Renewal Takes Root
Young urban foresters help Oakland’s Urban Releaf transform the concrete jungle one tree at a time.
Urban Releaf is a program that helps get Oakland community members involved in planting and maintaining trees in their neighborhoods. CNR researchers work with Urban Releaf to study the effects of planting trees in cities. What types of trees are most welcomed by city dwellers? Why do some trees die? How does tree coverage affect pollution levels in the city? These are just a few of the questions explored by researchers involved in the program.
Lara Roman doesn’t have to travel far for her field research. The Ph.D. student in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management hops on the No. 15 bus for a 10-minute ride to one of the toughest areas of Oakland.
“I was doing this with another student several Saturdays in a row, and one day the bus driver asked us, ‘What are you girls doing down at 35th and MLK?’ I told him I was checking on the trees, and he said, ‘What? Why are you checking on trees in the ghetto?’”
Not many Cal students venture into the streets of West Oakland, and certainly not to look at the trees. But for Roman, urban forestry is a bridge between adjacent but vastly different worlds. “I think it’s important to bring students who are studying the natural resources of our environment out here,” she says. “What does it mean to study ecology in the city; not just in Berkeley, but in the tough neighborhoods— working with local communities, looking at issues of environmental justice, exploring how it all fits together?”
Urban Releaf has planted more than 14,000 trees since 1998, employing at-risk youth and welfare-to-work participants through planting and maintenance projects.
Roman is one of several UC Berkeley students doing research with Urban Releaf, a nonprofit working to transform Oakland’s concrete jungle into an urban forest. Her goal is to understand why some city trees thrive and others die, and her study is the first of its kind in a low-income community, where the benefits of street trees may have special significance.
Urban trees trap air pollutants and rain water, improving the quality of storm runoff and providing flood control. Their shade helps mitigate the effect of urban heat islands, lowering air conditioning costs. They raise property values, provide wildlife habitat, improve neighborhood aesthetics, and foster community pride. All of these benefits are sorely needed in West Oakland, where poverty, pollution, and crime are high, but tree canopy cover is low. Urban Releaf has planted more than 14,000 trees since 1998, employing at-risk youth and welfare-to-work participants through planting and maintenance projects.
Ashley Duval, a 2006 graduate in conservation and resource studies, completed an institutional analysis of Urban Releaf for her undergraduate research project. “I was blown away by the conditions I saw within five miles from my own school,” she wrote in her thesis. “However, I was even more impressed by the efforts of this local nonprofit organization.” Duval began volunteering with Urban Releaf, and is now a community outreach coordinator for the organization that she says is not simply planting trees, but building communities.
On a spring day in March, I went to Oakland for a tree tour with Roman and Kemba Shakur, Urban Releaf’s executive director and the heart and soul of the organization. Shakur’s office is on a block lined with mature, flowering, evergreen pears and purple-leafed plums. A coastal redwood stands tall in front of the building; next door a towering Victorian box tree covered in white flowers perfumes the street with the scent of honeysuckle. The air, filled with the sound of songbirds, feels fresh and cool.
When Shakur moved to that block about 10 years ago, she says, there wasn’t a single tree.
I am greeted by Shakur’s son, 21-year-old Jamal Davis. Like his three brothers and sister, Jamal grew up in Urban Releaf, helping with tree planting and maintenance since the tender age of 10. He is now in charge of the tree planting program, maintaining the GIS/GPS database, and training youth interns and volunteers in proper planting techniques. His 20-year-old brother Hakim focuses on maintenance.
When locals found out about the organization, many signed right up. “They didn’t care what tasks they were doing at first,” said Duval. “People took advantage of the opportunity to step up their game and rise to challenges. There is a great sense of satisfaction in receiving a paycheck and knowing you earned it.”
A few moments later, Shakur bounces down the stairs. Her long braids swish down her back, and she bubbles excitedly to Roman about a recent planting on MLK, our first stop of the day.
When Roman came to Berkeley for her Ph.D., she was on the lookout for an urban forestry group to continue tree mortality research she had begun in Philadelphia. She tells me about her introduction to Urban Releaf. “We were driving around Oakland in Shakur’s car, and she was shouting out the window to people on the streets, ‘Hey, do you live here? We planted those trees. Can you water them?’ Or calling to some boys on the street who should be in school, ‘Hey, do you want to come work with us?’”
Our tour begins at a planting site directly under the BART tracks, in the middle of busy Martin Luther King Jr. Way. A row of flowering trees includes Saratoga bays, cherries, and crab apples. This planting is especially significant to Shakur because it also serves as a memorial to 20-year-old Gary Davis, Jr., who was shot and killed by police in September 2007. A flowering crab apple stands near a mural marking the spot where he died.
From the beginning, Urban Releaf’s mission has focused on reaching out to the most at-risk members of its community by offering work skills and a paycheck. Ashley Duval says her work with Urban Releaf, whether planting trees or taking hydrology readings, always attracted attention in the community. When locals found out about the organization, many signed right up. “They didn’t care what tasks they were doing at first,” said Duval. “People took advantage of the opportunity to step up their game and rise to challenges. There is a great sense of satisfaction in receiving a paycheck and knowing you earned it.”
“This demographic didn’t have the luxury to be concerned about environmental issues, but we were able to reach them with jobs,” Duval says. “I saw many of the youth who went through the program go on to college, some in urban forestry programs. People wonder why there are not more people of color in environmental movements, but I find it is often just a matter of exposure.”
Getting buy-in from the local community can be key to a planting’s success.
Shakur fondly remembers one success story at our next stop on West and MacArthur. “That’s Rukeya Harris’ old house,” she says, pointing to a white building next door to the Beacon gas station. “I met her when she was out here hustling gas.” Harris was fascinated with tree-planting and kept pestering Shakur for a job, week after week, until Shakur was finally able to hire the 12–year-old on a youth stipend. Harris worked with Urban Releaf until she was 18, and is now on the dean’s list at Clark University in Atlanta, studying biology.
Not everyone gets excited about new trees. Most tree complaints stem from maintenance costs, damage to infrastructure, and liability issues. Large trees can buckle sidewalks with their roots and tangle power cords with their branches. Sometimes community members object for more personal reasons. They may be concerned about allergies or even worried about disturbing their feng shui. Sometimes there is a preference for certain species. Shakur says she has found that Asian and Latino communities prefer flowering trees, while the black community often prefers palms.
Getting buy-in from the local community can be key to a planting’s success. Berkeley’s leading urban forestry expert, Professor Joe McBride, recounts one infamous project in Mexico City back in the 1970s, when the government wanted to plant trees to help combat air pollution. They placed a grid across the city and planted a tree just about anywhere they could, with no public input whatsoever. “Overnight people pulled them out of the ground and threw them on the street,” says McBride. “It was a failure in large part because there was no attempt to communicate with the local people and get their input. There was also a failure to educate the community about the benefits of trees and to explain some of their perceived problems.”
As we walk along MacArthur Boulevard, Roman talks about how local support can make a real difference in tree mortality. Stooping down in front of an abandoned, boarded-up house, she picks up a piece of trash. “This is what I see when I’m doing my research,” she says. “Why is this trash here? It is in front of an old, boarded-up house. Nobody cares about it.” She has a hunch that the blocks with the least trash will also have the healthiest trees. “I’ve had people come up to me during my research and say, ‘I take care of those trees. I tell those boys not to mess with them.’”
A concurrent study measured the amount of rainfall and pollutants intercepted by various trees, and found that each of the 1,254 trees in the study area intercepted nearly 160 gallons of rainfall per year, reduced 48 pounds of nutrient pollution, and captured one pound of heavy metals that would otherwise flow into the Bay.
Shakur and Roman take me a few blocks away to 31st Street, between Market and San Pablo. “This is the worst block that could actually be the best block,” Shakur sighs, shaking her head at the wide expanses of empty concrete. The street’s distinct lack of trees, however, makes it an ideal location to study the effect of canopy cover on urban runoff and pollution. Jamal and Hakim Davis use crowbars to pull up the storm drain at the end of the street, exposing a meter underneath installed by the U.S. Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forestry at UC Davis.
During the 2005–2007 rainy seasons, researchers from the US Forest Service and UC Davis worked with Urban Releaf to monitor storm runoff in West Oakland’s Ettie Street watershed. The researchers measured storm runoff from two comparable blocks, one with six times more vegetation cover than the other. They found that the sparsely vegetated block generated almost four times more runoff than the heavily vegetated block, with much higher pollutant levels in the water. A concurrent study measured the amount of rainfall and pollutants intercepted by various trees, and found that each of the 1,254 trees in the study area intercepted nearly 160 gallons of rainfall per year, reduced 48 pounds of nutrient pollution, and captured one pound of heavy metals that would otherwise flow into the Bay.
Urban Releaf not only provided a workforce for that study, it also exposed the many members of the community to science in action. Women on welfare and idle teens who were loitering on the streets one day were out in the field and the next, working side by side with scientists, learning GPS and database skills, collecting water samples, and even helping to present data in front of state policy makers.
“It was simple science,” says Duval.“The sense of results and impact this project had is something you just don’t get in the classroom.”
"This is the first study that will examine how mortality changes over time and how it differs with tree type and size."
Roman’s five-year study on tree mortality adds another important dimension to the research in the Ettie Street watershed. It’s an important piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked in urban forestry. For researchers to make accurate models and urban foresters to create successful management plans, they need to take into account how many trees survive and why.
“Right now, there is a lot of funding for planting, but not for replanting,” says Roman. “Everyone realizes tree mortality is a problem, but we don’t have data to predict it. This is the first study that will examine how mortality changes over time and how it differs with tree type and size.”
There are difficulties in conducting this kind of study in the urban environment, as we see firsthand in our next stop. We’re a few blocks down San Pablo at 34th Street, looking for a good place to plant a young oak. Jamal and Hakim locate a tree well on a busy corner, next to an empty parking lot and liquor store. This site has already been planted by Urban Releaf, but now only a thin, broken trunk sticks out of a thicket of weedy grass. As the guys dig the old stump out of the ground, they unearth an empty flask and a hypodermic needle.
Roman squats down to examine the remaining stem. “In the city, you’re not always able to figure out why trees are dying,” she says. “A tree might be gone when I come by to do fieldwork, and I’m not sure why.”
Before we walk away, Shakur looks up at the thin branches and smiles. “One day, this tree is going to be 45 feet tall and beautiful,” she says.
Determining the cause of death for urban trees can be tricky business. This tree could have been pulled out by the city, by a neighbor, by vandals, or even hit by a car. Maybe it was dying due to lack of water or from pest infestation. Maybe it was perfectly healthy, but someone decided they didn’t like it. In her research, Roman is trying to correlate dead and missing trees with several factors, such as tree species, size, and prior health. She hopes to add several other factors to her research in coming years, including the amount of litter nearby, the number of vacant lots, and the maintenance level of nearby yards.
A few blocks down San Pablo we spot another empty tree well and decide to plant the final oak tree there. “We always try to hit the empty tree wells,” says Shakur. She shrugs. “I have no idea what happened to that tree.”
Jamal and Hakim get out their shovels and get to work. They know the drill by heart. They’ve planted hundreds of trees, and they will probably plant hundreds more. When the hole is deep enough, they take the sapling from its pot, gently loosen the root ball with their hands, and place it into its new home. Before we walk away, Shakur looks up at the thin branches and smiles. “One day, this tree is going to be 45 feet tall and beautiful,” she says.