Planting trees to fight pollution and racism in Bayview Hunters Point
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The story below aired in the March 21, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
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When you think of trees in San Francisco, you probably think of the Presidio or Golden Gate Park. The tree-lined streets of Pacific Heights, or the lush canopy over Folsom Street. But sunny Bayview Hunters Point, protected from the harsh Pacific wind, has an ideal climate for trees, as I learned from Markos Major, a restoration ecologist and climate activist who directs the tree-planting non-profit Climate Action Now!
So, if it’s such a great place for trees, then why is the Bayview one of the less forested parts of the city? Because of structural racism – meaning, systemic racism. But also: racism related literally to structures – houses.
“The southeast part of San Francisco suffers from historically very polluted air quality,” he explains, noting that the presence of poor air is linked, historically, to leadership choices. “The southeast is where industry is concentrated, and where there's redlining.”
Redlining was a post-Depression practice, linked to a government-backed mortgage program. Maps were color-coded to indicate which neighborhoods were "desirable" or "hazardous." The latter were red-lined. This was racist because the criteria didn’t just include the quality or market value of the homes, but also the racial mix of the residents.
In red-lined neighborhoods, few trees were planted. That didn’t change for decades, in large part because of San Francisco’s own policies, but we’ll get to that later.
Right now, Markos and I have some Bayview strolling to do. He explains that trees help clean the air.
“If you plant them adjacent to high pollution zones they straight up just capture particulate pollution in their leaf matter,” Markos says.
We come upon a corner lot with two large, mature shade trees, and he explains that having that shade will mean real cost savings for the homeowners on that corner.
Trees are like machines that can do a lot of heavy lifting, not just for public health but for improving resilience to climate change.
Next, I head up Newhall St. and down Bayview St. to a school where Markos helped transform part of a playground into a garden classroom, while also planting 38 new trees.
There, I meet Vidrale Franklin. She’s the principal of Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School in the Bayview, where she was born and raised.
We walk through an outdoor classroom filled with young, thriving trees. There are lots of tree stump seats, planters, and an area with deep divots in the dirt, where students had been really digging in. She tells me the green schoolyard has helped ease the return to classrooms as COVID restrictions were eased. Being able to dig their hands into soil and reconnect with the outdoors has been deeply valuable, she says. And the school can leverage the gardens and new trees to help students recenter themselves. “When students get dysregulated…have them go and take walks and touch leaves and water trees and the plants that are around the school.”
As the trees at Charles Drew mature, they’ll shade the school yard and filter pollutants. That’s especially important because the Bayview has among the City’s highest hospitalization rates due to asthma.
Just outside the school, I find city workers removing some freshly-cut concrete.
Older trees were causing the sidewalk to buckle, making it dangerous for pedestrians. So the school asked the city to replace and narrow the sidewalk, giving the trees more room to grow.
And that brings us back to how San Francisco’s own policies around tree ownership exacerbated the harms done by redlining in the Bayview.
Redlining’s Long Shadow
Historically, San Francisco made homeowners responsible for the cost of planting and maintaining trees in front of their homes. If owning a home was out of reach, so was owning a tree.
Poor air quality and a lack of trees. It was a double whammy for Bayview residents, and environmental injustices that compounded each other.
So after SF voters passed Proposition E in 2016 – which put the costs of maintaining street trees on the city – it seemed like a great time to start planting more trees in the Bayview.
But the reality hasn’t quite matched the vision. Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), a non-profit that works with the city to plant and care for street trees, explains that removing the financial barriers to tree ownership and maintenance did not unleash significant demand for street trees in the Bayview.
After Prop E passed, FUF worked with community organizers to drum up interest in planting street trees in front of Bayview homes. But many respondents said, no thanks.
“I think there's legitimate reasons why residents in the Bayview and other neighborhoods would not trust the city to properly care for and maintain a street tree once it's planted and is growing,” Wiedenmeier says.
Residents had lots of concerns. What if the tree doesn’t get maintained, and dies? What if the tree basin becomes a magnet for the plentiful litter on the streets?
And there’s another reason residents said no. It has to do with parking. Households with multiple cars sometimes rely on illegal sidewalk parking, and having a tree planted in front of their homes would make that impossible.
But, Wiedenmeier says, that’s an issue that’s also tied, like redlining, to discrimination.
“Some of the same reasons that have led to environmental injustices like air pollution, toxic wastes being present in a neighborhood, those planning decisions also mean that a neighborhood doesn't have access to great transit, or reliable services, like grocery stores or health care nearby within walking distance, or transit.”
So, FUF was kind of stuck in its efforts to grow the Bayview’s tree canopy – until it looked more closely at resident’s feedback. Turns out, residents did want trees – just not necessarily in front of their homes. So FUF got creative, and held an adopt-a-yard-tree event. Bayview residents were offered trees that they could plant themselves, in their backyards.
Building the Backyard Canopy
At that event, I met Shipra Kayan and her daughter Esha as they got ready to take a Santa Rosa plum tree home. When the Kayans moved to their Bayview home in mid-2017, there was already a lemon tree and some ornamental plants. Since arriving, they’ve added a garden, as well as a fig tree and a passion fruit vine.
When I arrive at their home the day following the tree adoption event, Shipra has decided on a spot for the new plum tree in a sunny corner. She gently pulls the plum tree from the bucket, looking for the rootstock, which needs to be flush with the ground. There isn’t much of a root-ball, and she’s a bit concerned it won’t stand on its own. But, as she packs the loose soil around the young tree, it seems to take to its new home quite well.
Bayview residents have been subjected to decades of toxic and radioactive materials dumped at Hunters Point, and a century-plus of industrial pollution. It will take a lot more than planting trees to address those environmental injustices. But the benefits that these trees provide – in terms of capturing pollutants, absorbing rainwater, and creating shade as the climate continues to warm – should pay dividends for decades to come.
Friends of the Urban Forest is expanding its adopt-a-yard-tree program to additional neighborhoods in San Francisco. For more info, go here.