Earth Island Reports
Growing the Urban Canopy
It’s early on a Saturday morning in April, and volunteers have gathered in a circle in a neighborhood park in Richmond, CA. Before breaking into groups to start work, they take a moment to introduce themselves and share the reasons they decided to volunteer with Richmond Trees.
Each person has a different motivation. Some want to do something tangible at the local level to fight climate change. Others reminisce about a time when there were more trees in Richmond. Still others mention personal reasons – the desire to improve air quality for a spouse with severe asthma, or to create a better world for their children. One speaker says simply that volunteering with Richmond Trees is “rewarding.”
The organizers of Richmond Trees agree that the work is rewarding. In 2011, after an online discussion about how to build the city’s urban canopy, a group of locals gathered for “Tea and Trees” to brainstorm ways to make it happen. Richmond Trees was born.
We are a grassroots, 100 percent volunteer-powered organization dedicated to growing the urban forest in Richmond. Our activities include tree-planting, monthly tree-care walks, educational programs, and advocacy. Specifically, we plant trees along city streets by working with the City of Richmond to promote the Adopt-a-Tree program, through which local residents agree to care for trees once they are planted.
The benefits of trees are far-reaching and profound. On the macro level, planting trees in Richmond is good for the entire planet. With climate change becoming an increasingly urgent issue, planting trees anywhere they can be planted should be a priority. In addition to offering carbon sequestration, urban trees also provide shade, allowing the citizens to reduce their energy consumption, i.e., their carbon footprint.
At the micro level, Richmond needs more trees. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District considers Richmond an “impacted community,” meaning that it is impacted by air pollution. Some 5.8 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted annually within city limits due to the presence of a major oil refinery, commercial shipping port, multiple railroad yards, and two interstate highways. Richmond residents suffer from higher than normal incidences of pollution-related health problems such as asthma, cancer, lupus, immune diseases, and allergies. Having more trees that can absorb the pollutants and provide cleaner air in the city is critically important.
Since Richmond Trees’ founding we have planted more than 600 trees. While we are very proud of this accomplishment, we need to plant many more in order to reach our goal of an urban canopy covering at least 40 percent of Richmond. Currently, the tree canopy covers just 11 percent of the city.
Trees are living things. And while planting a tree is fun and exciting and full of hope, it is just the first step in the life of a tree that we hope will live for 40 years or more. A 40-year life-span isn’t a given. In fact, the average life of a street tree is only seven years. So while the trees that we plant are officially adopted by local residents, Richmond Trees provides care during the first three years after planting to make sure that they survive to be thriving members of the urban forest.
Learn more about this Earth Island Institute project at: www.richmondtrees.org
During tree care visits, Richmond Trees volunteers provide local tree adopters with feedback on the care they are providing. Perhaps they are not watering quite enough, or they have allowed weeds and grass to grow too closely to the tree. Sometimes there are other issues – a broken stake or a girdling root – that Richmond Trees can help address. And in many cases the residents are doing a terrific job and the Richmond Trees volunteers simply leave a note thanking them for the care they give their adopted tree. We have created a database where we track our tree care activities, which provides valuable information about which species are doing best, and also allows us to fine-tune our best practices for planting.
We have a dedicated group of volunteers who show up regularly for our monthly tree care events. But if we want to plant more trees (and we do!) we need to expand our capacity to take care of them all. We are always looking for new volunteers, so if you’re looking to help build and maintain the urban canopy, we hope you’ll consider joining us at Richmond Trees.
—Libby Smith and Lee Micheaux