What San Francisco and Oakland are doing to increase their tree canopy in most vulnerable areas

Lyanne Melendez Image
Saturday, September 23, 2023
What SF and Oakland are doing to increase their tree canopy
San Francisco and Oakland are working to increase their tree canopy in the cities' most vulnerable areas.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The poor air quality in the Bay Area has been the focus of much attention. One way to remove the pollutants from the air is to plant more trees. But places like San Francisco and Oakland have small urban tree canopies, compared to other major cities. San Francisco has long carried a reputation for being conscientious about the environment.

Yet, ironically, there are parts of the city that look more like a concrete jungle, barren of trees, than an urban oasis.

"So the temperatures in those neighborhoods that don't have trees or green spaces can be much higher, 10 degrees of more than other parts of the city," said Jon Swae of the San Francisco Department of Public Works.

The city's rapid growth is partly to blame. In 1848, there were about 1,000 residents. Because of the Gold Rush of 1849, the population grew to 25,000. By 1859, San Francisco's population soared to 80,000.

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At the time, there was so much focus on expansion, on building housing that they didn't carve out much room for sidewalks, therefore there's limited space for street trees.

"A lot of our buildings are built right to the sidewalk and so there's not room for a tree to grow large and for a canopy to expand," added Swae.

As a result, San Francisco has one of the smallest urban tree canopies among big cities, at just 13.7%. This is measured by the amount of land covered by trees when viewed from above. The national average is just over 27%.

While some neighborhoods have tree-lined streets that beautify the area, the city's tree canopy is inequitably distributed, with underserved communities lagging behind.

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A map created from state data by the ABC7 News Data team, shows in light yellow, which areas are in most need of trees. For instance, there are the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods.

But don't get confused. Most San Franciscans love their trees.In 2016, voters approved a measure that sets aside $19 million a year from the general fund to care for and maintain street trees, but not necessarily to plant new ones.

That's about to change after San Francisco was awarded $12 million from the federal government to plant thousands of new street trees.

"So with this grant we have for the next five years, we're going to be able to double the amount of money we use for planting trees in San Francisco. We're always looking for sustainable funding sources. This kind of gives us a head start and momentum," said DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon.

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"The larger goal of our urban forest plan is to get to 155,000 street trees, and we currently have 125,000 street trees. So, we need to plant 30,000 new trees by 2040 is our goal," Swae said.

Public Works is now calling this proposed expansion of the canopy the "Bloom Loop" to counter the national narrative that the "City by the Bay" is at risk of being in that "doom loop" we keep hearing so much about.

The Recreation and Parks Department will also receive another $2 million grant to plant trees in parks located in the southeastern part of the city.

"Another part of the component of the grant that Rec and Park is getting is going to work force development so that means cultivating and creating a workforce within the south eastern neighborhood to help with maintaining the trees," said Daniel Montes, spokesperson for Recreation and Parks.

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Oakland was also awarded $8 million to increase its tree canopy on public and private land and to deal with deferred maintenance.

Back in San Francisco, the city will have a tree nursery hub, already under construction. From here, most of the new street trees will be planted in those neighborhoods that for years have been crying out for help, like the Tenderloin, the South of Market area and the Bayview-Hunters Point District.

But even if you don't live in one of those neighborhoods, you can still request that a tree be planted on your street.

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"That's exactly the question we want to hear, because we want people to want trees, to love trees. And we can help them plant trees if there's the space where they can do it. We'll send an inspector out to see if this is a good location. If it's not something you can do right in front of your home or business, you can maybe work with a neighborhood group to see if there are other areas where you can plant trees," said Gordon.

To be clear, in those three underserved neighborhoods, they are going to plant trees, whether people request them or not. If you live outside of those neighborhoods and want a tree, you will need a permit from Public Works. The permits are free. Typically, nonprofits like Friends of the Urban Forest will also plant trees. They will care for the tree for the first three years at no cost to the homeowner. Even if you rent your home, because the city owns the sidewalk, you don't need your landlord's permission.

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