Mission residents go out on a limb to welcome 150 new trees

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A community greening effort in the Mission is taking root. Last Thursday, a masked crowd gathered at the corner of Florida and 22nd streets to pick up shovels, gloves and a few Catalina ironwood, Jacaranda, Chinese elm and Magnolia saplings. The trees are the last of a total of 145 planted near the 24th Street corridor since April.

“Trees are part of the bigger puzzle and make a community what it is,” John Mendoza, a founding member of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District told me. “They are like family.”

It’s taken years, and will take at least three more, to fully welcome these newest family members to the neighborhood.

In 2019, Calle 24 and other concerned San Franciscans came together to protest the removal of 77 mature ficuses along 24th Street in the Mission. Despite ambitious planting goals and the passage of Proposition E, which gave The City responsibility for street trees, San Francisco continues to have one of the smallest urban canopies in the country. Of course, the tree-lined streets of Pacific Heights and Balboa Terrace can obscure this reality. But in The City’s lower-income and minority neighborhoods, green, shaded streets are harder to find.

After intense public outcry to retain as many of the 24th Street ficuses as possible, The City agreed to remove only 33 and plant 50 new saplings as replacement. But this replacement ratio failed to address the loss of so many mature trees to the neighborhood. Recognizing that 75% of The City’s tree planting budget goes to watering saplings, advocates created a program called Mission Verde to take on the three-year responsibility of helping the trees get established. In return, The City agreed to devote 100% of its budget to planting 145 new saplings.

Caring for the new neighborhood residents is a heavy burden for citizens to bear. But the boughs don’t appear ready to break. Mission Verde has worked to successfully secure supplies, manage costs and oversee the program. It also recruits and organizes volunteers to provide 20 gallons of water weekly to each fledgling, re-stake any compromised trees and clean debris and waste from the familiar green bags.

“It’s been baptism by fire and it’s wonderful,” Kindra Scharich, a classical singer and musician who volunteers as the founding director of Mission Verde, told me. “I’ve learned how much trees are disregarded, as well as regarded, in our community.”

Other nonprofits have also stepped in to help. The Arc San Francisco, a center for people with developmental disabilities, will help with the watering. And Friends of the Urban Forest has worked with neighborhood residents to identify planting sites and help select new trees.

“We’re doing all this great work planting, but they need to be cared for and watered, too,” Brian Wiedenmeier, who became FUF’s new executive director in July, told me. “This is an investment in being a resilient city.”

If San Francisco leaders also value the numerous benefits of a healthy urban forest, they would make this investment through The City’s multi-billion-dollar budget. It’s infuriating that a bastion of millionaires and billionaires who purportedly care about inequality, climate change and science are still allowing our canopy to shrink. In addition to more funding for planting and maintenance, The City must revise its regulations so only one agency has removal power and developers, who remove without permits, are properly penalized.

That said, it’s inspirational to see community organizers, nonprofits and ordinary San Franciscans’ filling the void. Mission Verde serves as a model for other neighborhoods that are willing to take on the responsibility of greening their streets. As Mendoza recognized, the ficuses, sycamores and ginkos that line our sidewalks are more than neighbors. They are as giving and familiar as family.

“People come together over the smallest things because those are the things that matter,” the Calle 24 founder told me.

It may sound sappy, but the Mission has come together for family and a healthy future on this planet, two pursuits that certainly matter. Hopefully, they will continue to prove the old adage true — mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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