Who Volunteers to Steward the Urban Forest in New York City?

By Dana R. Fisher, James J. Connolly, Erika S. Svendsen and Lindsay K. Campbell
New York, NY (February 1, 2010)- Who volunteers to steward the urban forest in New York City and how do volunteer stewards get involved in these activities? This paper presents results from research on volunteer stewards at the MillionTreesNYC tree planting events in spring 2010, which were sponsored by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit organization focused on enhancing underused green spaces throughout NYC.

For this study, we surveyed a random sample of adult volunteers who participated in the MillionTreesNYC spring planting events in parks throughout New York City. The volunteers commemorated Earth Day by planting trees and mulching wooded areas during morning and early afternoon hours. The survey included questions about where the volunteers came from to participate, how they heard about the event, with whom they came to the event, what prior connections they had with local environmental stewardship organizations, and their levels of civic/political engagement prior to the event.
Over half of the respondents of the study were women and most were relatively young (the median age was 28). Volunteer stewards tended to be white and well educated. In comparison to the New York City population as a whole, our sample population contains a greater percentage of whites, females, and highly educated people. These differences are consistent with national trends in voluntarism.
Politics and Civic Engagement
Politically, volunteer stewards tend to be more liberal than the American population. Volunteer stewards reported being engaged in all types of civic and political activities, from voting in an election to signing a petition. In most cases, the volunteer stewards were significantly more engaged in civic and political activities than the American population.
Environmental Stewardship
Although the majority of the volunteers at the MillionTreesNYC planting events were relatively inexperienced when it came to other stewardship activities, roughly one-fifth of them demonstrated a high degree of prior engagement. Experienced volunteers had been to previous tree plantings, were members of local stewardship organizations, and took care of trees at other sites. They showed higher overall levels of civic engagement than the rest of the sample and overwhelmingly heard about the event through their affiliations with local stewardship organizations.
A comparably sized group of novice volunteers had never been to tree plantings before the event. These individuals were not members of local stewardship organizations and did not take care of trees at other sites. Personal ties played a much larger role for these novice volunteer stewards. They tended to hear about the event from their individual social networks comprised of family, friends, or colleagues. It is also worth noting that novice stewards were less civically engaged than the more experienced stewards.
Future Research
Our findings suggest that planting trees leads to better citizenship-in other words, the more a person is involved in environmental stewardship, the more s/he engages with other types of civic and political activities. To understand the directionality of this relationship, however, more research is needed. The next stage of this research project will collect data at the fall planting events of MillionTreesNYC to compare to volunteer stewards from the spring 2010 events. We will also be following up with a sample of volunteer stewards from the spring events to explore this relationship in more detail.
Related Resource:
Who Volunteers to Steward the Urban Forest in New York City? An Analysis of Participants in MillionTreesNYC planting events