All posts by David Weinberger

A note from Erin and Jamie

Dear friends, 

Together, we’ve had front row seats to ioby’s founding and evolution. Many critical moments have changed the course of ioby’s history, none so much as ioby co-founder Brandon Whitney’s contributions. 

From the very beginning, Brandon was laser focused on building an organizational culture that fit our mission. One of the most important pieces of ioby culture that Brandon created was ioby’s Whole Person Policy, which states:

Each staff member, intern, volunteer, partner, and board member brings with them a rich variety of experiences, values, hopes, inspirations, stories, and challenges. By honoring that we are “whole people,” and by drawing on our individual qualities, we are better equipped to help others succeed.
And so:  We will honor the diversity within our team, and respect all individuals as equal members of a collegial community and as people with lives outside ioby. We will nurture our whole selves through pursuit of our own passions, knowledge sharing, fun, and active involvement in our communities.

Brandon, understanding that ioby was combining two worlds—grassroots activism and tech startup—both notorious for staff burnout, saw that this was a potential recipe for disaster. And so, he drew on the work of Parker Palmer and created this policy.

It has resulted in some of the most beautiful things at ioby, including a community of staff who share mutual love and respect for one another. 

Continue reading A note from Erin and Jamie

Some important news from our Co-Founder Brandon

Dear friends,

I write with the hope that you and your loved ones are safe and well. With the challenges that this global pandemic poses, the lives put in jeopardy and even our best-laid plans postponed, it can be a difficult time for change. But I wanted to share some important news with you: After working for over a decade to help build ioby to be where it is today, I’ll be leaving ioby this summer.

I’m confident that ioby is in more capable hands at both the board and staff levels than ever before in our history.

I believe in our mission and ability to achieve it as much as the day we founded ioby. I’ve spent the last decade of my life building this organization and it has been the greatest honor, privilege, and challenge of my career. And while this timing may feel odd right now, ioby’s Co-Founder and CEO, Erin Barnes and I have spent the last year planning this inevitable leadership transition. 

I’m incredibly proud of the way ioby has responded to the pandemic’s impacts, and it’s helped me to reflect on one of the values that I think is most important to us at ioby: listening to residents and centering their voices. 

Continue reading Some important news from our Co-Founder Brandon

How to Get Corporate Sponsorships When You’re Crowdfunding for Civic Change

What makes your community unique? Maybe it’s the physical characteristics of the neighborhood, like architecture or neat murals. Or maybe it’s the spirit of hospitality. Or maybe it’s your neighbors themselves that make it special. Chances are, local businesses are also a big part of your neighborhood’s identity—the shops that know you by name, and the cafes and restaurants that know your order before you walk in. They’re likely unique and one-of-a-kind, too!

If you’re organizing to make positive change in your community, whether you’re a nonprofit or just a group of neighbors with a great idea, local businesses can be a great partner to help you achieve your goals. One way to do this is by partnering with a local business or corporate sponsor to match donations to a fundraising campaign. 

Continue reading How to Get Corporate Sponsorships When You’re Crowdfunding for Civic Change

An update from ioby on COVID-19

Dear ioby community,

I wanted to share some information with you about how the rapidly unfolding situation concerning COVID-19 will impact our work together at ioby. Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our community, and we know that these will be challenging times for all of us. In order to fulfill our role in ensuring our community’s health, and in order to continue to provide support to you, we’re making a few temporary changes to our work together. 

Until further notice, ioby will be transitioning ALL in-person workshops, trainings and events to an online format. This also includes all one-on-one in-person meetings. 

ioby will remain open with all staff working remotely until further notice. We will continue to be ready and available to support your projects via phone, email, and online. 

Continue reading An update from ioby on COVID-19

Awesome Project: One Kin Farm

Growing up in Jamaica, Jimmy and his friends fed the island’s rabbits a diet that any human would envy: bananas, cabbage, grapes, apples and mangoes. Today, four decades later, the 59-year-old lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a residential Brooklyn area that boasts many Caribbean and Latin American immigrants. In a world of concrete and row houses, he and his neighbors are a world away from the easy connection to nature and fresh food that many of them enjoyed before moving to New York City.

One Kin Farm, a partnership with 596 Acres

Learn more about this week’s Awesome Project and keep up with their progress!

“Some of the kids we’ve met literally don’t know that a tomato plant produces tomatoes – the red things, the things you eat.”

ioby Project Leader Bree Hietala is out to change that. Since May, she and a small army of smiling volunteers have been building the One Kin Farm on a vacant lot on Greene Avenue and Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In her words, they plan to fix “the broken bond between people and food” by giving local residents a chance to both grow their own food and to reconnect with nature. Like Jimmy, many of the neighborhood’s residents have lost the association with fresh food that they knew in their youth in other countries and cities.


Others, who have lived their whole lives in the city, are unaware that they are missing a connection at all. Buying food from bodegas—small markets located on nearly every New York street corner—means that most children never see where their food is coming from beyond the other side of the deli counter. “Some of the kids we’ve met literally don’t know that a tomato plant produces tomatoes – the red things, the things you eat,” says Kevin Boyd, another of the garden’s founders.

One Kin Farm is currently growing grapes, raspberries, kale, arugula, cucumbers, potatoes, radishes, collards, squash, peppers and broccoli, and plans to give away the produce for free. People in the neighborhood will be able to watch their food make the full journey from soil to table, without ever coming into contact with Saran wrap or passing by a cash register.

“What they’re doing here is giving my kids a safe space to come and be outside.”

Locals who want to use the space to reconnect with nature don’t have to wait until the harvest. During ioby’s visit to the site, Jimmy stops by to check on Uno and Kinny, the two resident rabbits. These bunnies have quite the social life; a steady stream of visitors stops by their enclosure, while Jana Hawkins watches from her third-floor window. Hawkins and her family moved to the neighborhood at around the same time as One Kin Farm, and already she is amazed at the impact it has had on her children.

“A lot of the dirt in the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and New York has high levels of lead, and so you can take your kids to the playground or to the museum or another great ‘New York’ thing, but you can’t necessarily let them play safely in their own backyard,” she explains. “What they’re doing here is giving my kids a safe space to come and be outside.”

“Here, the community can come together and cook and create and have fun.”

Hawkins’ son Sal chose to plant his house plants in one of the farm’s aquariums when they moved in, and he’s fascinated by their progress. “You can see the root systems now!” the seven-year-old says excitedly. “The garden is doing a much better job taking care of our plant than we did.” His three-year-old sister doesn’t yet grasp the significance of the growing shoots and vines in the garden, but she makes full use of the free play zone at the back of the lot.

The degree of neighborhood participation after just one month is a testament to Hietala and Boyd’s commitment to engaging with the community. As they started to transform the vacant lot, they made sure to greet everyone who walked by, asking each person what they wanted to see growing at One Kin Farm. Soon the collards and kale that these neighbors have requested will be ready to eat, and everyone will gather in the large space behind the rabbit hutch to celebrate the event. “Here, the community can come together and cook and create and have fun,” says Heitala.

For some, the positive change is already being felt. “It feels good to see them here,” Jimmy says, gesturing at Uno and Kinny as they cheerfully oversee raised beds constructed from recycled wooden pallets, dresser drawers, and old aquariums. One can’t help but imagine the scene forty years in the future, when the children who grow up next to One Kin Farm will tell their own stories about feeding the local rabbits.

One Kin Farm raised $674 on ioby. Click here to keep up with their progress!

Awesome Project: Bronx Greenhouse at Intervale Green

Six stories up in the air, 70 feet above the concrete, the earthy aroma of fresh herbs and leafy greens fills the 5,000 square foot rooftop farm located in the South Bronx in New York City. Residents of Intervale Green, the nation’s largest multi-family, Energy Star certified affordable housing development, have been going up to the rooftop to garden, recreate, and pick out fresh ingredients for dinner.

Learn more about this week’s Awesome Project and donate here!

“The rooftop farm was a direct answer to what the tenants desired,” says Rebecca Eigenbauer, Director of Housing Development at the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco), a Bronx-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to make the Bronx a more beautiful, equitable and economically vibrant place to live, work and raise a family. Intervale Green was built on the philosophy that beautiful places can change people’s attitudes by reducing their stress and giving them greater hope. The rooftop farm is among several health and wellness programs offered by WHEDco to its residents.

“[When] I started planting stuff up there, no one would come up, or they would come up and [say things] like ‘I don’t know what this is ‘, ‘this looks weird’ or ‘I’m not going to eat that,'” recalls Shieh.

In Summer 2010, WHEDco, with the help of a United Way grant, was able to equip Intervale Green’s rooftop with hundreds of eight inch deep containers filled with nutrient rich soil. Despite a late start to the growing season, an astonishing 136.41 pounds of produce were harvested the first year.

At first; only a handful of residents were curious enough to venture up to the rooftop. Fa-Tai Shieh, Intervale Green’s Rooftop Farm Consultant, admits that getting residents to use the rooftop farm was difficult. Few residents were familiar with using fresh ingredients provided by the farm. “[When] I started planting stuff up there, no one would come up, or they would come up and [say things] like ‘I don’t know what this is ‘, ‘this looks weird’ or ‘I’m not going to eat that,'” recalls Shieh, who holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from Columbia University and teaches Urban Agriculture at the New School University.

To generate interest in the farm, Shieh—with the green-light from WHEDco—started doing weekly cooking demonstrations in the lobby, showing residents how to make easy, nutritional meals by using the vegetables harvested from the roof. “That was very successful. [The residents] got really interested. It started to slowly gain attention and people were coming up.”

“They love it and for them it’s such an amazing experience to see something grow into something they can actually eat,” says Shieh.

Last year, WHEDco decided to devote part of the farm to individual family gardens and gave households the opportunity to sign up and receive farming instructions. The program received positive feedback and six out of ten households that started, stuck with it throughout the entire farming season. The goal is for the residents to take over the farm entirely. “I see value in having the family farms because it makes it more sustainable and tenants are taking ownership over it,” says Eigenbauer. This year more tenants signed up and at a tenants’ meeting and at Intervale Green’s Spring Festival, held to commemorate the start of the planting season, an additional 15 households were ready to become caretakers of their very own vegetable garden.

“They love it and for them it’s such an amazing experience to see something grow into something they can actually eat,” says Shieh. “I have residents who come up to me and say, ‘You know after you showed me how to cook that collard greens, I’ve been eating it all the time.’ Or I’ll have residents who come up on a consistent basis to get vegetables to cook for dinner,” he adds.

Rooftop gardening has also caught the attention of the youngest residents; Shieh’s biggest fans are the children and about 20 consistently come up to the farm to help out. “For the children, it has been a transformative experience to have the opportunity to do [gardening],” says Shieh. The parents are very pleased with their children’s response to the program. “[Parents] say the farm has made their child apply themselves better in school. [The children] are talking about it all the time. They are telling their teachers about it and [parents] just notice they are more focused,” says Eigenbauer.

The greenhouse will help create that infrastructure so that it takes off by itself and becomes its own program and tenants take ownership of it,” she adds. 

Attendance tends to fluctuate with a lot of different WHEDco programs explains Eigenbauer, but “with the farm, it is something that is growing.” In a recent tenant survey, residents favored more recreational space and healthy eating programs. To satisfy the tenants desires, WHEDco has proposed the idea of building a year-round garden.

The plan is to build a greenhouse in the courtyard and host educational workshops from canning to cooking demonstrations. “Having something that is 365 days a year will really cultivate the core group of tenants [interested in gardening], so they’re doing something year-round. And they are doing it, not WHEDco,” says Eigenbauer. “The greenhouse will help create that infrastructure so that it takes off by itself and becomes its own program and tenants take ownership of it,” she adds.

One particular tenant, Egypt Dees, has been very involved in gardening and has taken the initiative to start a composting program in the building. “She’s always queued into the next step to get the ship going,” says Eigenbauer. One thing is for sure, Dees’ enthusiasm is contagious and support for the gardening and healthy eating program is spreading its roots throughout Intervale Green.

WHEDco is currently using ioby to raise nearly $2,892. The project titled “The Bronx Greenhouse at Intervale Green,” is part of the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) Campaign. Every donation will be matched dollar for dollar by Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. The greenhouse will allow residents, many who come from difficult life situations, to have a space for them to focus on health, gardening, and recreating.

Donate here to help the Intervale Green residents grow vegetables year-round!

Awesome Project: Solar Powered Eco-Shed

Growing food during the school year in the middle of Brooklyn is no small feat, especially when your neighborhood has no access to quality supermarkets or greenspaces. Luckily, the folks at the Academy for Environmental Leadership are being the change they want to see. They have built a farm to provide a green oasis in the concrete jungle and to bring quality produce to their community. To extend the growing season, they have also built built a greenhouse with hydroponic and aquaponic systems . Although both the hydroponics system and the aquaculture system require electricity, AEL plans eventually to beself-sustaining and off the grid.

Green Design Lab™ Project from Solar One

Learn more
 about this week’s Awesome Project and donate here!

“The organic farm is something these kids are taking very seriously…For a lot of these kids it really gives them a chance to experience the outdoors in a way that they haven’t [before].”

The Academy for Environmental Leadership (AEL) has been a model for urban sustainability in the heart of Brooklyn since 2006. Around 350 students, grades 9-12, attend AEL and nearly 100% are eligible for free or reduced lunch.  In partnership with the two other schools on its campus, AEL built a working farm in 2011 as a place where students could both apply what they are learning in class and connect with the community. As AEL teacher Mia Lefkowitz describes, “The organic farm is something these kids are taking very seriously…For a lot of these kids it really gives them a chance to experience the outdoors in a way that they haven’t [before].”

Produce from the farm is sold at a market outside of the school to provide low cost fruits and vegetables to the community. The farm is filling a larger community need. “In terms of parks, there aren’t a lot [in Bushwick],” Mia explains. “It lacks green spaces for kids to go to and it lacks access to quality supermarkets. What we’re trying to do is bring resources to the community to help them become a stronger, more vibrant community, without people being pushed out.”

“We’re just really trying to get them comfortable with the idea that they can make a difference and that these small steps really matter.”

Last year, AEL applied to be part of Solar One’s Green Design Lab and began working with Joe Chavez, a Green Design Lab educator. He taught the students about alternative energy, and together they came up with a solution for sustainably powering the greenhouse. The students decided to attach solar panels to their farm shed, powering the greenhouse and reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. Most buildings in the United States get their energy from the electric grid, which can transmit electricity for miles from power plants using coal, oil, and natural gas. Sometimes the grid can breakdown and leave millions in the dark, like it did in 2003 for 55 million people in the US and Canada. By installing a solar panels, the Academy for Urban Leadership can power its greenhouse using renewable energy, even during a blackout.

A working model of alternative energy at their school is a wonderful teaching tool for students for alternative energy and personal empowerment. Mia explains, “We’re just really trying to get them comfortable with the idea that they can make a difference and that these small steps really matter.” The project is also engaging more students beyond the current core group of 20 dedicated student volunteers. “The cool thing about the solar power project is that it’s getting a whole new group of students involved who weren’t necessarily interested in the gardening aspect [of the farm] but they’re interested in this idea of technology and building. They’re into that.”


AEL is planning to install the solar panels as a multi-day student led workshop. Project leader Joe Chavez hopes that this will “inspire the school and other community organizations and urban farms to start using their own energy. I think it can just serve as a model and an inspiration. I just see what is happening at that school. They continue to build. Students and teachers there are dedicated to furthering their sustainability initiatives.” Chavez says that the students want to see sustainability spreading across their community. “From growing their own food, to creating their own energy, to collecting their own rainwater, I think they want to try to serve as an example of what’s possible.”

The school garden is a success with students and Mia Lefkowitz hopes to see it expand. As Mia explains, “eventually I would love our students to start creating a CSA for our school so that families in the community could have a source of fresh produce that the school is generating and they can bring home. It’s nice to see that element happening. I would love to have the security that this is a project that will last. It’s really taken off very strong and we want to keep it going throughout the years and just keep moving on to bigger things.”

Solar panels don’t come cheap. The Academy for Environmental Leadership has raised $223 so far, but is looking to raise $2,228 more. By clicking here, you can provide students an engaging lesson in green technology and construction, a community with a working model of alternative energy, and a school with a sustainable working farm (not to mention lower electricity bills). Help Mia build a project that will last.

Donate here to help the Academy for Environmental Leadership build the Solar Powered Eco-Shed!

Awesome Project: Pedal Powered Bicycle Blenders at P.S. 33

As the students in Alycia Zimmerman’s third grade class stream back into PS 33 after recess, their huge grins and happy chatter bring an old nursery rhyme to mind. Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed! There will be no head-breaking at PS 33, though. Instead, ioby project leader Jessica Shreefter, an instructor from the green energy, arts and education nonprofit Solar One, plans to channel the children’s raucous behavior into electric power. On two bicycle blenders, these third graders will turn tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes from the New York City school’s organic garden into nutritious, delicious smoothies.

A Green Design Lab™ Project from Solar One

Learn more about this week’s Awesome Project and donate here!

Bicycle blenders are just what they sound like: A blender, attached to a stationary bicycle, is powered by a small generator that runs when somebody pedals. The bikes also have a light bulb attachment, helping students to see how much more energy is needed to power a conventional bulb than an energy-efficient one. These bikes smartly use things that kids in grades K-4 already love – bicycles and yummy snacks – to teach powerful (pun intended!) lessons about nutrition, alternative energy, conservation and sustainability.

“Instead of electricity, we’ll be using human power – like, pedal power,” nine-year-old Catherine tells ioby proudly. “We want to make the Earth a healthier place, and not use fossil fuels like coal and oil.”

“These machines will give the children an understanding of what it means to produce electricity without burning fossil fuels, as well as larger scale ideas like making healthier food choices and fighting childhood obesity,” Jessica explains. “The earlier a child is exposed to an idea, the easier it is to drive the important messages home.”

Ms. Zimmerman’s class proves that the students at PS 33 have already embraced vocabulary and concepts that elude people decades older. “Instead of electricity, we’ll be using human power – like, pedal power,” nine-year-old Catherine tells ioby proudly. “We want to make the Earth a healthier place, and not use fossil fuels like coal and oil.”

Another student is so excited to contribute, straining his arm in the air and tipping over at a seventy-degree angle, that he breaks Circle Time protocol entirely and speaks without being called on. “Pedal power is BETTER than electricity!” Alvin bursts out. “We’re stopping global warming!”

The bicycle blenders will complement sustainable initiatives already taking place at the school. Environmental information has been integrated into the curriculum in line with city standards, so that first graders learn to “reduce and reuse,” second graders study wind energy, and third graders tackle solar energy. The school has also updated its mission statement to reflect these new priorities, and this year’s fifth grade graduation caps and gowns will be green rather than black.

The third graders’ suggestions were more community-based: Join a CSA! Eat local! Go to a farmer’s market!

Principal Lenore Lindy embraces these changes. She believes that they will reach far beyond the brick walls of their Chelsea neighborhood school building. “Our children are ambassadors!” she says. “From energy efficient light bulbs to healthy nutrition choices, they take home everything we teach them and translate it into every language that’s represented at our school. Our students are spreading this knowledge through the community.” Pint-sized grassroots warriors who spread environmental messages block by block? ioby is in full support!

There are definite educational advantages for the children, too. When Jessica taught the school’s students about community gardening earlier this year, post-instruction survey results indicated that the students who learned the information at a younger age were better able to remember and integrate the concepts. For example, when listing five ways to make healthier choices, many sixth graders responded with variations on “drink more water” and “eat less fast food.” The third graders’ suggestions were more community-based: Join a CSA! Eat local! Go to a farmer’s market!

By turning the school’s own organic produce into smoothies, the Pedal Powered Bicycle Blenders will show the students of PS 33 that environmental lessons learned in the classroom – combined with a little leg work – will help to create the sustainable future they deserve. “We’re thrilled to do this because we want our children to imagine the impossible and make it happen,” says Principal Lindy. “It’s our job to give them the resources that support thinking outside the box, so that one day they can build their own ‘bicycles’ to solve problems.” And that’s no monkey business.

Donate here to help Ms. Zimmerman’s class get the bicycle-powered blenders that they so deserve!

Awesome Project: Kids are “LEDing the Future” at PS 57

Single file, an entire class of thirty fourth graders are guided down to the school building’s basement and into a highly restricted but crucial space, no larger than a studio apartment—the boiler room. Paul, a custodial staff, turns the boiler on, and smoke begins to emerge from the pipes. Led by Sashti Balasundarm, a Solar One instructor, the students experience first-hand how fossil fuels are used to heat their classroom.

“With this experience the students learn that burning fossil fuels causes not only environmental problems but also health,” Sashti told ioby last month. “Often times, students will ask why we are still using fossil fuels if they are harmful to us.” From there, the boiler room lesson shifts to talking about renewables and the possibility of creating energy without pollution. This is lesson one in the Green Design Lab (GDL) program, which utilizes the school building as a laboratory for hands-on learning.

The GDL program is run by Solar One, a New York City nonprofit environmental organization, in partnership with the Department of Education (DOE). Participating K-12 public schools endure in a year-long curriculum and program focused on understanding energy issues and reducing the school’s energy consumption. Solar One instructors, like Sashti, visit twice a week to teach kids and help them with energy projects. 

Students at the Hubert H. Humphrey PS 57, located in Staten Island, New York have been participating in this program since 2010. The students, four fourth grade classes and the school’s Green Team, have been conducting energy audits using kilowatts meters to record and display the amount of energy that their school uses. From the readings they are able to determine where energy reduction is possible.

 Check out this week’s Awesome Project, LEDing the Lighting Future. If you like what you read (and we think you will!), be sure to donate!


In 2011, with over 25% reduction in carbon emissions, PS 57 placed third in the NYC Green Cup Challenge, a competition created by the Department of Education Sustainability Initiative to encourage participating schools to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and electricity use. The winning school was Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus, reducing 35.1 %. This year the school reduced an additional 16.6 % of carbon emissions with the help of their supporters.

“One of our strongest allies has been the custodial staff. They have been amazing and remarkable in improving [energy efficiency] and trying to win the contest,” said Sashti. “They help us identify spots where energy is being wasted and the children make awareness posters and write notes about it.”

The school’s Green Team is led by the school’s sustainability coordinator, Patricia Lockhart, and consists of 40 students, including special education students and 4th and 5th graders. Currently, they are working on an energy conservation themed project. After analyzing energy readings, the students figured out that upgrading the school building from incandescent bulbs to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs, would be the best way to save on energy costs. They plan to replace 104 300-watt incandescent bulbs with 12-watt LEDs in the cafeteria, auditorium, and hallways. They are raising funds through ioby in hopes of further reducing their school’s carbon emissions for the 2012-2013 Green Cup Challenge.

Students at PS 97 have showed great enthusiasm about energy conservation outside the classroom. “Some of them have questions and approached me afterwards saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Sashti,—I’ve  spoken to my father, the landlord and the super of the building, and I told them about CFLs [compact fluorescent lights] and they were like, ‘oh great idea’ and are switching over.’” Another student has initiated a petition, getting other students and faculty to sign her notebook to promote energy conservation. After collecting enough signatures the student plans to show the petition to administrators to increase action. “I wasn’t even expecting those ideas to come forth as I was teaching them” says Sashti about the students going the extra mile.

Many students who participate in the Green Design Lab program understand the need and importance of saving energy. They are reaching out to their peers, teachers, parents, and even their community to help lower CO2 emissions and create healthier living spaces for a better and greener future.

To help PS 57 switch to LED bulbs, donate here.

Recipes for Change: The Trees of Evelyn’s Playground

The Fifth and Final Installment of this Week’s #RecipesForChange Blog Series:
“The Trees of Five Playgrounds, from Union Square to TriBeCa”

Come back each day this week for more from this week’s guest blogger, Georgia Silvera Seamans at Local Ecologist!

About this blog series: E.F. Schumacher, the British economist famous for coining the phrase “Small is Beautiful” told us to plant a tree. But which one should we plant? ioby’s guest blog series this week from Local Ecologist gives you a quick introduction to the arboreal lives of Manhattan’s playgrounds and, in it, a guide to trees tough enough for city life. 

About Recipes for Change: ioby equips leaders across the country with the tools that they need to make changes in their neighborhoods. Recipes for Change is a new series from ioby, aimed at providing the resources and expertise that you need for your environmental project to succeed.

Got ideas for more #RecipesforChange? Give @ioby a shout!


Today’s Featured Playground: the Trees of Evelyn’s Playground, Union Square Park

There are a lot of trees in the Union Square Park playground!  And the species palette is diverse, too: dawn redwood, goldenraintree, Japanese cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica), Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), and saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangia).  We have already discussed the dawn redwood and goldenraintree so we will profile the other species here.

Of his choice of the Japanese cryptomeria (PDF) the landscape architect for Evelyn’s Playground, Matthew Urbanski, said that it would “provide a more complex layout for imaginative play….kids can imagine it’s a forest.”  Depending on the variety, the Japanese cryptomeria can reach 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide at maturity in a non-wild setting.  The species is not notable for fall color or showy flowers and its fruit does not have wildlife value, but its pyramidal shape and reddish-brown bark are regarded as “outstanding ornamental features.”  Matthew Urbanski is a principal at Michael van Valkenburgh Associates.  You can view fabulous photographs of the playground on the firm’s website.  The cryptomeria tree is the national tree of Japan where it is known as Sugi.  The trees line Cryptomeria Avenue, the approach to Hakone Shrine.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the trees were planted between 1628 and 1648 and “over 13,500 of its original 200,000 Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) trees survive” today.



The exuberant spring flowering of the saucer magnolia has passed.  The magnolias, along with goldenraintrees, provide a deep line of green along the eastern and southeastern edges of the playground.  The tree’s saucer-sized flowers appear on the tree before it leafs out.  The species in the Magnolia genus are pollinated by beetles!  Magnolias produce pollen but not nectar; the former is high in protein and a food source for beetles.  Three other commonly planted magnolias in the city are star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), Loebner magnolia (M. x loebneri), and southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).



The lower leaves on one of the Northern catalpas in the playground looked bedraggled on a hot early May day, though the species is known for its heat tolerance.  The species’ “abundant showy blossoms” appear in late spring.  The flowers look like orchids, and perhaps the tree should have been named orchidtree just as the tuliptree is named because its flowers resemble tulips.  The catalpa’s fruit is a long seedpod that resembles the string bean but is not a legume.  There are several features that distinguish the northern catalpa from the southern catalpa (C. bignonioides).  First is the leaf; the southern species has “a smaller, thicker leaf with a shorter point” (Plotnik, 2003).  Second is the flower; Plotnik notes that there are “considerably more blossoms on each panicle, with more lavender or purple coloring.”  Third is the seed; southern catalpa seeds are bearded and pointed, while the northern ones are rounded.  The fourth distinguishing characteristic is the smell of the leaf.  Crushing a leaf from a southern catalpa releases a strong odor.

The large heart-shaped leaves of the northern and southern catalpa are the only host plant for the catalpa sphinx moth caterpillar (Ceratomia catalpa). Luckily for the Northern tree, catalpa sphinx moth is most common in the southern portion of the tree’s range.  If you fish, you might want to visit this tree in early to mid-spring; the caterpillars are great fish bait!

Feeling inspired? Check out to get your own neighborhood project started today!