Category Archives: inspiration

A leaf kicker’s paradise

A friend who just got back from the midwest made me this lovely video of fall trees in Kirkwood, Missouri. Enjoy.

Green the block, stand for Van

Tomorrow (9/11) is National Service Day, and Green for All, a Van Jones organization, is calling for Green the Block events around the country. While no event in Alameda is a registered Green the Block event this year (maybe next), there IS an unregistered gardening party on Calhoun Street, between Mound and Court, from 3 to 5 pm, to clean, mulch, and beautify a strip of weeds next to Krusi Park. You can don your work gloves and come pull some weeds with us, as well as bring and plant drought tolerant flowers. Or you can hold your own greening event. If you do, the Lorax would love a note about it.

That would be a good way to show Van Jones’s spirit and ideas have taken root.

Are you a tree thinker yet?

Somebody mentioned to me awhile ago that to do good by its trees Alameda needs to adopt a “tree-first” policy.

I wholeheartedly agree, but I’ve been also thinking what exactly that means. No doubt, it’s different things to different people.
tree first

To me, it means 1) noticing there are trees around us and 2) acting as if they really matter—like pedestrians matter to drivers for example, or pets matter to their owners. That would mean a status almost on par with ourselves, and an attitude towards trees that matches that status. But I don’t think we are such “tree-thinking” society yet.

In fact, I have a small collection of examples of how much of an afterthought, if that, trees really are to us and how the way we act and think really shows a lack of tree awareness that is detrimental to our surroundings, quality of life, and even budget. I’ve written about such tree afterthoughts here and here, but wanted to share couple more recent ones.

One was a case a couple weeks ago where a permit was issued for sidewalk work by a home owner, and the person cut some roots of the street tree on the sidewalk during work, whether from ignorance or by accident, who knows. The result is that the tree is now considered hazardous and will need to be removed—and replaced at city expense. Was this preventable? Sure, with some forethought. Public Works (they claim now the tree was previously deceased with root rot but that’s another story) could have advised the resident about the tree or made sure to supervise the tree’s well-being while the work is underway. Chances are though, the idea simply did not cross anyone’s mind. Chances are, the person who signed the permit didn’t even know and didn’t wonder whether there is a tree in the way the work s/he approved. It took a phone call to bring this fact to their attention. (They did say they would address similar situations in the future.)

My other example also involves construction, at a school site over the summer, where workers were installing cables next to some newly planted gingko trees, dumping the dug up soil around them, leaning a wooden palette on one of the thin trunks, and generally acting like the trees were some cheap replaceable furniture, not living things in the environment worthy of consideration. A conversation and a visit from the principal cleared that up (that the trees need to be protected during work). Again, I wonder if the trees were ever noted on the plan as existing objects when the workmen got it? Does the district even know how many trees are around each school? I know the volunteers who planted them had to get a permit to plant them, so likely there is a map somewhere… Regardless, looks like nobody told the contractor prior to the work, “Watch those trees, okay?” (Contrast this with construction work around Lake Merrit in Oakland, where trees had orange fencing around them for the longest time and a sign that said “Careful around trees.” But then there was a big tree removal controversy there, so that may have had something to do with it…)

Controversies aside, I think our society needs a serious mental switch when it comes to trees. A mental switch doesn’t cost a penny—and in some cases saves a bundle, for tree replacements for example, when such preventable oopsies happen. But mental switches come about slowly, not unlike growing a tree from a seed.

Here’s what I think a different tree mentality looks like though: I read these two news reports and I found the differences interesting—one is about the fires near Santa Cruz, CA (or any CA fire account for that matter, see L.A. ) and the other one about the fires nearAthens, Greece.

It’s hard to miss a certain difference in focus (people losing their possessions, trees as “fuel on the ground” vs. “ecological disaster”). I know that’s not accidental. When I was in Europe in the summer 2007, when Greece was again engulfed in fires, the disaster was being called as much an environmental one as it was economic and human. What’s more, people (on radio) mourned the burned forests as much as they mourned the loss of life and property. It was refreshing (though sad of course) to hear someone feeling devastated over the loss of an ancient forest instead of several million dollars and a swimming pool for a change.

I hope I’m planting some seeds when I write these things. I know there are people out there who care and see, and other who care but don’t quite know how to see. Where to start? I’d say, looking up more, noting the trees around, learning something about them, is a good first step. If more of us do more of the above, we’ll be happily on our way to becoming tree thinkers, and having policies that are “tree-first” will be no burden at all. Because it’s harder to ignore or hurt a tree you’ve gotten to know personally, right?

How does your forest grow?

A couple nights ago on BBC they had a piece about the urban forests of Rio de Janeiro (Tijuca and Pedra Branca). They are not what we normally mean by urban forest—a collection of all trees throughout a city. They are real forests, the kind where wild, endangered animals live and native plants grow wild and free. What’s interesting is that while they both are claimed to be the world’s largest, one is natural (having become incorporated into the city as it grew), and the other is entirely hand-planted, thanks to a very wise man who happened to be the mayor of Rio in the 19th century. The news story was about the pressure by middle class Brazilians to encroach and built their homes in the forest; it also mentioned the problem of foraging and raids into the forest by the poor population of the city. So the government is building a wall around it.

Another interesting fact I’ve been meaning to mention for some time is the European Greenbelt project. Again, this is not what you would typically think about when you hear the word “greenbelt”—a ring of land restricted for development, encircling a populated area. The European greenbelt is a ribbon of undeveloped land weaving across all of Europe from the Arctic Ocean to the Black See and the Mediterranean and consisting if every type of habitat imaginable—tundra, boreal and broadleaf forests, meadows and rivers. This not-so-accidental nature area has come into existence not by the conservation efforts of man but as a result of 40 years of iron curtain policies and enforcement of a buffer zone between Western and Eastern Europe. As a result of the restricted movement of people across this land (save border guards and Eastern European fugitives dashing across) the zone became a wildlife sanctuary of sorts, home to all kinds of endagered species, and a migratory bird route—probably the only man-made bird route in the world! When people noticed this, the Greenbelt idea was born (and I think, the phrase). Sadly, less than a decade later, it too is under pressures of development, suburban and agricultural alike. A wall alongside it though, as in Rio, would just be just too much of an irony (or something), I’m afraid.

Now these two bits have nothing to do with the fact that the Beltline is now officially city property and zoned as open space (thanks once again, Jean Sweeney!), other that it made me think that the Beltline is our own impromptu greenbelt, and that it could become our urban wild forest, if we so desire. It has been a de facto no man’s land the whole time legal wrangling was going on, and meanwhile it’s grown quite wild and unfamiliar, and I should add, littered. What animals dwell there, I don’t know, but birds are audible and insects are omnipresent. A stroll through the abandoned property is a trip of its own, and it does feel like you’ve stepped away somewhere. Last time I visited I was thinking how sorry I would be to see something tamed and manicured replace this impromptu wilderness, even shabby as it is; that while I would hope that some day it would once again be used as a train or light rail route, I would hate to see it all asphalted and sodded and lanscaped and sprinklered, and mowed by a gas-powered lawnmower. Rather, I’d like to see native plants and wild, tangled trees growing untamed and dirt paths that meander through, with small and tasteful benches here and there, where the adults can rest and listen to nature’s sounds while the kids explore the jungle on their own. Sound fun?

Speaking of growing a forest, another prime spot is Neptune Park, between Webster Street and Constitution, and the whole area along the approach to the Posey Tube, on the right. Right now, that’s all yellow grass and sickly trees. There is landscaping plan for part of that area, but it is oh so bland and boring, and requires ongoing maintenance and irrigation—a very silly thing indeed for a sliver of land nobody would actively use. Wouldn’t an oak forest be just the thing for this otherwise dead spot?

250,176 and counting

San Jose is yet another city that does not immediately evoke the idea of “lush” or “verdant,” for me anyway. I think of it more as big, diverse, and pragmatic as a Silicon Valley capital, and rather dusty from what I’ve seen driving through. Nevertheless, it’s a city of some quarter million trees, or one for every 4 inhabitants, and I heard that it’s working towards a one-to-one ratio (increasing the number of trees, that is, not getting rid of residents). Who is responsible for this worthy goal? Why, a non-profit tree group of course, called Our City Forest, that has been working closely with the City of San Jose for over 15 years. I happened to be there last Saturday for a job fair, learning more about the group and listening to what some of the attendees, many from San Jose themselves, had to say. (Two themes that stuck out: “The air in San Jose is so dirty, I had to do something about it,” and “People really take their trees for granted until they are gone, and then it’s too late.”) But guess what? OCF does not wait until it’s too late: Their rather small staff and 4,000 (!) unpaid volunteers plant anywhere for just a few to up to 40 trees on public rights of way EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY! The group, which receives funding through grants and gets recruits through the AmeriCorps service program among others, owns not one or two but a fleet (!) of vehicles, including watering trucks (it’s the heart of the valley after all) as well as several nurseries, and helps homeowners comply with the San Jose’s strict tree ordinances.

San Jose has an extensive Municipal Code section dealing with trees, residents’ responsibilities towards trees, tree removal permits, and enforcement. For starters, San Jose homeowners are required to have a tree fronting their property (3 trees per corner property and 2 trees per mid-block property, as space allows, and in their deed it needs to state whether the property complies with the requirement or not). The trees are to be planted, watered, mulched and even pruned (with a permit) by the responsible homeowner. It is a city that clearly takes its urban forest seriously (It has an official City Arborist position for god’s sake!). I haven’t read the entire code in detail, but the two things I gleaned from it so far are that 1) it places a lot of responsibility for the adjacent street tree on the individual homeowner, and 2) provides excellent incentives and resources for residents to assume this responsibility, OCF being its prime educator and assistant in this task.

I will leave you with couple links to browse at your leisure. I have to say I really enjoy the look of the OCF’s website, and the programs they offer are definitely worth learning about to see what could be applied here on our fair island. Like the Sacramento Tree Foundation I wrote about here, OCF too has an alliance with PG&E to reduce energy consumption through strategically planted trees.

Our City Forest website
San Jose Tree ordinances, Chapters 13-28 and 13-32

A banner lovely as a tree

Love trees AND art? Check out the Urban Forest Project. And the one-of-a-kind bags made of the recycled banners. And the wave is coming to SF too, this summer. What’s a more natural alliance than art and nature? The second has always been an inspiration for the first, and now the first is helping regenerate the second.

In fact, what if we could create a similar project, right here in Alameda, using our unusual concentration of artistic talent to help sustain and grow our urban forest? Instead of banners though, I’d go for 3-D art. Something like the Pigs on Parade in Seattle. (I saw these in person; I petted them. Swine flu was not around then.)

But seriously, folks—this could be a wonderful, natural collaboration between the art and green community here (which probably overlaps considerably anyway), and could help raise enough to close the perennial gap between the tree needs and the tree budget!

What do you think? Maybe we can get a cool band for the unveiling of the artwork, too.

Thread open for sharing your thoughts.

¡No pasarán! the ivy

Got your trowel? Clippers? Seed bombs? A bandana and flashlight? Then join the underground, literally.

We shall know each other by the dirty fingernails. Viva la resistance!