On his birthday in 2020, Walter Hood planted six trees in front of his home. That same year, he tore up the concrete parking strip and planted a dozen new ones. Now children come by to pick his lemons. It’s not a lot, he says, but it’s an investment in Oakland’s future.
Hood, a UC Berkeley professor and creative director of Hood Design Studio, has lived in West Oakland for 25 years, where canopy coverage is just 5% — the lowest in Oakland, according to a report by Oakland Public Works. Hood and others like him plant trees because the city isn’t one.
During the 2008 recession, the city suspended all street tree planting, watering, and pruning services except for pruning in hazardous or emergency situations, leaving residents like Hood to plant and tend trees themselves.
Without city oversight, more trees die in Oakland than are planted.
Oakland has lost 275 acres of tree cover since 2014, a presentation by the city shows. And many of the tree removals were avoidable. Without intervention, the trend is expected to continue.
Tree canopy covers about 22% of the city. However, the percentage is far lower in eastern and western Oakland, which consequently has the hottest temperatures, according to the Oakland Public Works 2021 report. Without trees, surface and air temperatures rise, which can increase air pollution, energy use and costs, and heat-related diseases.
While residents have done their part, many do not have the time or money to donate trees.
“If you’re struggling to pay your mortgage in East Oakland and a tree service costs you about three grand, it’s not a service that many people are going to prioritize,” says Ruben Leal, an arborist and a Fruitvale native. “If you are dealing with poverty, violence or any other issue in our community, trees are the least of your concerns.”
According to Leal, cultural differences also result in different ways of looking at trees.
“Studies show that trees create a safer neighborhood,” he says. “But I’ve spoken to people in my community, in the hood, and trees make it darker at night, so they don’t feel safe. They would rather not have the tree and feel safer.”
Traditionally, many Blacks do arborist jobs, Leal notes, but there are few in managerial positions. For this reason, Leal is studying urban arboriculture at Merritt College and hopes to make arboriculture more accessible to his community.
Many Oakland residents use grants or their own money to plant and maintain trees. But these projects are often not sustainable.
Hood led his UC Berkeley students on a tree-planting initiative in 2015, funded by a grant from his university’s College of Environmental Design. They began by donating 120 oak seedlings to Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland. The school planned to hatch the trees and replant them in about five years, but after a change in leadership, Hood says that never happened.
The scenario is not uncommon, says Janet Cobb, executive director of the California Wildlife Foundation and its California Oaks Project
“People are so excited. They get a little entry fee, but they never get the follow-up money,” she says.
Cobb and Hood agree that for long-term impact, the city and community must find a way to work together.
According to Kevin Mulvey, CEO of Trees for Oakland, there are ways to work together.
Trees for Oakland is a volunteer organization that plants and tends trees, particularly in tree-sparse areas. Trees for Oakland was originally part of the Sierra Club Tree Team, formed in response to the city cutting back on its tree care program. Oakland home and business owners can request a tree in front of their property, but it’s not on a first-come, first-served basis, 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 contractor to publicize a new Urban Forest Master Plan this year. The master plan, which the city will release later this year or early next year, outlines how community trees will be cared for over the next 50 years. Trees for Oakland solicited community contributions and made recommendations.
“From the perspective of the voluntary tree-planting community, it is critical that this Urban Forest Masterplan is a collaborative endeavor,” Mulvey said.
Mulvey hopes the city will share a draft of the master plan before it’s complete.
The city did not respond to a request for an interview about the city forest master plan.
Hood isn’t convinced that a master plan is the answer to Oakland’s tree disparity.
“This idea that we have of planning and planning and planning – it gets in the way of direct action. They create a bureaucratic process that nobody is responsible for,” Hood says. “Just to have a mayor saying, ‘We’re going to plant a million trees in the next two years. Let’s do this.’ That’s a master plan right there.”
This story was published in association with The Oaklandside.