Urban Forestry Becomes a Cool Topic

By Crystal Ross O’Hara
Sacramento, CA (June 1, 2007)- It wasn’t so long ago that recycling was a novel idea, practiced in a few isolated areas, mainly in California. Now, less than three decades later, about 30 percent of solid waste in the U.S. is recycled or reused and California state law requires 50 percent of waste to be diverted from landfills. Could urban forestry, like recycling, become the next big thing in environmental stewardship?


Trees in the News
As environmental issues gain momentum in the public arena, the subject of urban forests and how they relate to global warning has come to the forefront. Urban forest initiatives have been highlighted in newspapers, radio programs and television shows in recent months. Last year in September alone, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sacramento Bee all featured stories focusing on the issue of urban forestry.
In January, the PBS series “Edens Lost and Found,” hosted by Actor Jimmy Smits, put the spotlight on the Los Angeles tree-planting organization TreePeople and its founder, Andy Lipkis. And former Vice President Al Gore has done much to galvanize interest in global climate change and the many small ways people can help to reverse the trend. In his acclaimed documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore calls on viewers to “plant trees, lots of trees.”
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger featured a tree planting event as part of his 2007 inaugural celebration. “Living the Green Dream” was the theme of the inaugural kick-off. And because the Governor is both a politician and a Hollywood star, his inauguration drew intense media coverage throughout the nation and overseas.
Living the Green Dream
The Governor’s inaugural kick-off showcased what many say is the best of what California has to offer: progressive environmental ideas and the latest in green innovation and technology. The event featured alternative-fuel vehicles, recycled products, demonstrations of alternative energy sources, and guest appearances by wellknown entertainers as well as stars of the environmental world, like Ralph Cavanagh, senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, former Environmental Advisor to the Governor Terry Tamminen, and former U.S. EPA Secretary William Reilly. The Sacramento Tree Foundation was on hand, helping children plant acorns that will be planted throughout the Sacramento area later this year. In addition, the foundation planted a California redwood tree in Capitol Park in honor of the Governor’s 2007 Inauguration.
But state officials’ commitment to living the dream goes beyond photo ops, resulting in real policy changes. California Assembly Bill 32, known as the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, requires that the state’s global warming emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. It puts a statewide cap on global warming emissions that will be phased in beginning in 2012. Co-authored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and former Assembly Member Fran Pavley, the historic bill was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger last fall. “California has taken the leadership in moving the entire country beyond debate and denial [about global warming]… to action,” the Governor said during his January State of the State Address. “As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation.”
And certainly California is the leader in the urban forest movement. Sacramento and Los Angeles have set the example, with each city on its way to reaching ambitious tree-planting goals.
The Greenprint Initiative
It was the Sacramento Tree Foundation’s Greenprint program that drew the attention of a Washington Post article dated September 4, 2006, and titled “Tree-Planting Drive Seeks to Bring a New Urban Cool.” The article, part of a special series called “Threat of Climate Change,” highlighted the regional project, which covers six counties. The initiative seeks to double the Sacramento area’s urban tree canopy by planting up to five million new trees in the coming years.
Despite actually being ranked eighth in the nation when it comes to tree canopy, Sacramento has long called itself the “City of Trees.” But like other major cities, the number of trees in the area has been on the decline while development has made a major upswing. “We’ve just lost touch with this great urban friend, the shade tree,” says Ray Tretheway, executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation and a Sacramento city councilman.
Tretheway and others set out to change that trend beginning with an agreement in 2001 between 20 area municipalities to seek out ways to best optimize the region’s urban forest. The compact was followed by an educational campaign highlighting the many benefits of urban trees. For example, policy makers and residents were informed that doubling the canopy could reduce air pollution by as much as 50 percent, that strategically placed shade trees can cut air-conditioning costs by as much as 30 percent, and that shaded neighborhoods and business districts increase property values by 10 percent.
But Tretheway says getting people to join in the tree-planting initiative didn’t require a hard sell. “People were very receptive right off the bat,” he says. Twenty-six jurisdictions in the six counties have signed on to the Greenprint. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District joined in, providing up to 10 free trees for residents. Community foresters from the Tree Foundation are also available to advise residents on what trees would be best for their property and where they should be planted.
Tretheway says the program is gaining momentum and attracting attention from communities outside of the Sacramento area. Also, education continues to be a major focus of the tree-planting drive. “We’d really like to have a great swell of educated, informed citizens advocating on behalf of the urban forest,” Tretheway says.
Million Trees LA
Los Angeles is known for a lot of things, but it is the iconic palm that often comes to mind when people think of the “City of Angels.” And while palms may be beloved by Angelenos, they provide little in the way of shade.
This dichotomy was the subject of several media pieces last year, including articles by the Associated Press and USA Today and a spot on National Public Radio. While the pieces focused on the tension between those who love palms and those who favor shade trees, they also brought attention to the Million Trees LA initiative.
Los Angeles consistently ranks as one of the country’s most polluted cities, a title that many, including the mayor, would like to see changed.
Pledging last year to make the city “greener, cleaner, healthier and more beautiful,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced a plan to plant one million new trees in Los Angeles, a significant improvement in a city with a tree canopy cover of only 18 percent, according to a study by the Center for Urban Forest Research in Davis. The national average is 27 percent.
Million Trees LA is similar to Sacramento’s Greenprint initiative in that it is a partnership between local tree groups, volunteers, city departments, and businesses. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is offering free trees to customers. Paula Daniels, commissioner of the L.A. Board of Public Works, is chair of the Million Trees LA initiative.
“It’s just been really very inspirational for me to work on this,” she says, adding that community members and policy makers have been receptive to the program. Part of the reason why, she states, is that people enjoy the symbolic act of planting a tree. “When you plant a tree you are directly involved in an activity that changes the environment for the better,” she says.
At the same time, Daniels stresses that education about how important trees are to the environment has also been key. The program emphasizes that trees help clean the air, clean up polluted urban runoff, and cool streets and buildings. Daniels says Million Trees LA often refers to shade trees as a “biogenic utility,” one that actually increases in value as it ages. “We want people to understand that trees are not merely aesthetic or ornamental,” she says. “We want to shift that thinking to an understanding that (trees) have value, real value to our environment.”
A Nation of Trees
California may be “leading the green dream” when it comes to understanding the importance of urban forestry, but it is certainly not alone in its efforts. Washington, DC, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Denver, and many other cities throughout the nation are making new commitments to trees.
“Challenges to plant trees seem to be heating up this year and that fits in with the new focus on the environment,” says Alice Ewen Walker, executive director of the Alliance for Community Trees (ACT), a Maryland-based coalition of more than 100 organizations focused on urban tree planting, care, and conservation. ACT has member organizations in 35 states as well as Canada. It is community members and municipal policy makers that are leading the commitment to the urban forest, Ewen Walker says, not only through tree-planting initiatives, but also by creating and enforcing local tree regulations regarding, for example, the removal or replacement of trees.
“A lot of times when people hear the word ‘regulation’ they think of it negatively, but communities are just responding to citizens’ demands and values. They want to protect the trees they have,” says Ewen Walker.
The September 4, 2006, Washington Post piece noted that Iowa is the only state with a long-term record of using state law to push private utilities to plant trees for energy conservation. According to the article, the program has been a success for both tree advocates and the utility companies.
“It is difficult to put a value on the community relationships we have built through trees,” Karmen Wilhelm, a spokeswoman for Alliant Energy, told The Post. “It has been wonderful for our reputation.”
However, Ewen Walker of ACT says that while municipal and state governments, individuals, and grassroots organizations have placed a new emphasis on tree planting and care, there is concern among urban forest advocates that support at the federal level will continue to decline.
Ewen Walker is particularly concerned about the 2008 budget for the USDA Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program, an entity that has suffered significant cuts in recent years. Regardless of the federal budget, any continued emphasis or spreading of the gospel of the urban forest will likely come from individuals, nonprofit organizations, and local policy makers.
But to keep up the momentum, it is vitally important that urban forestry continues to be “in the news.”
For more information, visit California ReLeaf.