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Visions of a Greener SoHo

SoHo Broadway History: A look back and look forward at efforts to bring more trees and plantings to the neighborhood

Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22nd. The first Earth Day celebration took place on April 22nd, 1970. Thousands of people, including children and young people, gathered across New York City to raise awareness about environmental issues. In light of this annual call-to-action, we are looking back at campaigns dedicated to increasing the greenery in and around SoHo.

First Annual Earth Day Birthday Parade and Celebration

Bringing trees to long-industrial SoHo

Before artist-activists converted abandoned lofts into live-work studios in the 1970s, SoHo was zoned as a manufacturing and commercial district.

Crosby Street 1978. Photo by Thomas Struth at the Met Museum.

The artist residential spaces were legitimized by the City’s Joint Live-Work Quarters for Artists (JLWQA) which are designated manufacturing spaces where artists are allowed to live and work. Although the neighborhood has become more residential since the 1970s, SoHo’s historic land-use and zoning context as a manufacturing and commercial district (including the widespread presence of vaults below sidewalks) has long presented design and political challenges to updating the neighborhood with more greenery.

In 1994, the Landmarks Preservation Commission said, “trees would ruin the historical integrity of the neighborhood.” Edward Kirkland, Board Member of the Historic Districts Council argued that “[n]othing like planters existed in SoHo in the 19th century” so they were not historically appropriate. Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern countered that “Some purists think trees are out of character with 19th-century SoHo when it was a factory district. So why not have slums and child labor, too? Besides, there may not have been trees in the 19th century, but there were trees in the 18th century and in the century before that. The barren streets of the 19th century were the aberration, not the norm.”

Eventually, with the addition of new members to the Landmarks Preservation Commission appointed by Mayor Giuliani, neighborhood groups Trees Not Trucks and the Grand-Canal Park Group’s organizing was successful in bringing more trees to SoHo. In 1994, the Parks Department planted eight in-ground trees on West Broadway.

Over recent decades, many residents, businesses, and organizations have installed planters as a way to bring trees and greenery to SoHo’s hollow sidewalks, but approvals for such installations have sometimes been complicated. NYC DOT issued updated Permanent Planter Guidelines in 2019.

Looking forward: a verdant future?

As surveyed as part of the 2021 SoHo Broadway Initiative Public Realm Framework + Vision Plan, within and adjacent to the SoHo Broadway District there are 0 trees on Broadway (and only 41 trees on district cross streets and Crosby and Mercer Streets). Participants in a streetside intercept survey, digital survey, and resident focus group expressed a desire for more greenery in the district and an interest in seeing planters, flower pots, and street trees introduced locally. The Vision Plan included concept designs for above-ground planters that could be considered for a future greener SoHo Broadway streetscape:

The mission to increase SoHo’s Broadway greenery and resilience is aligned with the Million More Trees campaign—a recent campaign urging Mayor Adams to plant a million new trees by 2030. Additionally, the campaign calls on the Mayor to spend 1% of the municipal budget on parks. The Million More Trees initiative is supported by a coalition of all five Borough Presidents. The campaign places an emphasis on an equal distribution of trees to address systemic environmental inequities in heat vulnerable areas. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine explained in a statement from 2022:

The “Million More Trees” initiative sees NYC’s trees as so much more than a way to make our city more beautiful – it prioritizes trees as the essential infrastructure they are, driving positive outcomes in public health, equity, and resiliency.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine

Until larger-scale visions of a greener SoHo are realized, we hope readers are looking forward to the coming spring plantings provided by the Initiative in partnership with the Horticultural Society of New York, scheduled to be installed later this month in planters at intersections along Broadway!

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