Why trees are a social justice issue

Trees strengthen this social fabric by helping people stay healthy, safe and rooted

http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/green-space/

Last week, over 100 volunteers, including Golden State Warriors associate coach Mike Brown, gathered on 36th Avenue and Lawton Street in the Sunset District. They were there to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and launch the Norcal MLK Foundation’s new Service and Sustainability Program. Together, they planted 52 trees along the busy Sunset Boulevard corridor.

“I think for King, his idea of justice was not just about marching, but also about the well being of human society, and that includes the environment,” Aaron Grizzell, executive director of the Norcal MLK Foundation, told me. “The fabric of our infrastructure needs to be wholesome and nurturing.”

Trees strengthen this social fabric by helping people stay healthy, safe and rooted — a service Dr. King would have supported. When The City fails to allocate enough funds and removes trees unnecessarily, it puts this fragile fabric at risk. San Francisco must grow its urban forest, both by allowing new trees to thrive and protecting our current canopy. Ensuring that all neighborhoods have access to a strong green infrastructure is critical to fighting injustice.

As climate change makes heat waves, wildfire smoke and storms stronger and more frequent, trees can filter air pollution, suck up the rainwater and provide shade. They can also reduce stress levels and blood pressure, and increase mental engagement, attentiveness and happiness. Some research has found that communities with large street trees have lower crime and slower traffic.

When these benefits don’t extend to all neighborhoods, injustice occurs. Last year, for example, the San Francisco Bureau of Urban Forestry condemned 48 ficus trees along 24th Street. (Originally, the agency proposed to remove 77 trees, but rolled it back to 48 following public outcry.) In appeals filed by the Calle 24 Latino District and other tree advocates, people linked the loss of their ficuses to the unprecedented gentrification and displacement they felt.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen noted the injustice of the proposal last week when she asked the city attorney to write legislation reducing the number of trees slated for removal on 24th Street.

“As we continue to grapple with the impacts of climate change we should be investing in strategies that promote San Francisco’s climate resilience instead of removing a large number of trees from our urban canopy; especially in neighborhoods like the Mission, which experience disproportionate rates of pollution and suffer from some of the worst health conditions in The City,” she said.

Her call to the city attorney was a victory for the Calle 24 Latino District and all the advocates who had worked to protect their trees. But if San Francisco is looking for equitable ways of addressing climate change, air pollution, gentrification and displacement, San Franciscans need equal access to trees. The City should adopt uniform standards and regulations around removals that prioritize public health, the environment and justice.

“My hope is that Ronen’s action urges the Board of Supervisors to revise laws regarding our urban canopy to reflect the urgency of climate change, and to honor the connection between humans and the trees in our neighborhood,” Josh Klipp, an attorney and one of the appellants fighting the 24th Street tree removals, told me.

The City also needs funding to plant more trees in more neighborhoods. Although San Francisco allocated $5.3 million for tree planting in 2019, it’s not enough to replace the number of trees slated for removal and grow our urban forest. The volunteers planting trees along the Sunset Boulevard corridor last week relied on funding from the state. Climate Action Now!, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that partnered with Norcal MLK Foundation, received money from CalFire for its reforestation efforts.

If San Francisco is going to create a future where all people have equal access to clean air, safe neighborhoods and solid communities, it needs to strengthen and expand our green infrastructure. To do this, The City needs to adopt uniform removal standards and increase funds for tree planting. These steps are especially critical now as climate change and gentrification challenge our social fabric. As Dr. King once said:

“The time is always right to do what’s right.”

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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