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San Diegans Need More Trees In The City

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An urban forest provides shade. It cools the environment and reduces electricity bills in the summer. But the San Diego urban forest leaves a lot to be desired.

A man with a hard hat and a shovel digs a hole between the street and the sidewalk on Langmuir Street in Linda Vista. He’s one of a work crew with the Urban Corps that’s planting nine saplings along the edge of a corner lot. Crew boss Abram Castro said the trees are called Gold Medallions.

“It’s an evergreen tree and it grows 30 to 40 feet tall. And when it blooms it has small gold flowers, kind of yellowish. It’s called a Gold Medallion 'cause it has a yellow look to it,” said Castro.

This street in Linda Vista needs some more trees. The side that’s getting the Gold Medallions formerly had no trees planted along the street. The other side of the street is little more than a forest of power poles.

A robust urban forest is an important part of any urban environment. And San Diego is very short of trees. You can illustrate the problem in a couple of ways. For one thing, the U.S. Forest Service recommends cities have at least 200 trees per mile of street. San Diego should have 500,000 trees, based on that guideline. Drew Potocki, an arborist who works for the city, says it falls about 290,000 trees short.

Secondly, there’s evidence of deforestation due to development and fire.

Fausto Palafox is owner of the Mission Hills Nursery, and he’s a board member of the California Urban Forestry Council.

“There was a study done in San Diego back in 2003,” he said, “that basically states that since 1985 up to that point, 2003, San Diego had lost up to 26 percent of its forest canopy. In addition to that we’ve experienced a couple of large fires here in San Diego that account for even more trees that are gone.”

But why do we need so many trees? Especially in a coastal desert environment that is not naturally forested?

Drew Potocki and other urban foresters say a dense urban forest has many utilities. Drew slams the door of his 1955 Chevy truck as he points out the positions and plantings of trees in San Diego’s Talmadge neighborhood. He says trees provide shade in the summer. That cools homes and buildings and reduces electricity demands.

New trees require irrigation to become established. But mature trees prevent undergrowth from drying out, and they actually capture water in their leaves and root systems, reducing urban runoff.

Foresters cite studies that show kids who grow up on tree-lined streets get better grades and are more likely to walk to school. That may be the result of a calming effect that comes from growing up in an attractive, pleasant environment.

Potocki says while few trees are native to the San Diego region, the city is a different place.

“You and I are in the oasis of the desert,” he said. “This is where the human beings live. This is where you want it to be green. You want it to be lush. You want it to be comfortable for the human environment.”

The San Diego Urban Corps may be the most active local non-profit involved in planting trees in San Diego. A spokesperson for the group said it costs about $150 to plant a tree, and they seek funding through community block grants, contracts with CALTRANS and other odd methods.

Fausto Palafox, at Mission Hills Nursery, said at this point the cause of the urban forest has no true leadership.

“There is no organized effort in the city of San Diego to obtain monies and disburse them back into trees," he said. “Basically it gets down to individual citizens and small organizations.”

That’s where Fausto hopes an organization he’s founded will come in. He is one of the founders of the San Diego Urban Tree Club, which is staffed by three volunteers, him included. With time he hopes it will become a central group for raising money, educating citizens and growing the urban forest.

For now, they do have a slogan. Drive a car? Plant a tree every year. A hundred trees will consume five tons of carbon emissions every year.

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