Oakland is losing more trees than it is planting, leaving some neighborhoods more exposed to pollution
on November 16, 2022
On his birthday in 2020, Walter Hood planted six trees in front of his house. That same year, he tore out the concrete parking strip and planted a dozen more. Now children come by to pick his lemons. It’s not much, he says, but it’s an investment in Oakland’s future.
Hood, a UC Berkeley professor and the creative director of Hood Design Studio, has lived for 25 years in West Oakland, where tree canopy coverage is a mere 5% — the lowest in Oakland, according to a report by Oakland Public Works. Hood and others like him are planting trees because the city is not.
During the 2008 recession, the city eliminated all street tree planting, watering, and pruning services, except for pruning in hazardous or emergency situations, leaving residents like Hood to plant and maintain trees on their own.
Without the city’ oversight, more trees in Oakland are dying than are being planted.
Tree canopy covers about 22% of the city. But the percentage is far less in East and West Oakland, which, consequently, experience the hottest temperatures, according to the 2021 Oakland Public Works report. Without trees, surface and air temperatures rise, which can increase air pollution, energy use and costs, as well as heat-related illness.
While residents have done their part, many don’t have the time or money to spend on trees.
“If you’re struggling to pay your mortgage in East Oakland and a tree service is going to run you about three grand, that’s not a service that a lot of people are going to prioritize,” says Ruben Leal, arborist and Fruitvale native. “If you’re dealing with poverty, violence or other issues that are in our community, trees are the least of your worries.”
Leal says cultural differences also lead to different perspectives on trees.
“Studies show that trees create a safer neighborhood,” he says. “But I’ve talked to folks from my community, in the hood, and trees make it darker at night, so they don’t feel safe. They’d rather not have the tree and feel safer.”
Traditionally, many people of color do tree service jobs, Leal notes, but there are few in leadership roles. For that reason, Leal is studying urban arboriculture at Merritt College and hopes to make arboriculture more accessible to his community.
Many Oakland residents are using grants or their own money to plant and care for trees. But those projects often are not sustainable.
Hood led his UC Berkeley undergraduate students in a tree-planting initiative in 2015, funded by a grant from his university’s College of Environmental Design. They started by giving 120 oak seedlings to Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland. The school planned to incubate the trees and replant them in about five years, but after a change in school leadership, Hood says, that never happened.
The scenario is not unusual, says Janet Cobb, executive officer of the California Wildlife Foundation and its California Oaks project
“People get so excited. They get a little bit of seed money, but they never get the follow-up money,” she says.
Cobb and Hood agree that for long-term impact, the city and the community must find a way to collaborate.
According to Kevin Mulvey, board director for Trees for Oakland, there are opportunities to collaborate ahead.
Trees for Oakland is a volunteer-based organization that plants and maintains trees, particularly in areas with little tree coverage. Trees for Oakland was initially part of Sierra Club Tree Team, which was created in response to the city cutting its tree maintenance program. Oakland home and business owners can request a tree in front of their property, but it is not first come first serve, Mulvey said. They prioritize planting in areas where there are multiple requests, to make volunteer days more efficient.
Trees for Oakland responded to the city’s call for a service provider to conduct community outreach this year for a new Urban Forest Master Plan. The master plan, which the city will release later this year or early next year, will determine how to care for community trees over the next 50 years. Trees for Oakland solicited community input and provided recommendations.
“It’s vital from the volunteer tree planting community’s perspective that this Urban Forest Master Plan be a collaborative undertaking,” Mulvey said.
Mulvey hopes the city will share a draft of the master plan before it is finalized.
The city did not respond to a request for an interview about the Urban Forest Master Plan.
Hood is not convinced that a master plan is the answer to the tree disparity in Oakland.
“This idea that we have of planning, and planning, and planning — it gets in the way of direct action. You’re creating a bureaucratic process where no one is responsible,” Hood says. “So just to have a mayor saying, ‘We’re going to plant a million trees in the next two years. Let’s do it.’ That’s a master plan right there.”
This story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.
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