but can also evoke feelings of personal ownership and territoriality. Although trees physically transform the grey infrastructure of sidewalk into a green space, the sidewalk is a literal, figurative, and psychological grey zone.

To fully understand the types of responses residents had to street tree planting, the study investigated the content of letters, emails, and transcriptions of calls from 311 received by the Parks Department’s Central Forestry and Horticulture Division between 2007 and 2009. Of all the tree-related complaints, “placement objection” was the largest primary category of complaint (33%). Of those complaints, most people were concerned about the disturbance of utility lines.

In the category of “policy objections,” 57% of complaints were a general refusal, meaning the resident did not want a tree in front of their property. This reaction assumes dissatisfaction with the planting policies and the city exercising its authority over right of way areas. It also indicates how the planting of street trees can evoke issues of territoriality and control. A total of 28% of complaints were objections to planting based on lack of notification prior to planting; 18% of complaints were about of a general lack of notification, and 10% of complaints were objections to the cut in the sidewalk or were reported by property owners who had recently paved their sidewalks. Complaints of poor notification may indicate either actual property ownership, or a sense of ownership, over this shared sidewalk space

GIS analysis also showed that the highest density of citizen complaints was coming from areas of recent block plantings. Block planting is popular with cities, as it can quickly transform grey sidewalks into ribbons of green. Yet block planting, and sometimes even individual tree planting, can sometimes happen without residents being aware the trees are coming. Some welcome this planting, while others are wary and resent the unasked for instrusion.

Notification of and involvement in the planting process could help with a citizen’s sense of ownership over the sidewalk by giving them more investment in new street trees. However, given the scale and complexity of the Parks Department’s citywide planting projects, large scale citizen involvement would be difficult to manage. MillionTreesNYC does have biannual volunteer planting days, but these involve the planting of trees in parks citywide (City of New York 2010), and not necessarily outside someone’s front door. The city also has a website that provides educational publications including instructions on tree care and an explanation of all the steps in the street tree planting process, but not every resident may be aware of this information.

The DPR CF&H Division does conducts public outreach about its upcoming block street tree planting activities via the posting of block planting posters and flyers. Additional targeted education on tree benefits and expanded notification of planting processes and procedures, particularly in advance in targeted block planting areas, could increase public acceptance of the new street tree planting. If residents were more aware of what was about to happen to their street and sidewalks, they might be more receptive to the new street trees.

Before embarking on a large scale planting project, consider reaching out to the citizens in your area to inform them when and where the planting will be happening, what it means for them, and what the benefits of city trees are. If possible, involving the public in the tree planting event may lead to and increased sense of ownership and civic pride, and an increased appreciation for street trees. When it comes to street tree plantings, communication is key.


Nicole Peterson is a landscape designer with The Kestrel Design Group.

Living-Learning Programs / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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