Trees Matter: Mc Laren Park and Environmental Justice

This is one of our park visitor posts, written by a neighbor of McLaren Park. The Natural Areas Program targets over 800 trees in McLaren Park for destruction.

TREES MATTER by Ren Volpe

My San Francisco neighborhood is surrounded on three sides by freeways. Interstates 101 and 280 are busy spewing exhaust all day and most of the night. Breezes and fog from the ocean help dissipate some of the smog, but on windless days the air hangs heavy and dense. The only thing saving our air quality is the trees.

The Excelsior is not your typical rich San Francisco neighborhood. It is mostly families and working class folks. The tech buses have not found their way down our streets and our main retail corridor is filled with nail salons, dollar stores, pot clubs, and boarded up storefronts. Despite having nearly 40,000 residents, sometimes it feels like we are a forgotten neighborhood. Tourist maps often omit the entire south end of San Francisco and visitors have been known to ask whether they are still in The City.

The wealthier a neighborhood, the more trees it has. Rich people have trees, poor people get cement. This is especially true in the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley, and the Portola, where the single-family homes are modest and many front yards are paved over and littered with old cars. Our sidewalks are “tree poor” compared to wealthy Noe Valley and posh Pacific Heights. But the working class neighborhoods on the southeast side of San Francisco have one thing going for them : McLaren Park.

McLaren Park San Francisco copyright Ren Volpe

McLaren Park is the second biggest park in San Francisco, after Golden Gate Park. It is as wild and isolated as Golden Gate Park is manicured and visited. It is possible to hike miles of trails without seeing another person. I have seen foxes, coyotes, red-tail hawks, and great horned owls on my daily walks. In many parts of the park birdsong drowns out the constant drone of the freeways and the tree canopy blocks the cityscape. McLaren is our little piece of paradise in this urban corner of the City.

McLaren Park sunrise copyright Ren Volpe in San FranciscoRecently I found out that San Francisco’s Rec and Park Department has big plans for this urban oasis: the Natural Areas Program. The plan calls for cutting down many hundreds of healthy trees in an attempt to recreate the native scrubland that existed in the 1700’s. The trees slated for removal are not only eucalyptus, but mature and healthy Monterey Pine and Cypress, among others. Millions of our tax dollars have already been spent on this boondoggle, while maintenance in our park is practically nonexistent.

The “Natural Areas Plan” claims about ⅓ of San Francisco’s city parks, but Rec and Park’s biggest conquest yet may be McLaren Park. Could it be because the southeast corner of the city is the least rich, the least white, and the least likely to oppose this butchering? Almost 50% of the population in adjacent neighborhoods are foreign-born and speak english as a second language. People on this side of town don’t have the same political clout and connections as those living in wealthier neighborhoods. Even chopping down dying trees in other parts of the city creates a community uproar. When it comes to environmental justice, our hood is just not rich enough and not white enough.

Trees clean the air, absorb traffic noise, and provide respite from our hectic city lives. As the Bay Area becomes more populated, we all need more access to public green space. John McLaren created the park in 1927 in order to save the area from development. Now we have to save it from clearcutting.

McLaren was originally mostly coastal shrubland. Three-quarters of lush Golden Gate Park was originally sand dunes. Sutro Forest was desolate, sandy and wind whipped. Whether you agree with “native plant restoration”, the bigger question here is, should a beautiful yet neglected city park surrounded by freeways and adjacent to tree-poor neighborhoods be slated for such a project?

san francisco sand dunes

Sand dunes in Golden Gate Park – source: sfbotanicalgardens.org

SF Rec and Park maintain that they just don’t have enough money to pay for proper garbage cans and trash pick ups, trail and tree maintenance, repairing crumbling playgrounds, and other upgrades that McLaren desperately needs. But the department apparently has enough money for spraying cancer-causing herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup), cutting down healthy trees, and fencing off large parts of our park to visitors. The Natural Areas Program may have a different budget category within the Rec and Park department, but it all comes from our tax money.

Our city and our neighborhoods need more trees, not less. San Francisco has the smallest tree canopy of any major U.S. city. Poor children and children who live near freeways have higher rates of asthma, and studies show that a dense urban tree canopy can decrease these high rates of childhood asthma. Children in the southeastern part of San Francisco have the highest asthma rates in the city, and all the residents this side of town on experience high rates of air pollution.

Graph showing urban tree canopy cover in major US cities

San Francisco Has the Least Canopy Cover of any Major US City (data source: socketsite.org)

Tree-filled parks don’t just beautify our neighborhoods, they also improve our psychological well-being. Green urban neighborhoods with plenty of trees actually improve our health, according to several recent studies. Our 49 square-mile city is the second densest in the country, right behind New York. Attempting to return large swaths of our urban parks into the treeless landscape that they once were doesn’t make sense in present day San Francisco. Urban trees do more than just improve air quality; they improve our quality of life. Living in a city can be stressful, hectic, and cramped. We all need access to open, public, forested green space.

McLaren Park's Flowered Grassland and Forest

McLaren Park’s Flowered Grassland and Forest

Can We Save These San Francisco Trees?

street tree with removal noticeThere are plans under way to cut down hundreds of street trees along some of San Francisco’s main thoroughfares. Generally, these plans get little publicity until the trees are posted with 30-day notices (these are the notices that inform neighbors that the trees are to be cut down). Neighbors are often shocked and dismayed at these plans. Though the notices usually provide a contact to protest the removal of the trees,  by that point it’s an uphill battle to save the trees.

It can be done: Consider the saved trees at Fisherman’s Wharf, and next time you visit there, consider how bare the road and brick walls would be without the trees! But it takes mobilization, determination, speaking up, persistence and luck.

San Francisco’s tree canopy is already inadequate at 13.7%, as against an ideal of 25%.  Street trees are enormously valuable to the community. They reduce pollution by trapping particulates in the air and thus keep them out of our lungs. They provide habitat for birds and butterflies like the Western Tiger Swallowtail that breeds in our London Plane Trees. They sequester carbon and thus fight climate change. They absorb sound and thus reduce noise pollution. They reduce storm water runoff. (Here’s a link to an article discussing all the benefits of urban trees.)

They have also have very significant health benefits. A recent article in the New Yorker mentioned research that quantified how much. The article noted that ten mature street trees per block was the equivalent of giving every household on that block $10,000:

“After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. “To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger,” Berman told me.”

Removing mature trees and planting saplings instead doesn’t provide the same benefits. It takes decades for the replacements to grow to the same maturity – and  meanwhile, all the benefits to environment, health, and habitat are accordingly reduced.

We would also point out that urban trees (or any trees) are seldom perfect. They grow in challenging conditions. Often, the justification for removing trees is that they are not in “good” shape. We would point out that unless a tree is actually hazardous, the standard should not be perfection, but that it is “good enough” to survive in the location to which it has adapted.

If you wish to fight to save these trees, there are two hearings coming up shortly. They will be held in Room 416 at San Francisco’s City Hall. [Edited to Add: If you cannot attend, you can still email your comments to the Department of Public Works and they become part of the public and official record. These are the email addresses: Chris.Buck@sfdpw.org and urbanforestry@sfdpw.org ]

GEARY AND MASONIC: HEARING ON 24th Sept 2015

At Geary and Masonic, there’s a grove of trees that softens an otherwise gritty and urban intersection. For pedestrians – including those who use the nearby bus shelter under the trees it provides a welcome green environment. These trees have been slated for removal. Neighbors are extremely upset, the more so because this project has been extensively discussed – but not the tree removal part. Instead, all the focus was on the loss of parking spaces as bike lanes were created. “I had the impression,” one neighbor said, “That they would be keeping all the existing trees and planting more trees.”

There’s a hearing scheduled for September 24th. A neighbor fighting to save these trees sent us this poster. You can print out the PDF here if you want to disseminate it: Geary_Masonic_Tree_removal

Masonic Geary trees slated to be felledVAN NESS CORRIDOR: HEARING on AUGUST 24th  2015

A neighbor wrote to us recently to say that 193 trees had been posted for removal in the Van Ness/ Lombard corridor:

“I want you to know that the SFMTA just put out tree notice removals on Van Ness and Lombard for their rapid transit project. There was no mention of this before to anyone living along the corridor when they began discussing this project. They are planning to cut down 193 mature trees along the corridor, and this is an outrage. These trees are important to the people who live along Van Ness and Lombard and they provide shade and bird habitat. They say they will plant 400 trees once the project is finished. What about all the birds who live in the tree opposite my mother’s home now? What about the hawks who nest opposite us?”

Here are the details of the hearing:

“I encourage you and any other interested party to attend the Public Hearing regarding the removal of the trees on August 24 at 5:30 p.m.in Room 416 of City Hall, located at 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place. If you are unable to attend the hearing, you may submit written comments regarding the subject matter to the Bureau of Urban Forestry, 1680 Mission Street, 1st floor, San Francisco, CA 94103. These comments will be brought to the attention of the hearing officer and made a part of the official public record.

TREASURE ISLAND

We don’t have any details yet, but the Treasure Island Development Agency is planning to cut down trees as part of its development plans. We would note that this is one location where Monarch butterflies overwinter in some years.

[Edited to Add, 9 Feb 2016: Trees are going down on Treasure Island/ Yerba Buena Island.]

MORE PROJECTS?

We believe even more tree removals are planned, for instance along Geary. The San Francisco Forest Alliance will try to keep track of these projects and post what information we can about the proposals.

San Francisco can do better than this. If all our public agencies realized the true benefits and value of mature trees, they would seek to preserve them rather than cutting them down and replacing them with saplings. Or nothing at all. We all recognize that trees sometimes need to be cut down to allow for roadwork or construction. But we do think that preserving trees needs a much higher priority than it currently gets, and the public needs better (and earlier) information than it currently gets.

We wrote about Seattle, where road-work was accompanied by notice to save trees, not remove them. Here’s another. It’s a tree not even as pretty or mature as the San Francisco victim at the top of the page, but it’s been saved.

saved tree in seatttle

Trees are cut down for all kinds of reasons in San Francisco. Poorly designed projects are a major factor. So is poor maintenance. We support Supervisor Scott Wiener’s effort to fund tree maintenance by city experts rather than leaving street trees to home owners who may not have the expertise or resources to care for it and instead destroy it.

overpruned tree

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, The Letters, 1799