NYC Urban Forester Sumana Serchan: Get to Know Her!

SumanaSumana Serchan is an urban forester with NYC Parks and Recreation. Sumana has a master’s degree in Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources/Conservation from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources (University of Vermont). She grew up in Kathmandu City, Nepal.

Can you tell us about your childhood in Kathmandu?  
Sumana Serchan: My best memories of my childhood are playing with my friends in my neighborhood in the courtyard. Also, when I was in grade 5, our English teacher asked us to bring our favorite book and read it to the class every Friday. I also remember how my friends and I would race to the communal tap to collect water during water shortages. During summer we would pick guavas and persimmon from trees in my neighbor’s garden.

As the youngest child, I had the opportunity to travel with my mother when she went on village excursions with her students. During long holidays, we went to Pokhara Valley where my grandfather has a farm with fruit trees and livestock. We climbed the trees to pick fruits, fed the buffaloes, chased dragonflies, played in haystacks, and swam in a nearby river.

Sumana Serchan and family; Sumana is second from right.

Please tell us about your immigration to the U.S.
SS: I was 19 when I immigrated to the U.S. with my siblings. Our parents came to the U.S. when I was 12 and we were reunited with our parents after seven years. I aspired to be a dental hygienist when I began community college in Vermont. But that changed when I started volunteering at a local park district under the supervision of Heather Fitzgerald, lecturer at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Environmental Program. Heather’s profound knowledge of natural history inspired me to change gears to study natural resources.

Our very good family friends, Becky and Deane Wang, inspired me to pursue my education in the environmental field and helped me navigate the educational system and financial aid. My two years at community college laid a foundation upon which I continued to pursue my interest in ecology after I transferred to UVM. Under passionate and helpful professors and staff at the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, I learned about the natural world and environmental issues.

Sumana graduation from Yale

Sumana’s graduation from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

At what point did you discover you had an interest in urban forestry? How did that lead to working for NYC Parks?
SS: I interned with Urban Resources Initiative (URI) in New Haven, CT during one summer when I was completing my graduate program at Yale. URI not only provided me with an opportunity to work with community groups in stewardship of their natural environment, but also allowed me to view the city (New Haven) from a different perspective. Learning about the complexity of urban environment and society and the importance of nature in an urban area led to my interest in urban forestry.

Upon meeting with previous employees and learning about the MillionTrees NYC project, I decided to apply for the urban forester position with NYC Parks. My responsibility is to ensure that tree planting projects in my assigned area are completed successfully, within budget, and in a given time frame. Having a cohort of supportive, helpful, and passionate co-workers and encouraging supervisors is the best part about my job.

What has it been like living and working in NYC? 
SS: Living in NYC has opened up a lot of questions for me. I wonder, “Why are people always in such a hurry?” and “Why are there so many homeless people?” While some aspects of the city sadden me, I have always admired the city planning and how it has integrated open and green spaces to ensure that they are easily accessible to New Yorkers.

What is the state of urban forestry in the city where you grew up?
SS: What I saw during my last two visits in 2011 and 2012 to Kathmandu City disturbed me. Mushrooming road and infrastructure development, increasing population and pollution and minimal efforts towards environmental restoration were my observation.

Kathmandu City faces a dearth of open and green spaces for its residents. A city that is witnessing rapid population growth over the last decade (4.06% increase in population per year from 2001 to 2011, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics Nepal) also faces a series of environmental problems, including severe water shortages, air pollution (Nepal ranked 177th out of 178 countries for air quality in Yale’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index), polluted rivers, and poor solid waste management.

The government’s urban planning schemes over the last few decades have fostered road expansion and infrastructure development without giving much-needed consideration to ecological issues. The urban development projects listed under the City’s official website lists only one project to promote greenery and parks among various infrastructure development projects.

While the government turns deaf ears to environmental outcry, grass-roots efforts have been instrumental in saving some remaining greenery and open spaces in Kathmandu City, but these efforts alone are not adequate. The government should take a proactive step to integrate ecological issues in urban planning. The first step in addressing urban forestry in Kathmandu City will be to conduct a tree census to assess the distribution and condition of the City’s trees and to develop a systematic program to address the plight of urban forestry.

Jacaranda trees in Kathmandu. Source: Nepalnews.com

Jacaranda trees in Kathmandu. Source: Nepalnews.com

In the past decade, various cities in North America have been taking proactive measures to integrate trees into urban planning. The officials and residents of Kathmandu City have an opportunity to learn from the approaches taken in these cities, recognize the need and value of trees, and take steps to ameliorate the situation of urban trees in their rapidly urbanizing city. Otherwise, it won’t be long before the remaining trees in the streets of Kathmandu City will forever lose their charm and functions and the purple bloom of Jacaranda trees will remain in memories only.

What are your interests in your free time?
SS: I love to challenge myself to photograph seeds and flowers in their natural habitat. I enjoy knitting, drawing, and watching cooking shows. Recently, I became a member of the National Institute on Mental Illness (NAMI-NYC metro) and have been educating myself about mental illness.

About TAKING ROOT

TAKING ROOT is the newsletter and blog of the New York State Urban Forestry Council, edited by Michelle Sutton (takingrooteditor@gmail.com).
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