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Can’t See the Trees… or the Forest

Why Oakland Can’t Afford to Keep Ignoring Urban Forestry

By Eric K. Arnold

Ten a.m. on a spring day in March and the sun was already blazing with mid-day intensity as a circle of people gathered at Wo’se Church of the African Way/Ile Omode charter school—a center of spirituality and learning for the East Oakland community—for a tree planting ceremony. Greg Hodge, a former Oakland school board president and father of nationally-known poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge, led the impromptu congregation, which included local residents, volunteers, and tree stewards from the nonprofit urban forestry organization Urban Releaf.

The community had requested the tree plantings after a daytime shooting in front of the school grounds, which frazzled nerves and increased concerns about public safety. Young African American girls helped plant several trees in the schoolyard; then volunteers fanned out along the surrounding streets, picking up trash dumped in front of an AT&T substation, and digging holes for the tree stewards to plant in. Almost immediately after the first trees went into the ground, the mood on the streets seemed to lighten and become less dangerous. Residents cruising around the hood in muscle cars ceased mean-mugging pedestrians. Older folks came out on their front lawns to watch the proceedings.

All told, about 30 trees were planted that day, which is significant for a neighborhood whose sidewalks were almost bare of vegetation, but just a drop in the bucket for rebuilding Oakland’s overall tree canopy.

Despite its claim of being a “sustainable city,” Oakland has largely ignored urban forestry—a proven solution to both urban blight and greenhouse gas reduction—even when state funding for programs, such as tree planting, has increased. The claim is not entirely without grounds: Oakland was among the five U.S. cities recently selected to receive funding for a “Chief  Resilience Officer” from the Rockefeller Foundation; it’s home to a number of green businesses (e.g. solar installer Sungevity) and green NGOs (e.g. Bay Localize) and it was the launching pad for Van Jones’ infamous green jobs campaign.

But if the green revolution has truly taken seed in Oakland, evidence of it is hard to find in the city’s flatlands where more than half the population actually lives.

Pollution and Poverty: The Problem by the Numbers
To get a good sense of the scope of the problem, see California’s new pollution mapping tool, commonly referred to as CalEnviroScreen. Using pollution, poverty, and other socioeconomic factors, the database creates scores for each of the state’s 8,000 census tracts and presents them in publicly accessible color-coded maps. (See sidebar, next page.) On Google Earth’s satellite map, which can be overlaid on the EnviroScreen maps, the census tracts of the East Bay are revealed in three-dimensional images showing city streets as they actually appear. A close examination reveals an interesting detail: the clear border between San Leandro and Oakland. The demarcation point, however, is not any sort of landmark, but East 14th Street, which runs through both cities. On the San Leandro side, east of 109th Ave., bushy, adult trees line the sidewalks next to grassy parks. On the Oakland side, East 14th becomes International Blvd., which generally has no more than one or two trees per block.

International Blvd also marks the separation between the hills (where middle class and wealthy people live) and the flatlands (where the residents are predominantly low-income and people of color). On the EnviroScreen map, the closer you get to the hills, the greener the map becomes; whereas, below International Blvd., the colors range from orange (indicating a region within the top 20 percent of environmental pollution in the state) to red (within the top 10 percent). The entire length of International Blvd. is within an orange zone, indicating extremely poor air quality. This environmental hotspot, which extends throughout East Oakland’s flatlands to the estuary and includes the Oakland International Airport, is home to a predominantly ethnic population of approximately 140,000 people, or more than one-third of Oakland residents.

If you include areas off the International Blvd. corridor but still within the orange zone, the affected population is nearly 150,000. Add West and North Oakland’s EnviroScreen hotspots and an additional 27,000 people come into the high-to-severe risk zones, and 23,000 into the moderate-to-high risk zones. In other words, almost half of Oakland’s population lives in environmental hotspots. (See “Hotspots” sidebar on previous page.)

The Urban Heat Effect
East Oakland’s flatland communities are “disproportionately burdened by diesel pollution and have some of the highest cancer risks in the Bay Area,” noted Communities For a Better Environment in a 2010 study on diesel truck exhaust.[1] The lack of tree canopy exacerbates these risks, subjecting residents to greenhouse gas emissions and making them more vulnerable to heat risk-related land cover (HRRLC), also known as the urban heat island effect. A heat island is an urban area where surface infrastructure, such as concrete and roofing, stores and reflects heat, resulting in higher temperatures—as much as 20°F—than rural areas.

According to a 2013 report published in Environmental Health Perspectives, “Impervious surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete, contribute to urban heat islands and surface temperatures via their high heat capacity, thermal conductivity, and often low reflectance of solar radiation.”[2] The report goes on to note that one in five natural hazard deaths nationwide are due to HRRLC, which disproportionately impacts non-whites, and points out that “because of climate change, many cities are expected to become warmer,” as urban population centers grow denser.

The urban heat island effect is at its worst in the summer when overall energy demand increases, causing elevated levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, acid rain, and carbon dioxide. It can lead to negative health impacts, including respiratory problems, exhaustion, and heat stroke. Flatlands, such as East Oakland’s, are particularly susceptible to heat island impacts, which include “increased energy consumption; elevated emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases; compromised human health and comfort; and impaired water quality,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For flatland residents, the combination of HRRLC and carbon emissions from vehicle traffic is a double whammy, adding to their existing problems of highest rates of crime and the lowest levels of income. But there’s a simple way to at least mitigate HRRLC: increase the tree canopy in urban areas.  

As the EHP study notes, “urban trees provide several environmental amenities,” ranging from shade on hot days, to reductions in wastewater and air and noise pollution. Urban trees also have positive mental and physical health benefits resulting in lower mortality rates and better pregnancy outcomes. Since minorities in the United States tend to live in areas with sparse tree canopies, planting urban trees could significantly reduce the disproportionate environmental health impacts these demographics suffer.

Environmental experts note that adding tree canopy to flatland areas is a preferred method of carbon sequestration. And California’s Air Resources Board, which monitors airborne pollutants, has identified urban forestry as one of five priority areas for greenhouse gas reduction.

SB535 Provides Funds for Urban Forestry
Under California’s groundbreaking 2006 environmental legislation, AB32, statewide standards for greenhouse gas reduction are now mandated by law. Further modifications stipulate that a portion of the cap-and-trade funds collected under AB32 be directed at disadvantaged communities, i.e. residents of low-income, high-pollution areas, also known as environmental justice communities (SB535); and that cities themselves be responsible for meeting the state’s mandated climate goals (SB375).

Given that much of Oakland’s flatlands are within the top 20th percentile of CalEnviroScreen’s pollution scores, one might think that mitigation would be a top municipal priority.

According to the city’s Department of Public Works, Oakland’s current tree canopy stands at just 12–15 percent—far below the 40 percent recommended by forestry experts—who estimate that between 750,000 and one million trees need to be planted to bring the city into compliance with statewide climate action goals. “Oaktown” could surely benefit from an urban tree-planting initiative, similar to the ones in Denver, Los Angeles, and other cities.

The city of Oakland, however, has been indifferent to urban forestry. The city’s Tree Services department doesn’t plant trees anymore and also refuses to contract local nonprofit groups to do the work. Assessing the needs of individual census tracts is impossible without an up-to-date tree inventory but Oakland’s last commissioned study was in 2006. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) officials say that they gave the city $200,000 to update its tree inventory a couple of years ago, but the work was never done.

Urban forestry has received far less attention from environmental advocates, compared to transit-oriented development and renewable energy. However, the reordering of the state’s climate change agenda under SB535, which reserves 25 percent of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GHGRF) for areas with the highest EnviroScreen scores, is starting to shift some of those priorities. Of the $872 million in the GHGRF’s budget for this year, $225 million has been earmarked for environmental justice communities. According to CAL FIRE, the allocation for urban forestry is $15.7 million for FY 2014-15, projected at $30 million for FY 2015-16, and expected to increase significantly in years to come.

In a move that has angered some urban and suburban forestry advocates, CAL FIRE announced that its entire allocation of GHGRF funds for FY 2014-15 would be directed at environmental justice communities with overall EnviroScreen scores of 75 percent or higher. Statewide, approximately 2000 of California’s 8000 census tracts fall in that category—25 of them in Oakland—representing most of the city’s flatland areas.
The news of CAL FIRE’s allotment to inner-city communities didn’t sit well with Gordon Piper, an Oakland-based environmentalist who chairs the Oakland Landscape Committee, an Oakland hills tree-planting and park maintenance group. Needless to say, Oakland hills communities have lower pollution, greater wealth, more white residents and EnviroScreen scores in the 6-20 range, hence would not be eligible for funds earmarked for disadvantaged communities.

In a letter directed at dozens of members of the forestry and environmental community, Piper (whose wife served as outgoing Mayor Jean Quan’s chief of staff) accused CAL FIRE of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s own Unruh Civil Rights law. In effect, Piper claims that the state’s mandate to benefit the top tier environmental justice communities amounted to racial discrimination against communities outside of the EnviroScreen threshold.

“This is a complex issue,” he wrote in a subsequent e-mail. “The 100 percent preference set forth by CAL FIRE for disadvantaged community project funding set forth in this Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund Grant program for tree planting is far greater than the 25 percent standard set forth in SB535 for benefiting disadvantaged communities identified by the California Environmental Protection Agency.” It was unclear at press time whether Piper would file suit under alleged violations of civil rights statutes.
What is clear is that EnviroScreen, and the race-and-income-specific data it provides, is a game-changer for environmental policy in California. EnviroScreen data can help indicate whether mitigation efforts are working, and in which neighborhoods.

CAL FIRE’s decision was fully vetted, based on recommendations set forth by the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, convened by the state’s Air Resources Board. It’s also in line with an August 2014 bulletin from the governor’s office, stating the criteria for environmental justice communities to receive state funds under SB535: “Areas disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative public health effects, exposure or environmental degradation; Areas with concentrations of people that are of low income, high unemployment, low levels of home ownership, high rent burden, sensitive populations, or low levels of educational attainment.”

No Hidden Agenda, Just an Obvious Need
The challenges facing Oakland’s environmental justice communities were in full view during an October tree-planting and beautification effort on 85th Avenue and G Street, a neighborhood located within census tract 60001409400. According to EnviroScreen, it has an overall score of 80–85 percent, with scores in the 80th percentile or higher for diesel pollution, hazardous waste, and groundwater threats. At the site, it was clear what those numbers mean: brownfield industrial sites leaking contaminants into the soil and groundwater; illegal dumping on a mass scale; two auto towing facilities within a block of each other; and little or no tree canopy. Rusted signs from long-closed businesses and graffiti tags on abandoned buildings only add to the depressed appearance. Given that level of blight and decay, it is no wonder that illegal drugs continued to be sold from inside foreclosed houses covered with tarps and a car did a doughnut in the middle of the street as Urban Releaf and about 20 volunteers planted trees and picked up litter. About ten trees went in the ground that day, making an immediate aesthetic difference. As the trees grow in the years to come, the environmental benefits will be further realized.

Expanding urban forestry in Oakland could mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (like diesel exhaust) from increased carbon sequestration and heat-related hazards and mortality associated with HRRLC. It could also improve energy efficiency in the flatland areas due to a reduced demand for air conditioning to counter the urban heat island effect. A growing body of evidence, including Kuo and Sullivan’s 2001 study3 suggests urban forestry can yield benefits in crime reduction and decrease fear of crime— a major concern in Oakland, which consistently ranks among Forbes’ most dangerous U.S. cities.4 For sure, urban forestry can create green jobs for youth of color living in areas with high levels of poverty and low levels of employment—i.e., the majority of Oakland’s flatlands. Furthermore, tree-planting has a high cost-benefit ratio compared to other greening initiatives which require greater investment and study before they can be implemented.

The city’s apparent disinterest could cause it to miss out on potentially larger sources of funding for environmental mitigation in its poorest, most toxic neighborhoods—areas already indicated as priorities by the state funding agency. One can only hope that Mayor Quan’s successor, Libby Schaaf—whose first statement upon election was that she wanted to make East Oakland a priority—will wake up and smell the acacia trees, actually study state-supplied data, and recognize that creating an urban forestry master plan could make a significant difference in mitigating Oakland’s environmental hotspots.

It’s rare for a state agency, such as CAL FIRE, to take the lead in meeting the needs of environmental justice communities. If the city of Oakland doesn’t rise to the occasion, our communities will need to turn up the heat on the politicians, or we will continue to live under hot, dirty, polluted and unsafe conditions.

Eric K. Arnold spent 20 years as a music journalist and documentarian before expanding his repertoire to include community-based reportage on topical issues, from energy to environment to police accountability. A contributor to RP&E since 2010, he’s currently the communications director for the Oakland-based urban forestry organization Urban Releaf. Eric also works with the Community Rejuvenation Project and blogs at Oakulture.

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