Climate Activists Cast Shade On San Diego’s Ambitious Tree Planting Efforts
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
Photo by Erik Anderson
The city of San Diego’s climate action plan hopes to soften the impact of climate change by tripling the city’s tree canopy.
But an ambitious timetable will make the mission a challenge.
The plan calls for San Diego’s tree canopy of 13% to be grown to 35% in just over a decade. And efforts to make that plan a reality are underway.
Landscaper Narcisso Gonzalez cares for some of the newest members of the city’s urban forest. Gonzalez is in a mid-city neighborhood to water dozens of young trees that were planted here 3 years ago.
“OK, I’m going to water this bag,” Gonzalez said as he pulled a hose toward a 10-foot tall tree.
The hose goes into a green bag wrapped around the base of the tree. The bag can be filled in minutes, but it takes hours to drain, allowing the fledgling tree a chance to soak up the water before it runs off.
Gonzalez delivered water every week the first year after the trees were planted.
“The second year, twice a month,” Gonzalez said. “And this year, it's once a month.”
These young trees were put in the ground because CalFire awarded the city a grant, a welcome present for the city of San Diego Forester Brian Widener, who manages the city’s urban forest.
Widener said even more new trees are on the way.
“We’re planning to put in about 1,100 street trees this calendar year. And in addition to that, another 400 trees in different park locations,” Widener said.
The young trees are an important part of broadening the urban tree canopy, but Widener said success will not be achieved by just adding small new trees. Existing trees need to get bigger.
“Maintain them better,” Widener said. “We did some analysis of our tree canopy cover back in 2015 so we know what areas in the city might need some additional tree planting or additional tree maintenance in order to help us get to that goal.”
The city laid out a daunting goal of tripling the city’s tree canopy in just over a decade.
That’s important because trees pull carbon out of the air, cool the urban landscape and filter pollution.
Trees are also a significant part of the city’s plan to reduce the impact of greenhouse gasses, and that is why there is a push for more.
“To get from 13 to 35%, yes it’s going to be very challenging,” Widener said. “I think we could do it, but again we have to focus in on the resources that we think are important and be able to get to that goal.”
But not every city neighborhood enjoys that same environmental benefit.
City Heights has trees, but along busy University Avenue, trees are frequently small and widely spaced out.
“We’re looking toward the I-15 and you can see that there is kind of a smattering of trees there,” said Sophie Wolfram of the Climate Action Campaign. “And this is where we have the potential to invest in taking care of our existing canopy.”
This street has one of the cities busiest bus routes and she said it is a prime location for both more young trees and bigger, older ones.
The trees can cool this urban heat island, benefiting a community that faces economic challenges.
“We’ve got one year to up the tree canopy by 2%, so that’s a huge feat,” Wolfram said. “And then we have until 2035 to nearly triple the tree canopy or the urban forest in San Diego. That’s a huge feat.”
Wolfram wants the city to hire more people to manage the planting project.
“We need staff resources to just to take care of the existing trees that we have,” Wolfram said. ”That’s the best and fastest way to grow the canopy and then we need to plant probably hundreds of thousands, if not more, trees to hit our target.”
San Diego will have to show some political will, according to Wolfram, or the climate goals the city set for itself will go unrealized.
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