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Urban Releaf: How One Community Group Is Saving Urban Neighborhoods and Creating Jobs

Oakland, California's Urban Releaf provides job training and education for local youth, and creates a healthier community.

Photo Credit: Urban Releaf


Editor's Note: This is part of series, Facing the Climate Gap, which looks at grassroots efforts in California low-income communities of color to address climate change and promote climate justice. 

This article was published in collaboration with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

After working in Soledad Prison in the Salinas Valley, Kemba Shakur moved to North Oakland and realized the prison grounds were more attractive than many of the treeless neighborhoods throughout her city. She decided to change this by planting trees, not only to improve the landscape but also the quality of life.

“The conditions that you see here on the Oakland streets are a lot of young people hanging out on corners, idle, with no jobs, underemployed and a terrible education...but then at the end of the day they are blamed. So, I wanted to do something to give people jobs as well as make them stewards of their own environment,” Shakur explains.

In 1999, Shakur founded Urban Releaf, a non-profit organization dedicated to planting trees in the urban landscape of Oakland as well as providing job training and education for local youth. The organization focuses its efforts primarily in East and West Oakland, otherwise known as the “flatlands” because of their geographic and socio-economic contrast to the nearby “hills” (where there is an abundance of trees – and wealth). Since 1999, Urban Releaf has planted 15,600 trees and worked with over 4,000 youth through their Urban Forestry Education program.

Urban Releaf is not merely a response to unattractive city streets (common not just to Oakland but to disadvantaged places nationwide) but also to the environmental hazard known as the “ heat island effect.” This dangerous situation is common in urban areas in which there are few trees and an abundance of dark or cement surfaces that radiate heat and increase the temperature above those of surrounding areas – a dangerous duo when combined with more extreme heat waves associated with climate change.

The heat island effect is not an equal opportunity affair: research in California and the U.S. shows that communities of color are likely to have far less shade from tree canopy and more asphalt and other impervious surfaces. And the effect is not only detrimental to immediate human health and comfort, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it contributes to increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption as people try to fight the heat with air conditioning and other cooling measures.

Urban forests and tree-plantings have the power to alleviate the heat island effect as well as climate change itself. For example, shade trees help cool buildings and can reduce cooling costs by 30 percent. Also, 100 healthy, large trees remove 300 pounds of particulate matter and ozone and 15 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. 

With the combination of freeways, industrial land uses and ports surrounding Oakland, the rate of asthma hospitalization are two to three times greater for children under 5 years of age living in North, West and East Oakland than in the rest of Alameda County.

Shakur says one of the most obvious impediments to health and wellbeing in communities affected by the climate gap is the lack of information.

“I think that people of color and poor people are the last ones to get information. So, they don’t understand the benefits of trees and the benefits of greenery as much as they probably did generations ago,” said Shakur.

The work of Urban Releaf also contributes to the greater psychological wellbeing within the community. Shakur says “health” goes far beyond issues of air quality.