What’s being done to bring equitable tree coverage to Richmond neighborhoods?
on December 10, 2023
On a bright October morning in Lucas Park, dozens of community members — some with silver hair and some younger — move around in dirt, sweat and chatter. Loosely divided into small groups, the volunteers hold onto pots and branches to lift up small trees — each around 8 feet tall — and carry them to designated locations.
And then they circle around with shovels, and dig.
This was an Arbor Day activity for Groundwork Richmond, an environmental and youth organization committed to increasing the number of trees. Rebecca Orme, one of the chairs of the Urban Forestry Advisory Committee, was overseeing the planting, group after group. The citizen committee makes recommendations to the Richmond City Council about building a healthy urban forest.
Orme grew up on a farm and has always been around a lot of trees. After having kids, she felt overwhelmed by news about the global climate disaster.
“So I am determined to do everything I can for my children and their children and everybody else to have a world that’s going to be able to be sustainable and support life for generations into the future,” Orme said.
That October day, volunteers planted 45 trees at Lucas Park, a treasured patch of green in the Iron Triangle.
Data from Groundwork Richmond show more than 2,500 new trees have been planted across the city in the past five years, mainly in disadvantaged neighborhoods that include the Iron Triangle, Park Plaza, and Coronado.
These neighborhoods were also identified in the city’s 2017 Urban Greening Master Plan, which addressed tree cover disparity.
“There tends to be less green cover in its variety of forms, including tree canopy in Black and brown communities, and especially Black and brown, low-income communities,” said Jennifer Wolch, professor emerita of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.
The Greening Master Plan separates Richmond into zones, grouping neighborhoods. The Iron Triangle is in Zone 4, which also includes the Belding Woods and Shields-Reid neighborhoods. That zone had a tree canopy in 2013 of 5.8%, one of the lowest coverages. Compare this to Point Richmond, which had a canopy of 8.6%. The disparity of trees in communities of color means these communities may miss out on benefits that trees provide: “Urban forests yield numerous benefits to the ecosystem, by reducing local or neighborhood temperature, absorbing pollutants, removing and storing atmospheric carbon, softening noise, providing habitat for birds and other creatures, and improving overall air quality,” the plan states.
The plan identified about 13,000 planting opportunities across Richmond. Just over 2,400 are in the zone that includes the Iron Triangle. The city hopes that planting in these sites will “address distribution inequities.”
City planning and design partly could explain why there is an unequal distribution of trees, as streets, sidewalks and infrastructure affect tree placement.
“Richmond has a lot of rail lines and a shipyard, and freeways that intersect. They go through vulnerable communities and they don’t have trees to help protect them from that air pollution,” said Lorena Castillo, executive director of Groundwork Richmond.
More green needed for greening
In the Iron Triangle where rows of unshaded sidewalks criss-cross a concrete landscape, sometimes planting sites can be a logistical challenge. Sarah Calderon, workforce director at Groundwork Richmond, said some planting sites on sidewalks are buried underneath concrete. Planting can still happen, but they would have to drill and remove the concrete to create a viable planting site.
“In some communities, if you want to plant more street trees, the city might be faced with redesigning the sidewalks, which is a very expensive operation,” Wolch said.
And it takes a long time to grow an urban forest. Trees with beautiful canopies are at least 10 years old, Orme said.
Richmond’s past could also be a factor. Castillo explained, “During World War II, a lot of Black and brown families moved to Richmond to find jobs. Richmond then grew really fast in a short period of time.” Castillo speculates the speed of growth and racial discrimination might have contributed to sparse tree coverage in some neighborhoods.
The federal government’s Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool uses census data to determine disadvantaged areas, and it labels the Iron Triangle community as one. Factors such as proximity to hazardous waste facilities and health risks. combined with low-income households make it overburdened and underserved. About 70% of residents in the Iron Triangle identify as Hispanic or Latino.
While Point Richmond has a similar proximity to hazardous sites, it does not meet the low-income threshold and is not labeled disadvantaged. About 68% of residents identify as white.
Richmond City Councilmember Doria Robinson, who is also the executive director of Urban Tilth, said Richmond didn’t have the resources or organization a couple decades ago to create greener neighborhoods.
Of course, it takes a lot of green to make a city greener. Some funding for new trees comes from grants.
“There’s been a number of new kinds of grant programs that have come up over the last 10 years, 20 years, to help improve air quality that has made tree planting possible for cities like Richmond,” Robinson said.
According to the CalFire website, Groundwork Richmond received a $439,460 grant in 2019 to plant 437 trees in “disadvantaged communities.” It received another grant, for $690,000, in 2021to train 45 people in tree planting, place at least 22 jobs, and plant 125 trees.
Recently, Groundwork received $1 million as part of a $35 million state grant. Castillo said the group will use it to plant 500 trees in the Santa Fe, Iron Triangle and Coronado neighborhoods.
“The plantings will be in parks, sidewalks and other public areas, as well as on people’s properties, if requested,” she said.
Calderon said Groundwork and the city are considering new funding opportunities. Some residents have called for increased corporate involvement.
“The corporations that are allowed to build big buildings, big developments, housing projects,” those are the ones that should revegetate entire areas,” said Robert Simonson, a Point Richmond resident and real estate agent.
Simonson, who planted 60 plants in his backyard, noted a growing willingness among people to plant trees.
“You have Chevron here that can occasionally cause pollutants,” he said. “It’s good to plant trees to clean the air. And It gives you a sense of privacy.”
However, some people think more trees could bring safety concerns. Jennifer Ruiz, who frequents Pogo Park in the Iron Triangle, said she welcomes more trees but also worries that they would decrease visibility.
“Some neighborhoods where there are tall, huge trees, it gets darker earlier,” Ruiz said. “Sometimes it breaks the sidewalk and they stick up.”
But Wolch points to research indicating that an increase in the number of well-maintained trees can enhance neighborhood safety.
“Some people feel like if you have trees, it’s easier for people to hide,” said Wolch. “But actually, places with lots of maintained trees tend to be safer. It’s a little counterintuitive, but that’s what the literature has found.”
Keeping trees alive
The challenge, Wolch said, is in getting trees to survive. Castillo said it costs around $600 to $800 to plant a single tree and provide maintenance for three years. This includes watering, pruning, mulching and removing tree stakes once trees are established. Other expenses include salaries of four to six employees.
Anita Pereira, a Richmond resident and member of the Urban Forest Advisory Committee, said it’s important to think about what pollinators are supported by those trees because many species depend on native plants for their survival.
On Arbor Day, volunteers and Groundwork Richmond planted 10 California buckeye, 10 bay laurels, 10 Fremont cottonwood, 10 boxelder and five red horse-chestnuts.
“It’s not a mechanical kind of thing,” Pereira said, “You want to think about the overall ecology and what you’re doing to it and how you could benefit it.”
Pereira is transforming a lawn into a pollinator garden at Lucas Park, alongside the new trees planted during Arbor Day. She started the project a few months ago and so far has planted 70 plants and mulched half the area allocated to her by the city. Pereira plans to have perennial shrubs and wildflowers.
“Richmond is already really nice,” Pereira said. “But some places, I think, would benefit by having more green, more flowers, just more beauty where people can feel the calmness that they feel when they see something beautiful and peaceful.”
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