Only a stump remains from one tree that was chopped down in East Oakland. Credit: Florence Middleton

On his birthday in 2020, Walter Hood planted six trees in front of his house. That same year, he tore out the concrete parking strip and planted a dozen more. Now children come by to pick his lemons. It’s not much, he said, but it’s an investment in Oakland’s future. 

Hood, a UC Berkeley professor and the creative director of Hood Design Studio, has lived for 25 years in West Oakland, where tree canopy coverage is a mere 5% — the lowest in Oakland, according to a report by Oakland Public Works. Hood and others like him are planting trees because the city is not. 

During the 2008 recession, the city eliminated all street tree planting, watering, and pruning services, except for pruning in hazardous or emergency situations, leaving residents like Hood to plant and maintain trees on their own. 

Without the city’s maintenance and oversight, more trees in Oakland are dying than are being planted. 

Oakland lost 275 acres of tree coverage between 2014 and 2020, a city presentation shows. And many of the tree removals were preventable. Without intervention, the trend is expected to continue.

Tree canopy covers about 22% of the city. But the percentage is far less in East and West Oakland, which, consequently, experience the hottest temperatures, according to the 2021 Oakland Public Works report. Without trees, surface and air temperatures rise, which can increase air pollution, energy use and costs, as well as heat-related illness. 

While Hood and other residents are doing their part, many don’t have the time or money to spend on trees. 

“If you’re struggling to pay your mortgage in East Oakland and a tree service is going to run you about three grand, that’s not a service that a lot of people are going to prioritize,” said Ruben Leal, arborist and Fruitvale native. “If you’re dealing with poverty, violence, or other issues that are in our community, trees are the least of your worries.” 

Ruben Leal, local arborist and urban arboriculture student, in Oakland on Friday, Sept. 30. Credit: Florence Middleton

Leal said cultural differences also lead to different perspectives on trees. 

“Studies show that trees create a safer neighborhood,” he said. “But I’ve talked to folks from my community, in the hood, and trees make it darker at night, so they don’t feel safe. They’d rather not have the tree and feel safer.”

Traditionally, many people of color do tree service jobs, Leal notes, but there are few in leadership roles. For that reason, Leal is studying urban arboriculture at Merritt College and hopes to make arboriculture more accessible to his community.

Many Oakland residents are using grants or their own money to plant and care for trees. But those projects often are not sustainable.

Left: Foothill Boulevard near Fremont High School has few trees. Those that do exist are small and provide no coverage. Right: A tree canopy lines 50th Street in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood providing pedestrians with moments of relief from the sun. Credit: Florence Middleton

Hood led his UC Berkeley undergraduate students in a tree-planting initiative in 2015, funded by a grant from his university’s College of Environmental Design. They started by giving 120 oak seedlings to Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland. The school planned to incubate the trees and replant them in about five years, but after a change in school leadership, Hood said, that never happened. 

The scenario is not unusual, said Janet Cobb, executive officer of California Wildlife Foundation and its California Oaks project.

“People get so excited. They get a little bit of seed money, but they never get the follow-up money,” she said. 

Oakland’s ‘urban forest master plan’ could bring solutions

Cobb and Hood agree that for long-term impact, the city and the community must find a way to collaborate.  

According to Kevin Mulvey, board director for Trees for Oakland, there are opportunities to collaborate ahead. 

Trees for Oakland is a volunteer-based organization that plants and maintains trees, particularly in areas with little tree coverage. The group was initially part of the Sierra Club Tree Team, which was created in response to the city cutting its tree maintenance program in 2008. Local home and business owners can request a tree for the front of their property, but it is not first come first serve, Mulvey said. The group prioritizes planting in areas where there are multiple requests to make volunteer days more efficient. 

On Friday, Sept. 30, residents in East Oakland wait for the morning bus on International Boulevard with no shade. Credit: Florence Middleton

Trees for Oakland responded to the City of Oakland’s call for a service provider to conduct community outreach in 2022 for a new Urban Forest Master Plan. That plan, which the city is expected to release later this year or early next year, will determine how to care for community trees over the next 50 years. Trees for Oakland solicited community input and provided recommendations.

“It’s vital from the volunteer tree planting community’s perspective that this Urban Forest Master Plan be a collaborative undertaking,” said Mulvey. He hopes the city will share a draft of the master plan before it is finalized. 

The city did not respond to a request for an interview about the Urban Forest Master Plan. 

Hood is not convinced that a master plan is the answer to the tree disparity in Oakland. 

“This idea that we have of planning, and planning, and planning—it gets in the way of direct action. You’re creating a bureaucratic process where no one is responsible,” Hood said. “So just to have a mayor saying, we’re going to plant a million trees in the next two years. Let’s do it. That’s a master plan right there.”

This story was co-published with Oakland North.

Florence Middleton is a visual journalist based in Oakland, California. She joined The Oaklandside as a photojournalist intern through a partnership with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. Florence’s work focuses on themes of community, women, and culture, and she has covered stories both locally and globally. Florence is the recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellowship and the 2023 Dorothea Lange Fellowship honorable mention.