Oakland wins $8 million for greening against climate change: Will it be enough?
on October 7, 2023
Ricky Brown wakes up and rolls down the window of his home: a 1981 Chevy truck parked on a hot, treeless block near the Coliseum in East Oakland. Just a few miles away, Nancy Wellington leaves her four-bedroom house in the city’s Rockridge neighborhood to walk her poodle along a shady, tree-lined street.
Rockridge is over four times greener than the Coliseum area, which has just 5% tree coverage. This makes the area more prone to air pollution, heat island effects and flooding, according to Oakland’s Tree Canopy and Cover Assessment.
The city will attempt to address this stark contrast with an $8 million federal grant announced on Sept. 14. The funds will be directed toward increasing the tree canopy on public and private lands, preserving mature trees by addressing deferred maintenance, increasing public outreach, and creating green jobs.
David Moore, Oakland’s senior tree supervisor, said the grant is a critical infusion of initial support for the city’s Equitable Climate Action Plan goal of increasing green infrastructure in what are called “frontline” communities — neighborhoods more vulnerable to the worst consequences of climate change. In Oakland, these are primarily low-income communities of color living along the Interstate 880 corridor and in West Oakland near the seaport.
The federal grant money comes at a crucial time. Tree loss has become a serious problem in many parts of Oakland. A city tree inventory published in 2020 indicates that Oakland lost 275 acres of tree canopy from 2014 and 2020 and gained 1,300 acres of impervious surface — paved roads, sidewalks, concrete, roofs, and compacted soil. During those years, more trees died than were planted, contributing to a reduction in the canopy cover from all areas but Council District 1 in North Oakland, which saw an increase of 2.79%. Two areas — encompassing downtown and Fruitvale — experienced severe loss: Council District 5 lost 19.23%, and Council District 2 lost 17.86%, more than all other districts.
Long-standing budget pressures have also contributed to widespread tree loss. In the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, Oakland suspended all city tree pruning, maintenance and planting. Services were restricted to priorities such as fallen trees that block roadways, damage property, or cause an immediate safety hazard. Nonprofit organizations and volunteer groups picked up the slack as best they could.
While Oakland officials welcomed the new funding, they also said the problems that have led to the disparities seen between Rockridge and East Oakland are much deeper than $8 million can solve. Oakland’s original request asked for a total of $22.5 million in federal funding. The smaller grant will require the city to scale back its plans, but what that means precisely is still unclear.
“Tree planting alone won’t get us where we need to be,” Moore said. “Oakland needs resources for implementing a holistic urban forestry strategy, and that means planting combined with a robust and reliable tree maintenance program. This grant helps get us on the right pathway.”
Two key players in the city’s green works are Common Vision, a nonprofit that creates school orchards and gardens, and Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation, which is dedicated to community engagement and equitable access to parks.
Common Vision Executive Director Wanda Stewart emphasized that green work not only mitigates the effects of climate change but also helps bring people together.
“It’s a way to build community and do the work together,” she said. “Hands and soil, shoulder to shoulder. Helps you get acquainted with your neighbor, no matter who your neighbor might be.”
One of the biggest challenges, said Stewart, will be educating people about the importance of caring for trees on their property. “The city can’t take care of all the trees by themselves,” she said.
There are many other challenges to improving the urban forest in Oakland. In some neighborhoods, the sidewalks are not wide enough to support trees and still maintain requirements for accessibility.
According to Kent Wegener, a board member with Trees for Oakland, one of the most important challenges is maintenance. Most trees require care for three years after planting before they become self-sustaining. That care can include watering, mulching, and controlling gopher infestations.
Bureaucratic red tape can also pose an obstacle. City regulations forbid volunteers from using power equipment or climbing trees for pruning. That work is left to city contractors. “We usually do pruning until the tree is seven years old. After that, they get out of our range,” Wegener said.
Stewart hopes to reduce the disparities in green cover between poor versus wealthy neighborhoods. In neighboring Berkeley, Dwight Way was the redline in housing, which kept white and Black people living in separate areas.
“When you look north, there is a beautiful tree canopy. When you look here, to the south, it is different, but it is improving,” she said.
(Top photo: Trees for Oakland volunteers plant trees on Edgewater Drive in East Oakland. By Luiz H. Monticelli)
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