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


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.

“The health issues also involve issues of poverty, issues of food, issues of education, issues of unemployment. Being an organization of color, we are besieged with those social ills…a lot of the young people that we deal with, they have arrest records, they may have issues around housing, drugs, or jobs,” says Shakur.

Providing local youth and residents with a skill set, work ethic and pride in their community is one of the greatest assets of Urban Releaf, says Shakur. Urban Releaf’s Director of Urban Forest Education, Gregory Tarver, Jr. says the work of planting trees has improved “people’s connection to nature, connection to a greater sense of ownership and sense of community due to working on the trees.” And it has also contributed to a new generation of environmental leaders by spreading information about the benefits of urban forestry.

Urban Releaf has also collaborated with researchers from UC Davis, UC Berkeley and the USDA Forest Service Center for Urban Forestry Research in the Oakland Watershed Restoration and Protection Study. The study area includes a 1.4 square mile Watershed located in West Oakland. Urban Releaf is recruiting local youth to plant and maintain 1,800 trees in the study area. 

Early results have revealed that those trees prevent 9 million gallons of contaminated water from entering the nearby San Francisco Bay. Studies such as this, says Shakur are helping locals realize the very “tangible” effects of the work they do.

While the work has empowered many youth, it cannot protect them all. Shakur says six kids in the community were killed in 2010, which included one of their former co-workers. Still, she hopes their work will provide youth with a positive alternative to more negative activities.

Gentrification is also a concern. While planting trees improves community quality of life, it also raises property values, and Shakur worries that this could also push out low-income families in West and East Oakland. A 2007 analysis by the Center for Urban Forestry Research found that tree canopies contributed to $4.7 billion in increased property values in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Urban Releaf hopes to mitigate that effect by including local residents in the greening process through training and employment programs. To more effectively combine urban forestry with economic development, Tarver suggests that local hiring mandates should be included in city, state, and federal policies that fund urban greening projects.

“We have to think about it more economically, and more about economic sustainability for that community. You can’t just say, ‘oh, we’re going to plant trees.’ No, this is actually industry, green industry. So, if it’s a green industry we need qualify it as we would any other industry,” says Tarver.

The problems of heat and health are also key issues outside of urban areas like Oakland. In the predominantly agricultural Central Valley region of California, temperatures are regularly in the triple digits and the frequency and intensity of heat waves in the region is expected to increase.  Líderes Campesinas, a group formed 24 years ago to improve the health and well-being of farmworker families, is providing training on environmental health, heat stress, and worker rights such as access to water and shade and notifications about pesticide exposures and risks. Its members have worked to improve shade coverage at bus stops, increase the frequency of transit services, and have more frequent monitoring and enforcement of labor protections. 

Both Urban Releaf and Líderes Campesinas are working so that communities most in need can beat the heat while also decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. But they are doing more than heat preparedness: they are integrating the local realities of health, economic, and environmental justice – and demonstrating that powerful answers can come from the grassroots. 

Replicating and scaling their models – supporting urban forestry and protecting farmworker livelihoods – is critical.  The California Air Resources Board includes urban forestry projects in the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA) has introduced the Energy Conservation through Trees Act (H.R. 2095), which would fund partnerships between electric utilities and non-profit tree planting organizations to create shade tree programs. It’s time to take action – and planting a tree is not a bad place to start.

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