Volunteers and tree advocates are transforming concrete into green space in many underserved and low-canopy neighborhoods across Oakland, Calif. Credit: Christopher Horn.
Before the Great Recession hit in 2008, the City of Oakland budgeted nearly $4.5 million dollars to its Tree Services Division, housed under the city’s Department of Public Works. Only one year later, that number plummeted to under $2.5 million.
“The City had to face extremely hard choices back in the recession in order to keep operating,” said Kristine Shaff with the Department of Public Works. “We are always hopeful that funding for Tree Services will be restored.”
Hard choices were weighed and, ultimately, decided on by governments in large cities across the United States. Budgets for trees, parks, green space and landscaping typically get the short end of the stick when funding is on the chopping block. (It happens so frequently that the U.S. Forest Service has resources to help municipal government employees prepare for budget cuts.)
Unfortunately, in these circumstances trees aren’t the only inhabitants of a city that can feel the effects.
A CHANGING CLIMATE
In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fifth comprehensive assessment report on climate change and its impacts. Among a myriad of alarming findings, a group of more than 700 experts from multiple disciplines noted two points that could have a major effect on urban forests and the people who live in them:
- “Many global risks of climate change are concentrated in urban areas.”
- “Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty.”
The first point may not be all that surprising: Urban population in the U.S. totals more than 80 percent, a number that UNICEF projects to hit 90 percent — or 365 million people — by 2050. The second point is not as apparent, nor as simple as the first. While current and future population growth in American cities can be representative of economic opportunity and an overall good standard of living, these changes can also have negative repercussions, most notably for low-income and minority communities.
With startups and tech companies flocking to the Bay Area, the region has witnessed a steady growth in population ever since the initial tech booms of the late 20th century. And, with a major housing crisis in San Francisco that is currently displacing longtime residents and pricing out newcomers, a socioeconomically and racially diverse group of people is moving elsewhere, particularly to conveniently located Oakland. Reversing a trend of population decline that the city faced from 2000 to 2010, Oakland had an estimated population increase of 5.9 percent between 2010 and 2014.
And, when gentrification and urban development remove aspects that provide opportunities to everyone — jobs, affordable housing, etc. — it creates a community that lacks economic diversity. While it’s obvious that predominately high-income areas are better able to support greater tree canopy, it’s also typically true that neighborhoods with more economic diversity also have resources available to support tree planting and care, resulting in more canopy cover development over time.
However, the real issue lies in predominantly lower-income neighborhoods, which have substantially less canopy on average as well as fewer resources to do anything about it. This is precisely the case with Oakland.
A ROCKY RELATIONSHIP
Upon conquering Native American lands in the region, conquistadors from Spain called the settlement around present-day Oakland “encinal,” Spanish for “oak grove” — a reference to the impressive stands of live oaks that lay between the flat, coastal plain and the higher elevation on the east side of San Francisco Bay. In 1852, two years after California officially became a state, the name stuck and the town of Oakland was incorporated.
In the more than a century and half since then, the city’s forest declined steeply, as many do, at the hands of expansion and development. Today, Oakland’s estimated 200,000 trees total 24.8 percent urban tree canopy, a moderate figure that ranks in the middle of other Bay Area cities, but below the national average of 27.1 percent. And, while the city’s trees provide benefits valued at more than $15 million annually, those benefits are not always proportionately allocated among Oakland’s seven council districts.
However, the relationship between socioeconomics and urban tree canopy is not unique to Oakland. Urban areas with little tree canopy encounter far more problems associated with the lack of green infrastructure — defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “the patchwork of natural areas that provides habitat, flood protection, cleaner air, and cleaner water.” In most circumstances, these areas are comprised of low-income communities with limited access to critical resources that can improve environmental conditions. And, as climate change worsens and weather patterns shift to more extreme temperature and precipitation conditions, underserved communities bear a lot of the associated burdens.
Several studies have found correlations between city trees and public health in neighborhoods with low tree canopy — increased respiratory illness, particularly among children and senior citizens, and more incidents of diabetes and heart disease. In terms of psychosocial benefits, a lack of access to green space can negatively impact mental well-being and stress levels, the latter a foreboding allusion to the potential climate change risks highlighted in the recent IPCC report.
Recognizing that tree canopy can be an important factor in understanding and addressing income disparity and supporting sustainable development — both environmentally and economically — a recent study by American Forests examined tree canopy by Oakland council district in correlation with several demographic and socioeconomic factors, including income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, population and age. The information that was derived can help identify the districts where additional trees can provide the greatest positive impacts for communities.