From the colossal Coast Live Oak outside its City Hall, to the many neighborhoods and districts named for trees, trees have historically been at the core of Oakland’s identity. Its very name can be traced back to the impressive stands of live oaks that covered the coastal plain all the way to the east side of San Francisco Bay hundreds of years ago.
Today, Oakland’s estimated 200,000 trees averages out to a 24.8% urban tree canopy, but look closer, and one finds striking disparities across neighborhoods.
Oaklanders refer to their city’s terrain as “the flatlands” and “the hills”. Until recent waves of gentrification, these terms also symbolized Oakland’s deep economic divide, with “the hills” being more affluent communities. West Oakland – “the flatlands” – is surrounded by three freeways, the Port of Oakland and the Oakland Army Base. While the Port of Oakland is a mainstay of the city’s economy and provides many jobs, it is also a major contributor to the health problems that plague residents of West Oakland. Between the port, which is one of the busiest in the US, and the large number of truck-related businesses and distribution centers, the quality of West Oakland’s air became one of the worst in the nation. Asthma reached epidemic levels: children in this neighborhood are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average Californian child. In West Oakland, one sees the perverse double edge of environmental injustice – not only was this community exposed to pollutants at levels two or three times the amounts in surrounding neighborhoods, it was also historically denied investment in the very assets that could help mitigate its toxic burdens.
Urban Releaf was founded to address these inequities, and work towards relieving the burdens.
To Invest in the Future, Invest in Youth
Since 1998, Urban Releaf has worked to address the needs in Oakland neighborhoods that had little to no tree canopy cover. Through tree planting and urban forestry job training, the organization has focused on connecting residents in underserved neighborhoods facing environmental injustice with opportunities to create local greenspace and training to perform ongoing maintenance on that new greenspace. Kemba Shakur founded the organization after serving for years as an area correctional officer and realizing the linkages between so many underserved youth ending up behind bars and the environmental conditions of their communities. Shakur recalled, “While working at Soledad Prison, I saw a lot of young people that really needed jobs. I wanted to start a program that would both help the environment, but at the same time, work with the young people to be stewards of the environment.” After planting trees in her yard and in the yards of her neighbors, she understood that through tree planting and care, she could help Oakland youth foster a sense of purpose and belonging while making their communities more livable.
Shakur initially modeled the organization after the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, a nonprofit that helped transform her former hometown by planting trees and community gardens in low income neighborhoods. She shared, “Our model is building healthy communities one tree at a time. From the young people to old people, to the homeless on the block—whatever it takes.” Twenty-two years later, Urban Releaf has planted over 20,000 trees and trained dozens of Oaklanders to join the urban forestry field through their Urban Forest Education and Stewardship Training program. Having served both youth and adults, the program merges the fundamentals of effective civic engagement with principles of environmental justice. Participants plan and coordinate tree planting, tree care, and tree monitoring projects in Oakland’s public spaces.
Urban Releaf’s outreach program has provided seminars and workshops to schools, community organizations, environmental justice groups, public health organizations, and other groups to engage residents in community based environmental stewardship.
Urban Releaf’s mentoring program has cultivated leadership skills through multi-age and intergenerational relationships. Mentors undergo leadership training that includes personal and professional character development, public speaking and presentations, and project planning and coordination. The mentors develop skills that put them on track to becoming International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborists.
In addition to these efforts, Urban Releaf has offered an Urban Forest Stewardship Training and Certification for youth and young adults facing barriers to employment to learn how to build and maintain neighborhood forests. The curriculum covers urban forest ecology, tree anatomy, environmental stewardship, tree identification, tree health, tree planting and care, civic engagement, pruning, environmental justice, public speaking, interpersonal relationships, and careers in natural resources.
Get a Seat at the Table
In recent years, Urban ReLeaf’s impact has stretched beyond their Oakland-based tree planting, education, and job-training programs into informing research and policy to advance urban forestry in California statewide. In 2013, the organization began sending representatives to serve on the California Air Resources Board’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC), which makes recommendations on how the state prioritizes support for projects that improve air quality. One quarter of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds raised from California’s cap-and-trade program were made available to target support for areas facing the highest levels of toxic pollution. In 2015, $17.5 million of those funds were earmarked for tree planting and care in low-income, high toxic burden communities. Urban ReLeaf’s local advocacy efforts resulted in their ability to help scale support for community forestry statewide.
Urban Releaf’s many years of environmental activism have informed how the City of Oakland now approaches its tree planting and care. Faced with increased economic pressures from gentrification and redevelopment, the City of Oakland is currently working to create a new urban forest master plan that will guide planting and preservation of its trees for years to come. Though nearly half of the City’s Tree Services unit was eliminated in 2008 due to lack of funding, Oakland is slowly building back capacity and still remains ambitious in its efforts to establish itself as one of the greenest cities in the nation.
Through the work of organizations like Urban Releaf, the City and rest of its constituents can better realize the connection between urban forests, clean air, and the physical and psychological health of communities. If these efforts are successful, perhaps Oakland will once again be known for its exceptional urban forest.