Tree shortage leaves East Palo susceptible to climate change

Palo Alto, a city with a median annual income of $158,000, has tree canopy coverage as high as 25% in some neighborhoods, according to the Healthy Places Index. Trees occupy a fourth of the land within the city. Adjacent East Palo Alto, where three in four residents are either Black or Latino, has a median income of $67,000. HPI shows one neighborhood with canopy coverage of 12%. The rest have 6%.

Community members are up bright and early on Nov. 20 at All Five, a preschool in Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood.

And they’re hard at work. Students are digging holes with shovels taller than they are. Parents are wicking away dirt from tree roots. Marty Deggeller, who’s been planting for 25 years in the area, stabilizes the young tree with a metal pipe so it will grow straight. By the end of the event, they’ll have planted 17 trees on the school grounds with Canopy, a tree planting non-profit.

Belle Haven residents Maria Cruz and her son Jeff Caceres dig holes together by the playhouse. For Cruz, the event is a special moment for her family and the community at large.

“I want my son to come back in 10, 15 years and see how it’s doing,” Cruz says. “Trees are very important for us. Everyone should have them.”

But in reality, not all communities do. There’s a severe shortage of tree canopy coverage in low-income neighborhoods. As average temperatures rise in the Bay Area, this means more extreme heat days for vulnerable communities.

Palo Alto, a city with a median annual income of $158,000, has tree canopy coverage as high as 25% in some neighborhoods, according to the Healthy Places Index. Trees occupy a fourth of the land within the city.

Adjacent East Palo Alto, where three in four residents are either Black or Latino, has a median income of $67,000. HPI shows one neighborhood with canopy coverage of 12%. The rest have 6%.

Technically, the two regions are separate cities that fall under different counties. However, tree coverage disparities fester within city boundaries too. Most of Menlo Park has between 15-31% tree canopy coverage, according to the Healthy Places Index. The predominantly lower income Belle Haven neighborhood has 7% coverage.

“You walk around a poor neighborhood and it’s just concrete. There’s no shade structure. No respite from the sun,” says Emi Wang, associate director of Capacity Building at the Greenlining Institute, an Oakland-based organization that advocates for racial and environmental justice.

And this has been an issue spanning decades. Uriel Hernandez, a board member with Canopy, has lived in East Palo Alto his whole life. He noticed the disparity as a child, he says.

“I grew up a block from the freeway, so as a kid I had asthma,” Hernandez.  “I was never around trees or nature.”

Why is this a problem?

Tree canopy coverage provides more than just aesthetics. Scientists have shown that as there’s more shade from trees, temperatures cool below the canopy line.

More canopy could be a savior during scorching summers. Average Bay Area temperatures rose nearly two degrees from 1950-2005, according to research from the state Energy Commission. By 2050, average temperature is projected to jump an additional degree.

Shade from trees slashes temperatures inside parked cars by 45 degrees, a study from the Journal of Arboriculture found.

Less shade over buildings means higher energy bills, a cost that disproportionately affects low-income families, Wang says.

There are secondary benefits too: more trees can help reduce crime, air pollution, and asthma rates within a community, Santa Clara County Senior Management Analyst Chris Curry says.

From an accessibility perspective, trees promote outdoor activity, says Maya Briones, an Advocacy Associate of Canopy. Cars drive slower in tree lined areas too, making communities more walkable.

Perhaps the most critical benefit to trees for California, currently in a state of emergency for the severe drought, are the water benefits. Trees slow down rainwater as the roots help soak up run-off, Curry says. This can then go into groundwater supply and cut the burden for stormwater management systems.

How did we get here?

Nearly 80% of trees are on private property, Nareesh Duggal, Program Manager of Santa Clara County, says. That means it’s up to residents to plant and maintain trees on their own.

For the well-resourced Palo Alto, that’s easy. Most folks in East Palo Alto, however, are renters. They have to rely on landlords to plant enough trees to build up the canopy and renters themselves may not have enough disposable income to maintain the tree on their own. Water bills alone can be a huge burden.

Local municipalities could opt to plant trees on city property, like street medians. However, governments, particularly those serving low-income communities, rarely have sufficient funding for green spaces. It’s often the first program to get cut in the face of budget shortages, Duggal says.

“When the economy is down, the funding for these nature-based solutions, especially for urban forestry, is scaled back,” Duggal says.  “There are other priorities at that time for these public agencies.”

Funding is also often allocated to tree planting; in reality, maintenance, albeit less exciting, is more important to tree health and longevity. Managing existing tree canopy garners less attention and funding, Duggal says.

“These trees may live to 300 years,” Duggal says. “Saving an asset of that kind is more important than just planting.”

Trees in East Palo Alto have historically not been well maintained, Briones says.

“There’s a distrust between the community and the government. These big trees that are here, haven’t been taken care of and they fall,” Briones says. “They break up concrete. Why would they want more?”

Who are the problem solvers?

Groups like Canopy are hoping to tackle the issue head-on. Canopy now serves five communities: Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Belle Haven, North Fair Oaks, and Mountain View. In 2020, Canopy planted and tended to nearly 3,000 trees in the Peninsula.

Canopy’s Nov. 20 event was meant to educate community members on the benefits of trees and involve local youth. Teen Urban Foresters, paid high school interns, help lead tree planting.

Briones led Canopy’s Branching Out program for nearly two years. Within East Palo Alto, Briones and Canopy would find the optimal location for the tree in dwellers’ lots, plant it themselves, and offer three years of maintenance at no cost.

In the past, Canopy even wrote checks out to East Palo Alto residents to pay a share of their water bills, Briones says. However, the funding eventually ran out.

Duggal calls for a partnership across city and county governments to provide a more resilient funding mechanism. Duggal proposes a parcel tax to fund this collaborative body: properties would be taxed based on characteristics like tree planting viability.

Project Manager Romain Taniere looks to outreach and community engagement to build up canopy. A resident to East Palo Alto for 20 years, he hosts block parties and brings in eco-friendly companies to open the eyes of neighbors, he says.

Regardless of the solution mechanism, Duggal and Briones agree: these policies need to be written with race and income in the purview.

“Everyone deserves trees,” Briones says. “It shouldn’t matter their socioeconomic status. That’s what equity is.”

Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to clarify Uriel Hernandez’s role as a board member with Canopy.

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