Urban forestry is a growing field. This we know from its being prioritized as one of five climate action areas by the state of California under the groundbreaking environmental law AB32. Although not as sexy, perhaps, as renewable energy, or transportation-oriented development (TOD), the benefits of trees as part of a climate action plan are undeniable. Urban forestry reduces carbon emissions and air pollution, aids stormwater retention, mitigates the heat island effect, and offers aesthetic and economic benefits as well, making residents feel safer and increasing property values. Urban forestry has other advantages which these other areas can’t match – specifically in regards to the disadvantaged communities prioritized under SB535, which earmarked greenhouse gas reduction funds for areas which disproportionately bear the burden of environmental pollution.
Currently, Oakland has 25 census tracts with Enviroscreen 2.0 scores of 75% or higher – the threshold for funding under SB535. All of these census tracts are in the flatlands, areas which typically have a very low tree canopy, as little as 1% in some cases.
Despite the state’s large investment in solar power, it remains out of reach, with very few exceptions, for low-income families who are renters – which describes the overwhelming majority of Oakland’s flatland residents. Solar installation is cost-prohibitive for most non-homeowners, and solar job training programs, while well-intentioned, often don’t result in actual jobs for trainees.
TOD, too, has its flaws. The idea of developing housing around bus routes and BART stations is a good one in theory. But in practice, it’s a different story. Many of the new mixed-use condo developments which have popped up in West Oakland over the past few years have placed their affordable housing units facing freeways — a primary source of environmental pollution. And BART was never designed to be an inclusive transportation solution for East Oakland residents. Just two stations—Fruitvale and Coliseum—cover a wide swath of real estate which is home to more than one-half of Oakland’s 400,000 residents.
The other problem with TOD is that it tends to favor new developments, which favors developers – not current, longtime residents who often live in substandard housing and/or blighted neighborhoods. Those blighted neighborhoods often face a disproportionate environmental burden which may not be mitigated by the millions of dollars thrown at development along transit corridors.
In a recent op/ed in the Oakland Tribune, newly-elected District 2 Councilmember Abel Guillen jumped on the AB32 bandwagon, advocating for SB535 funds for affordable housing near transportation. Guillen wrote: “we have a great opportunity to address local environmental justice disparities and meet some of our most critical community needs. Statewide, funds will go toward improvements in transit service, affordable housing, solar panels, water conservation, cleaner trucks and buses, and more.”
Yet Guillen failed to mention urban forestry even once in his commentary, despite the fact that his district encompasses flatland areas with a low tree canopy and high Enviroscreen scores.
Cal Enviroscreen map showing a heavily-polluted census tract (in red) in Oakland’s District 2.
For example, census tract 6000140600, which runs from 1st Ave. to 23rd Ave. in the EastLake, San Antonio and Brooklyn Basin neighborhoods, has an aggregated Enviroscreen score of 81-85% and scores in the high 90s for Diesel, Groundwater Threats, Cleanup Sites and Impaired Water. These characteristics are indicative of brownfields, industrial pollution, and illegal dumping, as well as proximity to the Nimitz freeway. Besides the fact that this tract isn’t within easy walking distance of BART—it’s situated in-between the Lake Merritt and Fruitvale stations—it seems apparent that its pollution burden cannot be alleviated through developing affordable housing along Int’l Blvd. (a main thoroughfare for AC Transit buses) alone. Housing development isn’t an overnight process—it takes years, and construction during this process contributes to environmental pollution through respiratory hazards and increased vehicle traffic. On the other hand, planting trees begins to mitigate air quality and the heat island effect immediately; environmental benefits increase as the trees grow taller.
A best-case scenario, then, would be developing affordable housing along transit corridors with a reforestation component, as well as reforestation projects outside of planned TOD project areas. Yet urban forestry doesn’t appear to be on Guillen’s radar.
Historically, Oakland has been apathetic when it comes to urban forestry. Statewide climate action goals call for a 35% tree canopy by 2020, yet Oakland’s overall canopy is just 12%. The city currently has no Urban Forestry Master Plan, and its Tree Services department does not plant any new trees, only does emergency maintenance of existing street trees, and has not performed a tree inventory since 2008. As a recent East Bay Express article pointed out, in 2013, Public Works issued a “D+” report card for its Tree Services department.
At a recent meeting of Oakland’s Urban Forestry Forum (UFF), Jimi Scheid of Cal-FIRE revealed that his agency, the grant administrator for urban forestry funds under SB535, received 12 applications from organizations located in Oakland, including the city. Scheid indicated that multiple urban forestry grants could be awarded in FY 2015-16, which would be a game-changer for Oakland’s long-suffering flatlands.
Despite the presence of state officials and both local and state stakeholders and an agenda covering the pending Cal-FIRE grant applications, Robert Zahn, Oakland’s Tree Services supervisor, didn’t bother to attend the UFF, sending aborist Herb Flores in his place. When asked about the D+ grade, Flores shrugged and said, “that’s the reality.” During the forum, Scheid noted that the city has not recertified its application for Tree City USA, a national program sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation. Asked point-blank whether his department would complete the recertification process, Flores was unwilling to commit.
The reality is that despite the city’s recent additions of Chief Resilience Officer Victoria Salinas and Sustainability Coordinator Daniel Hamilton—both of whom attended the forum—it remains unclear who among city staff and elected officials will be a champion for urban forestry.
With all the statewide momentum around urban forestry due to SB535 and the greenhouse gas reduction fund, it seems counter-intuitive that the city of Oakland remains stuck in a cycle of inertia and bureaucratic ambiguity when it comes to urban forestry. Given Oakland’s lackluster tree canopy and the state’s mandated climate action goals, there appears to be little justification for Tree Services’ unauthorized removal of healthy trees, as Urban Releaf noted in a 2013 blog post. Blaming budget cuts from 2008 for Tree Services’ incompetence only goes so far.
Tree advocates are doing all they can to work around Oakland’s lack of a comprehensive policy, but it would be far easier to work with the city on common goals for climate action and pollution mitigation through reforestation. Even if Cal-FIRE awards the city funds it has requested for an updated tree inventory and an Urban Forestry coordinator, there’s no guarantee years of bureaucratic snafus—including mismanaging $200,000 allocated for a tree inventory in 2012, which was never performed, and failing to sign off on outside grants which required city approval—will be reversed.
If done right, urban forestry can align with larger goals such as developing priority conservation areas (PCA) in environmental hotspot areas, community-oriented landscape projects, and workforce development. The list of potential co-benefits to a robust urban forestry program are nearly endless. But even though county, state and even federal dollars may be available for these projects, the city needs to step up to the plate and make a stronger commitment to urban forestry, using Enviroscreen data to identify priority mitigation areas.
This should be a no-brainer at the City Council level, since every single Council district contains environmental hotspots which could benefit from urban reforestation. T he Mayor’s office should welcome the chance to make Oakland’s boast of being “one of the greenest cities in the country” a reality. But non-elected officials are also stakeholders, and complacent acceptance of a failing grade should be unacceptable. In short, Oakland must develop a mitigation strategy for its most-polluted census tracts and take the lead in urban forestry – which could very well make it a model for the state and the nation.