Monthly Archives: February 2009

Paris, CA

I was so fascinated by the fact that Sacramento claims a “world’s most” title in anything, let alone being green, that I’m going to dwell on this subject just a little longer. Specifically, I was curious how this fact translates into pictures, so I used google maps, the desktop world travelers’s best friend, to see what a city with so many trees looks like from the top.

I also pulled maps of Paris, the contender

and Alameda, just for kicks

If you look at the green mass in comparison to the hard mass, Sacramento wins hands down! Paris may have the same number of trees per capita (or more, if you want), but because the buildings are taller they dominate the view, not the trees. In terms of heat island effect, I have to declare it the loser. (There is no such thing as Google world heat map, is there? There’s this neat picture though.) Still, nothing a Paris rooftop garden program wouldn’t fix…

The Alameda map is interesting because we do have a reputation of being a city of “tree-lined streets,” “leafy neighborhoods,” [instert your favorite real estate catch-phrase here]. The Gold Coast area is not too bad (see how many trees there are in people’s back yards). You don’t want to look at the east, or worse, the west end though—it’s just greyness all around. Zoom to your favorite neighborhood to see where it is in comparison to say, Montmartre.

For audio-visual completeness, here’s a short NPR story about Sacramento’s trees. Story is a couple years old, but what’s that in the lifespan of a sequoia? A wink. And the word “neighborwood”? To die for…


Good day sunshine

It’s a good sunshiny day again today, before the next wave of rain tomorrow.

I was riding my bike yesterday in a leisurely manner, noticing some new tree plantings on Grand Street. They were maples, and had little dark shiny leaves on them, cute like the toes of a newborn baby, just begging to be touched. I was so happy to see them there, next to their elders, soaking up the sun and sucking nourishment from the nice dark wet soil underneath. These are the kind of things you don’t really notice when you zip around running errands by car, though I do that often enough too. Now that we have the slow food movement, we should start a slow move movement too. Or would that be just slow move-ment? I always complain that people have diminished observation skills these days, maybe it’s because we move so fast all the time, everything’s a blur, we can’t see the details. Young kids, on the other hand, being slower and closer to the ground, constantly zoom in on the details—the yucky ones especially. Maybe that accounts for their incredible growth in knowledge about the world in those first few years—a knowledge acquisition rate that just slows down hopelessly the older we get.

What a grand detour from my topic this was…

Anyway, after I enjoyed the new plantings on Grand Street, I turned on San Jose Avenue to go back home and a harsher reality hit there. San Jose is woefully deprived of trees. I didn’t realize before how many are in fact missing. I took some pictures of whole blocks where trees are gone—why or when I cannot tell, but boy does that look like a project. Someone who lives on San Jose might enlighten me as to how the trees got lost over the years and why they never got replaced. This is on the side with no wiring mind you—the sidewalk where the wires run parallel is barren too but not so much. Anyway, here’s some snapshots, taken between Grand Street and Park Street. Note the planting strips that are cemented over—I was told by someone from the city it’s illegal to do that, though I can’t find it in the municipal code right now. It costs the city more to restore the strip in order to replant. But you’d never do such a thing, right?

Shady deals in Sacramento

Made you look now didn’t I.

What I want to talk about though is not the wheeling and dealing that surely goes on in the long corridors of the state Capitol but rather the creative, forward-looking energy-saving programs and initiatives that have come out of Sacramento and its surrounding communities in recent years. Why would something cool and innovative in that department spring out of Sacramento exactly? Darn, if your city had summertime temperatures averages of 90 F and the grid overload that comes with that, you’d be scrambling to come up with something too!

What’s new is that the ideas that have come up are focused on one of the simplest, most natural and sustainable means of decreasing energy demand during peak times—tree shade. Called strategic tree planting, the thoughtful placement of trees in a way that would create maximum energy savings for the homeowner or business by shading sun-exposed areas has caught on with private citizens and utility companies alike. Sacramento is not the only place where shade tree projects are going on, but it’s the most established, and it’s what other communities often look to when shaping similar programs.

True fact: Sacramento is the city with most trees per capita in the world. Don’t tell me you knew that! (Paris contends the title; I volunteer to get over there once in a while and count, to keep the score accurate. ) That’s no accident. The Sacramento shade tree program, which is a joint effort of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the Sacramento Tree Foundation, has been going on for 20 years now, and is reponsible for some 400,000 new trees. According to Misha Sarcovich, SMUD program manager

“…the program has allowed SMUD to reduce the electricity it generates by an estimated 1.7 million kilowatt hours in 2008. Because the trees planted since 1990 continue to grow, SMUD’s benefits increase year after year. The shade tree program is one of the factors in its energy efficiency portfolio that contributed to the district’s decision to postpone building a new power plant.”

(Quoted in California Releaf newsletter; sorry, no link.)

Now I think this is amazing. That something so thoughtful, wholesome and simple should be taken so seriously and applied so widely in a world where solutions typically tend to be more complicated than the problems is nothing short of miraculous. What’s even more miraculous is how the program has spread to the surrounding communities, like Roseville—which happens to be a city with its own electric utility, like Alameda. They’ve had a shade tree program since 1993, and one of their special perks is, they offer rebates to builders and developers who plant trees in the right locations. It pays—homeowners have reduced their annual cooling costs by up to 40%. It’s one of the main things that attracts people to live in Roseville!

Alameda may not be as hot as the Sacramento Valley (our average summer temperature is 70 F—spoiled, aren’t we) but there sure are days (and more to come) when scrambling for the shade is all one can think about. How nice would it be if our AMP offered a similar program, and if there were actually a group, similar to the Tree Foundation in Sacramento ot the Roseville Urban Forest Foundation, that would facilitate it. Maybe because we’ve taken out urban forest for granted for so long, and we haven’t yet experienced the tree-lessness of newer communities, we’ve grown a bit complacent in this area. But because trees take so long to grow, now is as good a time to start as any.

I’ll be shovel-ready when you call

I’ve been both busy and restless this long weekend, what with all the rain and everybody home climbing the walls, but I did want to put in my two cents on the Alameda’s list of “shovel-ready” projects.

I glanced to see what’s on the list and a few things jumped at me: 1) the projects are scarce on description so it’s really hard to know what exactly is the scope of work proposed, 2) they all appear to be short-term job generators, and 3) most people who cared to vote on them apparently thought, like me, that the projects hardly meet the description of “critical.”

Overall, the list appears more instructive on who/which city department or lobbying group has the most influence, and less on what our city’s long term vision is, and that’s a disappointment. To complain more specifically, other than employing some people for some time, it’s hard to see what long lasting benefits are being aimed at. Here we have an opportunity to leap ahead in some strategic ways in this city, and instead we are talking a laundry list of deferred maintenance items, and some (like Fernside, Park and Webster streets “streetscapes”) are not even that. I also thought some of the projects had funding secured, either with redevelopment money (I’m not a fan but that’s how they got started) or through grants, such as Safe Routes to School. To see them on the stimulus list, competing for funding, seems redundant and inefficient. The third biggest item on the list—$5 million worth of unspecified work to Harbor Bay Parkway—is also a surprise to me. I confess, I never heard of this little used road as being in “critical” need of anything; maybe, if the Harbor Bay business park gets really busy one of these days, or if the “road to nowhere” actually gets used, the street could use some lighting, but other than that, it is not a hole crying to get filled right now.

So how might I rearrange this list, given the opportunity?

I’d start with those items which I think are likely to provide solid, long-term benefits to the city, and expand on them:

• Solar panels for the library? Hallelujah on that one! Now let’s expand this to install solar panels on EVERY city-owned building, including all the fire stations and city hall of course. Why stop at the library? Obama’s goal is to make all federal buildings energy-efficient—why should we settle for anything less, especially if the money is there?

• Planting trees is good, I’m happy to see it make the list. But the numbers planned for are too modest—350 new trees net is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what we need. Actual need was identified (by the city’s tree consultants) as 3,500 spots ready to take a tree right away. Talk about shovel-ready! If there’s something left over, there’s plenty spots that are “drill-ready”—where the concrete needs to be broken and a tree well made. Think of all the work arborists and tree-trimmers will have for years to come! (You know that’s not the only reason to have trees, don’t you?)

• Speaking of trees, it would be nice if the city had some funds to spray the sycamores on Central against the disease that turns the leaves brown early (though it doesn’t kill the tree, I’m told). I can’t say that more crucial than resurfacing a sidewalk necessarily, only that it’s missing.

• But the big—BIG!—glaring omission form the list is the undergrounding of all those overhead wires crisscrossing old island Alameda! Our entire infrastructure overhead is crumbling! We have utility poles in Alameda that look like they are hundred years old, and probably are. We readily complain about houses that are hundred years old, some as far as calling them blighted, yet a rotten wood pole with a hornet’s nest of wires ten feet above our heads we somehow find acceptable. Even if we didn’t have to think about all the sacrifices we need to do make to accommodate those ugly overhead utilities, by damaging our existing trees and planning future ones around the them, that project alone would be a major step in bringing us into the 21st century.

Since the current list continues to generate negative numbers of approval, I’m curious what some other folks’ priorities might be instead. Maybe we can then submit the People’s list along with the City’s and see which one gets funded.

Of wires and boxes and juvenile delinquents

If anyone has had a chance to look at the Tanaka presentation from January 29, you probably saw this slide pruning-slide, meant to show what terrible things can happen to trees when they are planted next to overhead wiring. (Personally, I didn’t need to be scared into “getting it”; I’ve seen the V-cut carnage in person, as I’m sure have you. There’s a sycamore on Central and Willow that makes me want to weep every time. It’s only one of many victims of severe overpruning.)

To be honest though, I think the slide is a bit of a scare tactic, and I don’t think it tells the whole story. We do badly by our trees for other reasons too. And one of the current recommendations on the Master Tree Plan—a recommendation to plant short trees under utility lines, to avoid the carnage shown on the slide—troubles me just as much, as it can actually result in a different kind of mutilation than what we typically talk about.

So I spent some time yesterday with good old Photoshop, in the hope of sparing myself a thousand words.

The problem with short trees comes from something I heard the tree consultants refer to as “the box”—namely a requirement to have 14-foot clearance of tree branches that overhang the curb, so that fire trucks can have access without hitting anything. This is the red box in the picture.

So what happens when you have a 25-tall tree (that’s maximum height of the trees recommended for where there are wires overhead) and 14-foot “box”? The result is Tree A on the drawing—a lopsided thing, prone to leaning over the sidewalk and losing its branches in strong winds due to its reduced symmetry. I’m sure you’ve seen trees like that; once you start to notice, they are all over the place.

The problem gets even worse if the tree is trimmed to the box while still growing (Tree B). In this case, a major branch gets chopped off sometimes, causing the tree to grow into a P-shape, with no hope of ever straightening up, like a juvenile delinquent from a broken home. Chances are, such tree will not reach ripe old age. Soon, it will be deemed leaning and dangerous, and slated for removal before its time—naturally, at a cost.

One imperfect remedy to correct this is to try and restore symmetry by pruning the other side to match. The result is Tree C, with something like a crew cut that makes it look like it might be OK, if we didn’t know the history behind it. (Or if you prefer, we’ve sent our delinquent to the army to learn discipline to hopefully get him through life without trouble. Yet no one knows what trauma lies behind the young man’s stony expression.) However, the potential of this tree is never fully realized: It was cropped from below (for the box), and often topped from above too, to stay under the 25 ft wire line, if it had taller tendencies. (I’ve drawn that potential in gray on Tree A, just for fun.) It’s a tree alright, but one that provides neither the amount of shade nor the carbon absorption we want it to, and it’s too bare for any birds or other wildlife to nest in. It’s a “sterile” tree.

Now let’s take a look at Tree D. This guy was allowed to develop naturally, while also instructed in the right habits by pruning lightly here and there but carefully, so as not to mutilate or disfigure. The tree has been allowed to outgrow the 25 foot line, but the consequences aren’t as disastrous as some might fear. The part of the tree through which the wire passes is the heavier branches which don’t sway and break easily. Smaller branches have been carefully cleared so as not to catch on the wire, and above the wire line, the tree feels healthy, well-balanced, and fulfilled. It does everything we expect a tree to do, including hosting wildlife, shading, and trapping CO2 and the pollutants that would normally wash down in the ground. It’s a giving tree. It’s the kind of tree we need.

So what’s my point you ask, other than having fun with pictures and analogies? I have two:

1) We need to take a careful look at what in a tree constitutes a danger, and what is a perceived danger. Keeping wires in good order and pruning to remove dead branches is necessary, but what is probably not necessary is to keep certain types of cables and branches from EVER coming in contact with each other, damaging our trees in the process. Scary as the pictures on the presentation slide look, it doesn’t have to be that way. Over-insuring in one department is an obvious detriment to another, and we need to balance the two.

2) We (city staff, pruning contractors, regular people) need to always take into consideration the wholeness of a tree life when deciding how to handle it’s youthful unruliness. Fire truck access is important, and rules are rules of course, but discretion should be exercised when choosing whether to completely “shave” the curb side of a tree, no matter what, or let it develop its structure, so that we can raise trees that last and do well and serve their purpose, not cripples we’ll need to replace in a few years. Doing anything dogmatically, looking only at the present, is likely to be ineffective and costly in the long run.

I was in Walnut Creek yesterday, naturally looking at their trees (left my camera at home though, darn!) and I did not see nearly as much fussiness with trees and wires and clearances as I see in Alameda. Walnut Creek has a great tall tree canopy, yet I’m sure they are held to the same standards for safety as we are. So really, folks, it’s a matter of choice, balance and discretion.

With these lasting words of wisdom, go and do a good job, whatever it is you do, and always consider your long-term impact on the things you come in touch with.

Confessions of a tree nut

On waking up this morning, I realized that I’ve been on something like a writing spree. I feel like I have so much to say, I’m jumping all over the place. I guess I have a lot of pent up anxieties about trees, and not necessarily of (WARNING: SCARY LINK) this kind.

Question: What’s the one thing, next to an earthquake, that can propel me out of bed and on the street in my pajama at 7 o’clock on Sunday? Answer: the sound of chainsaws in the neighborhood. Yes, I have been known to go and keep an eye on tree pruners, to make sure they don’t cut the wrong arm, so to speak. (I make sure to thank them when they do a good job, too.)

Confession: I constantly worry about somebody cutting down a tree somewhere. Crazy? Considering the state of this poor planet, not so much. I happen to think that many of us live in a suppressed state of anxiety about the future of our natural world, and this includes the trees in our immediate surroundings. In fact, when I talk to people randomly, I’ve discovered how emotionally attached many of us are to trees, specific ones we know (or knew) and love, or just in general, but that for some reason we’ve decided this feeling is childish, immature, or incompatible with other goals we should have, and needs to be suppressed or excused. I mean, look at the title of this post!

Well, no more! I’m making no apologies for wanting trees to be plentiful, look good, and last long. I’m a tree-hugger and I’m out of the closet! So there!

In other news, take a look at the scavenger hunt page I created today. Have fun with it.

What did CASA forget?

I finally took the time to read through CASA’s (Community Action for Sustainable Alameda) Climate Protection Local Action Plan (right on page). Have you read it?

Did you think, like me, that something is missing, or maybe more correctly, not taken seriously enough? That’s right! While the Plan talks at length about green house gases and emissions and energy conservation and pollution, there is only a cursory mention of tree planting to help with these problems, tucked under food production and water conservation. I’m surprised, to say the least. Of course, trees can produce food and help retain water in the soil but what they are best known for is carbon sequestration and cooling through shade. Do you, like me, think that these last two functions of trees are absolutely essential to improving out climate?

Somebody in Washington sure thought so because she introduced this bill last year—on Earth Day, appropriately. Among the purposes of the bill:

• Reduc[e] the peak-load demand for electricity in residential areas during the summer months through direct shading of buildings provided by strategically planted trees.
• Reduc[e] wintertime demand for energy in residential areas by blocking cold winds from reaching homes, which lowers interior temperatures and drives heating demand.
• Utiliz[e] the natural photosynthetic and transpiration process of trees to lower ambient temperatures and absorb carbon dioxide, thus mitigating the effects of climate change.
• [Lower] electric bills for residential ratepayers by limiting electricity consumption without reducing benefits.
• Reliev[e] financial and demand pressure on retail power providers that stems from large peak-load energy demand.
• [Protect] water quality and public health by reducing stormwater runoff and keeping harmful pollutants from entering waterways.

Do these sound like goals CASA might have?

I’d be very interested in hearing from a CASA member, if one stumbles upon this entry here, on whether we could possibly add strategic tree planting to CASA’s goals. I don’t think energy conservation is something that the 2009 Master Tree Plan, currently going up the ladder for approvals, has focused on exactly but it is something definitely worth considering, especially when it comes to implementing the plan and making choices on what size tree to plant at locations where planting strips are generous and overhead wiring allows it. Businesses might be particularly interested in using trees to cut their energy cost. If nothing else, a goal to educate about the energy-saving benefits of shade trees would be a good start.