As part of our service in the green renovation of a brownstone Eco Brooklyn looks at the brownstone plot in its entirety. This means we don’t just gut and renovate the interior. We also look at how the interior effects the exterior. As a NY green contractor we look at the whole system, from the inside of the house, to the roof, the gardens, the block and the whole city.

The reason for this is that a Brooklyn and NY brownstone is intricately connected to all these parts. The main connection is through water, most specifically water waste and run off. Your normal brownstone is designed to remove all water (rain, toilets, showers, sinks) immediately off the property into the one sewer line. Inside the house you have your drain pipes. Outside the house you have your roof and garden drains.

This mix of clean rain water, semi clean sink and shower water (gray), and dirty toilet water (black) sometimes pass to the overworked water refining plants in the city. But often the water passes directly to the canals and rivers of NY – millions of gallons a day of toxic water polluting our water runways.

This is a problem set up by the city when they mistakenly combined their rainwater runoff and sewer lines during the construction of New York City. So all the rain water from the roofs and streets goes to the same pipes as our toilet, sink and shower water. The pipes can’t handle it all and so they have overflows into the NYC waterways.

And there is no going back now since to separate the two is too expensive.

So we at Eco Brooklyn keep this in mind when doing a NY or Brooklyn green renovation. When the budget allows we implement gray water collection, rain water collection, composting toilets, a green roof, rain gardens, dry wells in the gardens, and a tree pit in the sidewalk if there isn’t one already with a dry well under it. Basically we attempt to completely stop all water from leaving the site.

Our understanding of how a brownstone is connected to the rest of the city propels us to DISCONNECT the brownstone from the overburdened city.

Which brings us to sidewalk tree planting. If the sidewalk in front of the house does not have a tree then we file to install one. Here is an example of what that application would look like:

Tree Pit Application Example

In our desire to reduce the city’s amount of hard surfaces and increase the amount of permeable soft surfaces we make the tree well as large as legally possible which is 13.5’x5′. The city actually likes us to go to the legal limit since it allows max space for the roots and reduces future sidewalk buckling. You can’t go much larger than 13.5×5 because emergency people like fire fighters and medics need a wide pathway from the street to the house and along the sidewalk along the front of the house.

The act of planting a tree is actually not that important in the short term. In the long term it is imperative of course. But more immediately we need to remove the concrete sidewalk and create yet another place in the brownstone ecosystem where water can pass.

Eco Brooklyn digs a lot deeper than your typical landscape company. We dig down a good six feet. We then line the bottom of the hole with root barrier and two feet of gravel. That way we have created a small dry well. Then we put the soil and tree on top of that.

We make a barely perceptible cut in the sidewalk so that water is diverted into the drywell. We also make a little cut in the curb so water from the street can pass into the well. It won’t capture all of it but it helps.Tree Pit Water Collection

Once we prep the dry dry well we then install the tree.

When you submit an application a NYC tree inspector comes to the site and decides what tree you can plant depending on the site and the rest of the block’s character. Light, water exposure and the other trees on the block are considerations.

They pick the tree from a list of allowed trees that have been chosen for hardiness, non invasiveness of roots, non invasiveness of species, aesthetics, and size. If you look at the last two pages of NYC Tree Planting Standards (a wealth of info BTW) you will see the list of permissible trees.

One very important thing to note is that the NYC list is NOT limited to native NY trees. This is a real shame since trees that are native to our area contribute so much more biodiversity. The local animals, insects and plants have a long standing relationship with native trees. Non-native trees are much less friendly to local critters and thus are no way near as beneficial to creating a vibrant ecosystem.

So what I have done is gone through the list of allowed trees and highlighted the native ones. As reference I used the book Native Plants of the Northeast by D Leopold which is a great book. As cross reference I used the NYC Dept of Parks native and non native trees, which is also listed below:

General NY native and non native trees

The two lists matched up except for Shingle Oak which one listed as native and the other non (underlined in red). I believe it is native.

Here is the NYC permissible list of trees for sidewalks with the native ones highlighted.

Permissible NYC Trees with Native Tree Highlighted

My two favorites are the Tulip Tree and the Shingle Oak. You can’t go wrong with an oak. They live for hundreds of years and a full grown oak provides a habitat for literally thousands of animals, bugs and plants. Planting a tree is a true exercise in the Build It Forward ethos, especially with Oaks.

When you plant an Oak tree you are not planting it for yourself because it takes a good 50 years for its greatness to emerge and it doesn’t reach adulthood for a good hundred years.

Planting a tree is an act of humility in that we are acknowledging our short lived lives in the greatness of the time’s continuum. And it is a great act of selfless kindness since it is a present to future generations who we will never meet. For those two reasons alone we must plant trees.

We plant the tree as a long term investment for the planet and then let it be. It won’t be very impressive and will look like a spindly little tree for most of our lives. But we aren’t planting it for us.

Then we plant small plants and bushes for our own enjoyment. We create a beautiful little oasis on the street for bugs, animals and the occasional human to rest around. We put large river rocks that we salvage from cellar dig outs. We border the tree pit with smaller river stones to keep plants away from being stepped on by pedestrian traffic.