Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Trees and the City of Berkeley


Trees are important, and underappreciated. I wrote about them in 2019 here. I realized how important trees were for the environment, how they could be part of the answer for global warming.

Then I drove around Berkeley with my wife, and as we went west from our house down toward the bay, through the areas that are less wealthy and more commercial, I said to her, “See how many fewer trees there are here? Imagine how much nicer it would be with trees. It's such a shame they don't have trees the way we do.” I wondered what could be done.

Then, recently, when I realized that Berkeley was planning to become a more densely populated city, I realized that we might be headed the wrong way on the wooded scale – more people usually translates to fewer trees. And I thought that so many of these beautiful trees are on private property, so they could be gone just like that. If it's a developer who buys a house and wants to convert it to an apartment house, or a multifamily dwelling, there could ber nothing stopping them, and the whole neighborhood would be the poorer. So I thought I should do something about it.

I inquired around and it seemed to me that there was no basic plan that was guiding Berkeley tree policy. I talked to the chief arborist of Berkeley, a very devoted guy, and it seemed clear that they were doing a good job, loved trees, but really were just following a general direction that was OK, but that more or less shaped itself according to how much money they were allotted. There's got to be a goal, some vision of what the Emerald City for the treescape would look like if you're going to work hard and be motivated by wanting to reach a goal and know where you're going and how far you've come and how far you still have to go.

So the next step was to make a presentation to the Parks and Waterfront Commission that would last about two minutes. I'm not great at making presentations like that, so I did it, but I wrote up this short presentation which is much better than my oral presentation. It's surprising to me that I'm not that great at oral presentations because I'm pretty good at talking, but that's the way it is.

We'll see where it goes. I got referred to the staff. That will probably be where it stops, but you never know. Anyway, here's the little paper I put together.


Trees in Berkeley

Berkeley Parks and Waterfront Commission

April 14, 2021

submitted by Budd N. Shenkin, MD, MAPA

The Problem

Although Berkeley clearly values trees and has a competent arborial operation, there are persistent problems with achieving a proper canopy in Berkeley. Although the city has tried to remedy it, West Berkeley and South Berkeley continue to be deprived of proper canopy development; the city has no direct sway over university and privately developed areas; the resources delegated to the urban forest seem to lag needs; and we don't know what ultimate goals we are seeking to achieve. While difficult to develop, having such a goal would help to plan operations, to assess the adequacy of resources to achieve the objective, and to assess progress.

The Proposed Next Step to Remedy the Deficiency

I propose that a multidisciplinary working group be commissioned to produce a report that would enable a plan to be proposed and adopted, to help guide the city in necessary steps.

Berkeley Strengths

The city of Berkeley values trees. We appreciate the role of the tree canopy in making our local environment healthier, cooler, more resistant to the forces of pollution, absorbing carbon dioxide, improving the urban water cycle, making the city calmer and more beautiful and more ecologically responsible, and enhancing property values. The city contains some remarkable and special trees – live oaks, the redwoods, others. The products of decades and impossible to replace if destroyed or removed, they are cherished and need to be protected, whether they are on public or private land.

Berkeley's forestry department is a high quality operation, and the survey done by American Forests showed that part of our city is relatively strong with our tree canopy compared to other areas – although it could be better – although, as in many urban areas, the less affluent areas and business areas are well below par in supporting a tree canopy. Our city government takes this disparity seriously, and there is a grant-supported program that is addressing this need in a limited part of the city with limited funds.

Urban Forestry and a Global Perspective

From a global perspective, trees are very important for the planet and the problem of global warming. We tend to think of global warming and increasing carbon dioxide as a problem of too much production, but the other side of the equation is also important. Trees form the world's single largest carbon dioxide sink, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. Deforestation is a huge global threat. To adequately fight climate change, some have estimated we need to add 2-3 trillion trees worldwide.

From our perspective as a city, we see that the role of cities in the climate fight is still being defined. We do know that cities are part of the problem, since they tend to be hot spots that absorb sunlight and convert it into heat, whereas forests convert much less into heat, and instead convert some of the sunlight energy into evaporating water. In other words, along with the industrialization of the world economy, cities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Threats to the Canopy

In Berkeley, despite our sensitivity to the importance of trees, we have developing threats to our canopy. Increased population density could reduce our canopy if trees are not properly supported in development plans. If the University expands further, this will test not only our capacity to house the increased concentration of people, it will threaten our trees. With over half of our tree canopy lying on private property or university property, we in the city do not have tools to sustain and support their contribution to our total city canopy, so our ability to protect and increase our canopy is at risk. The particular risk is to West Berkeley and South Berkeley, where a lack of resources has inhibited proper canopy development for a long time.


Most cities have not given themselves over to a rigorous oversight of their canopy. The importance of the canopy simply hasn't been appreciated. Most cities have simply accepted that less affluent areas and business areas will have fewer trees. This is a dangerous mistake.

I believe that Berkeley's heart is with the trees. We are constrained by resources, we are constrained by tools, and we need to know more. We need to know how well we are really doing vis-à-vis what would be ideal, and we need to have a vision of where we want to go. We need to make this vision as clear as possible, to see how much of it is shared with all our stakeholders, and we need to envision what tools we can have to monitor and support progress in attaining our ideal vision.

Remedy – Suggested Next Step

I know this statement may seem perhaps “too visionary.” But that is the way progress goes. We need to appreciate our present and imagine our future. So what I am suggesting is that we start the process of doing just that.

I suggest that the Commission consider whether such an effort would be worthwhile. A working group could be established that would combine several disciplines and report to the Commission. I am certain that funds could be found for this effort that would not be part of the city's budget.

Budd N. Shenkin, MD, MAPA

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