Nonprofit fills concrete slots with healthy, beneficial foliage

By Perry Shirley
San Francisco, CA (March 20, 2008)- It sits there and its dark green glossy leaves sway. White flowers, then berries, will sprout in the coming spring. This San Francisco city dweller, who lives in front of a Noe Valley restaurant on 24th Street, recently turned 27 thanks to a few human friends. When the city cut funding to urban forestry in the late 1970s, a grassroots organization formed to fill in the gap. On March 7, 1981, the Friends of the Urban Forest planted their first tree, this glossy privet in Noe Valley.

Since the 25-year-old non-profit has only 11 full-time employees, it takes considerable help from volunteers and neighbors. Charlie Starbuck has been there since the beginning and was there again at a planting on March 1 near the University of San Francisco, planting 37 of the 1,500 trees FUF puts in the ground every year. “It softens up the street,” Starbuck said. “It’s a noise buffer and it gives you something to look at besides cars.”
Besides the aesthetic value, trees also pay us back. A December 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service shows that San Francisco benefits to the tune of $103 million every year, most of it tied up in added property value. The Bay Area’s nine counties rake in $5.1 billion each year from the region’s 42 million trees.
“Businesses flourish, people linger and shop longer, apartments and office space rent quicker, tenants stay longer, property value increase, new business and industry is attracted” by trees, the report said.
Yet there aren’t enough of them. The USDA looked at the impact of a 30 percent population boom from 1984 to 2000 and found that while there was a 17 percent increase in impervious surfaces such as sidewalks and paving, trees increased by only 10 percent. San Francisco ranks last next to all Bay Area counties in tree cover, with it’s approximately 900,000 trees accounting for a 16.1 percent canopy cover.
A city dweller most of his life, 49-year-old David Elhami recently decided he needed some green in his life. He’s enrolled in horticultural classes at City College of San Francisco with the ultimate goal of creating a small-scale organic urban farm. As an intern at FUF, Elhami was there on the March 1 planting day, adding green to the urban landscape just around the corner from Cyndi’s Market at 2084 Hayes St. where, 10 years prior, store owner Tony Habash and his brother John had planted a row of 13 trees. “Without the trees, it’s so barren in this city,” Elhami said. “They bring with them wildlife like birds and honey bees. It’s an important part of our ecosystem.”
In spring, the trees bloom and liven up the concrete sidewalk and provide a balance to a silver chain-link fence that borders the property. Every winter holiday season, Habash hangs lights there, a ritual his parents began when they still owned the convenience store.
What’s not to love in a tree trunk and some green leaves? A lot, according to some. “They buckle sidewalks,” said Albert Wald, a neighbor who led a planting team for FUF but has heard the common complaints. “Some fruit trees leave a mess and people don’t want to deal with that.”
Tree planting efforts have been slowed in the Sunset and Chinatown because some in the Chinese communities there believe it affects the feng shui. The popular belief system says that having a tree in front of your doorstep could block the pathway of spirits, Wald said.
Years of community greening have taught FUF that new trees must not only fit in holes in the concrete but in the plans of urban dwellers. If residents say a planned tree blocks spirits, FUF will propose to move it a few feet away.
That’s partly why it can take up to a year between the initial planning and planting day.
The nonprofit does the bulk of the preliminary work. It talks to landowners about tree species and placements, it gets permits from the city and gets SF Public Works crews to check for gas and electricity lines before cutting a hole in the concrete.
At USF, the tree plantings are seen as just one method of controlling the private school’s overall carbon footprint. The college is one of many schools across the country to monitor its effect on the environment-at SF State “green” student housing and energy-saving methods are all part of the physical master plan-but it is ahead of the curve in many ways, said Glenn Loomis, chair of the college’s sustainability committee.
Solar power collectors were installed on several rooftops to cut energy costs and a “very extensive” recycling program already diverts 67 percent of its waste, he said. “It’s something that most responsible organizations are looking at, and it’s important because we work with students. We need to set the example,” Loomis said.
But as expenditures rise to combat the release of carbon dioxide or the climate warming trend, school administrators want to know exactly what effect “green” measures have. Loomis said the trees provide a good measuring stick. Every acre of trees creates enough oxygen for 18 people, and USF has 1,000 trees over seven acres.
“Although any single-tree benefit may be small,” the USDA report said, “the sum of benefits is significant when it comes to mitigating the environmental impacts that result from converting natural land cover to built environment.”
Related Resources:
Golden Gate Press
Friends of the Urban Forest