Last Thursday afternoon, two dozen young children took to the sidewalk along James Kenney Park in West Berkeley, eagerly mulching and watering six newly planted trees. The young tart gum and trident maple trees represent the beginning of a city effort to correct a longstanding inequity in Berkeley’s urban forest.
According to a series of maps produced last year by the nonprofit American Forests. Experts say the inequity has major ramifications for environmental health.
“We’ve known there’s been a problem for a long time,” Berkeley Parks manager Scott Ferris said. But only recently have public funds become available to address the inequity, he said.
The city has planted more than 200 trees in industrial areas of West Berkeley so far — thanks to a $725,000 state grant in March 2020 to fund tree planting in low-canopy neighborhoods vegetal.
Last week’s tree planting in James Kenney Park was a celebration of a new $500,000 California Transportation Commission grant, awarded in February, that will allow Berkeley to expand the project. (The city contributed $315,000 to complete the two grants.)
Over the next 15 months, the city plans to plant 1,200 to 1,800 trees in residential neighborhoods in northwest and southwest Berkeley. In addition, 350 trees will be planted in San Pablo Park, University Avenue and the water park, including 100 as a “wall of trees” along I-580 to reduce freeway noise, a said Ferris.
City staff will work closely with residents to determine where and what to plant, said City Arborist Ian Kesterson. Trees are available free of charge and will be planted in the public right-of-way along the sidewalk.
Dozens of species will be planted, with city staff offering residents of different neighborhoods a curated list of four or five options that will best suit their area. “You can pick whatever you think looks cool. There’s usually an evergreen option or a deciduous fall color tree, maybe something with showy flowers,” Kesterson said. “It’s a public service, but it’s also your thing. There’s a lot of emotional attachment to our trees.”
On streets without an existing planting area, staff will cut concrete over part of the sidewalk to expose the soil. The grants cover the cost of cutting the concrete and the cost of three summers of watering – the time it takes for a new sapling to survive. If residents cannot water, city staff will irrigate the trees with water trucks.
While many residents appreciate the beauty of urban trees, their value goes far beyond aesthetics, said Nancy Hughes, executive director of the nonprofit California Urban Forests Council.
“Many of us will think of trees as a background, some sort of inanimate object,” Hughes said. “We don’t realize how many benefits there are.”
The EPA estimates that urban trees can lower neighborhood temperatures in summer from 2 to 9 degrees because their branches shade the street and their leaves release water vapor.
The leaves also attract dust and small particles, improving air quality, Hughes said.
Air quality is especially important in historically deprived neighborhoods in South and West Berkeley, located closer to freeways and disproportionately affected by diesel particulate pollution.
An article from 2019 from UC Berkeley and the UCSF Joint Medical Program found that high pollution is one of the reasons residents of historically bounded communities in Berkeley and other East Bay towns have higher rates of asthma. (Redlining is a racially discriminatory mortgage lending practice that concentrates people of color in South and West Berkeley.)
Health disparities are “directly related to where people live,” said Berkeley board member Rashi Kesarwani. “So the fact that we can add these trees to these neighborhoods is really important.”
Kesterson, the town arborist, echoed the many benefits of urban forests, including making walking and cycling a more attractive alternative to driving.
“Even a fallen leaf stuck in the gutter will help filter dirty water flowing down the drain,” Kesterson said. “There is no part of the trees that does not improve the environment and the quality of life around it for everyone.”
The new plantings also represent an opportunity to create an urban forest suited to Berkeley’s future climate. Trees planted today won’t mature for 50 years and are chosen to withstand the heat and drought of the future Bay Area climate.
“Trees that have been planted in the past 100 years have been planted purely for aesthetic reasons or following nursery trends,” Kesterson said. Many of them need supplemental water to survive California’s long droughts. “We’re working with climate change models to figure out what Berkeley will look like in 2070.”
There are currently approximately 40,000 trees maintained by the City of Berkeley in parks, streets and medians. “We have space available for another 10,000. This is our big goal. Kesterson said.
Trees are on their way to South and West Berkeley neighborhoods
Learn more about Berkeley’s “Trees Make Life Better” program for South and West Berkeley neighborhoods on the city website. Interested residents can contact the city’s Urban Forestry Department at [email protected] or call 510-981-6660. Staff plan to plant trees within a month of the request.
The launch tree planting events will take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 10 at San Pablo Park and at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 2 at Greg Brown Park. (Residents outside of South and West Berkeley may request tree planting on public property through the regular tree planting program.)
When can you request your trees
Zone 2: until May 2022
Zone 6: April 2022-June 2022
Zone 8: June-August 2022
Zone 1: October-December 2023
Zone 3: November-January 2023
Zone 4: December-February 2023
Zone 5: January-March 2023
Zone 7: March-May 2023