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Bay Area Cities to Get Millions for Trees in Disadvantaged Areas

Ten California cities in the Bay Area will receive federal grants to plant, maintain and restore trees to increase the green canopy in poorer urban areas. Oakland and San Jose will receive $8 million and $6.6 million, respectively.

On the block where Consuelo Ramirez and her four children live in Oakland’s flatlands, only a single scruffy tree grows between the sidewalk and the street. A few others rise from backyards. Up in the Oakland hills to the east, spacious homes nestle beneath leafy, green canopies and trees line every road.

“They have more money,” Ramirez, a single mother who retired at 53 after a workplace injury, said of her distant neighbors.

And because those in the hills have more money and more trees, they have more shade, cooler summer days, more peace and quiet, more birds, squirrels and other animals — and, experts say, likely a better quality of life.

Now, neighborhoods like Ramirez’s are set to turn greener through a grant program intended to put leaves over the heads of people hit harder by the climate crisis.

Ten Bay Area cities have been awarded federal grants to plant, maintain and restore trees under a $1 billion program paid for by the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act — including $8 million in Oakland and $6.6 million in San Jose.

“It’s historic, it’s unprecedented,” said San Jose spokesman Colin Heyne. “We’ve got this infusion of funding the likes we’ve never seen before for San Jose street trees.”

The grants focus on census tracts deemed by the federal government to be disadvantaged. Increasing the tree canopy in poorer urban areas, including improvements at the scale of a single block, reduces temperatures in heatwaves and gives “an enhanced sense of well-being” to residents, said professor Katherine Cushing, chair of the Environmental Studies department at San Jose State University. Other benefits include reduced energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by providing shade that cuts the need for air conditioning, removes pollutants, sequesters carbon dioxide, reduces runoff, dampens urban noise and provides habitat for animals, Cushing noted.

As Ramirez observed, wealthier areas tend to have more trees, and the extent of tree canopy overhead correlates closely with the amount of money in residents’ bank accounts.

According to the nonprofit American Forests, trees are often sparse in disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color, partly as a result of government redlining policies dating back to the 1930s that excluded non-White people from many areas. American Forests‘ interactive maps show dramatic disparities among Bay Area cities and neighborhoods in what the group describes as “tree equity,” a measurement of “whether there are enough trees in a neighborhood for everyone to experience the health, economic and climate benefits that trees provide.”

A 2021 Nature Conservancy study based on satellite imagery from 2016 concluded that in 92 percent of U.S. urban areas surveyed, low-income zones had an average of 15 percent less tree cover than high-income zones, and were on average hotter by 2.7 degrees.

In San Jose, a seldom-enforced bylaw requires homeowners to have and maintain at least one “street tree” typically growing between the sidewalk and street. However, “the cost of maintaining a healthy tree and dealing with the occasional sidewalk or curb repairs due to tree root damage is too much for many households,” Heyne said.

San Jose’s proposal to the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that awarded the federal grants, requested $8 million for a street trees project to enable the planting of 6,000 trees and pruning of 10,000 existing ones. With the grant amount coming in lower and including $1 million for vegetation management at Alum Rock and Overfelt Gardens parks the number of trees to be planted and pruned remains to be determined, Heyne said.

“We’re not planning on swooping in and planting a tree without a property owner’s consent,” he said. Instead, city officials plan to undertake public outreach to “let the community know that there are these free trees” and that the first three years of watering and maintenance to ensure survival will be handled and paid for by the city, Heyne said.

In Oakland, a 2020 city assessment found that more than 70 percent of the city’s tree canopy was on privately owned property. The city’s tree supervisor David Moore noted that stark differences in tree cover between the hills and much of the flatlands closely match historical maps showing redlined neighborhoods.

Oakland plans to use its grant money to plant and restore trees not only along streets but in private yards, which Moore called “a very valid place for a tree to be planted.” The city intends to work with local nonprofits Common Vision and the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation to plant trees in residents’ yards, Moore said.

Oakland, too, received a smaller award than the $22.5 million it sought, and will have to sort out how to divide up the grant between street and yard trees, Moore said.

Trees planted by roadsides under the grant will come with five years of maintenance by the city, including one pruning, Moore said. New street trees typically only need to be watered for their first three years, but pruning ordinarily should take place every seven years, he noted.

Tree types will be selected for their ability to adapt to our changing climate and resist drought, Moore said. “That’s an important update to make so that the trees that we are planting not only help to mitigate the effects of climate change but also survive climate change,” Moore said.

It remains to be seen which neighborhoods in Oakland will receive new trees. Ramirez hopes to see some on her block, where she has lived for eight years in her rented home. It gets very hot in the summer, and she and her neighbors could use some shade, especially the kids who play together under the hot sun, she said. And, she added, “the neighborhood would look more pretty.”

Bay Area grants:

— Oakland: $8 million

— San Jose: $6.6 million

— San Francisco: $14 million

— Pittsburg: $2 million

— Vallejo: $1.7 million

— Berkeley: $1 million

— Concord: $1 million

— Petaluma: $1 million

— Fremont: $400,000

— Hayward: $500,000

— Walnut Creek: $100,000

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