Opinion: A tree a day by the freeway keeps the doctor away

Bay Area communities can take action to make their communities greener through California’s Urban Greening Grant Program.

By Robin Fink

Robin Fink is a graduate student of University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.

On a sunny day in the East Bay, there are few things as comforting as finding the cool shade of a large tree. Can you remember the last time you were walking down the street or in a parking lot on a hot day, and the heat was so intense, that it made your head throb? Perhaps you felt a sharp craving for a cool glass of water. In urban areas where concrete and asphalt are ubiquitous, the solace of such a tree can be hard to come by. In areas with fewer trees and greenspaces, air and surface temperatures can climb so high that they can impact the very climate of that particular neighborhood and have profound health consequences for people living in them. Aside from their aesthetic beauty, the presence of trees in neighborhoods supports human and environmental health.

“Interesting,” you may think, “but what does this have to do with me and what can I do about it?” As it turns out, the State of California is about to make available $76 million in funding for engaged cities and citizens to come up with innovative solutions tackling this problem.

As a child of a split household, I remember making the daily commute from my parent’s home in El Sobrante to my school in Albany. We would begin in our neighborhood, abundant with live oak, bay, eucalyptus, and palm trees. Driving down San Pablo Avenue and merging onto Interstate 80, I always noticed the significant difference in the number of trees and concrete spaces present in the cities we drove through. If you live in the East Bay, you are very familiar with the sight and presence of the half-dozen immense concrete interstates and highways.

Think back to that hot day walking down the street and feeling the intensity of the heat radiating over your head. It turns out that this lack of presence of trees has such an impact on health, that scientists have recently coined the term, heat island. These heat islands not only increase this experience of discomfort, but also are connected to poor air quality. Residents living where highways are prevalent, such as Richmond, San Pablo, West Berkeley, and Oakland experience significantly higher rates of health issues, such as asthma. Much research has found that the absence of trees and green spaces has a significant impact on health and well-being.

Most often, it is people of color and in those living with low income who live in heat islands. The consequences of our movement is unequally felt by these communities living in the areas we travel through daily and it has a lasting impact. Even though we live in a state that has been addressing this issue, by requiring that the roofs of all newly constructed buildings be painted white, the efforts to reduce the health impacts felt by these communities are not doing enough. There are actions we as citizens can take, which will play a significant role in improving this situation. We can make this change happen by working within our own communities, neighborhoods, and local governments.

The California Urban Greening Grant Program will provide funding for green spaces and bike paths to increase the amount of greenery in urban areas. The Grant Program has over $76 million earmarked for building healthier and greener communities. It is currently seeking grant applications, specifically targeting communities that are more heavily impacted by heat islands.

Regardless of your grant writing experience, the Grant Program is offering a workshop on March 27 in Oakland to help concerned groups learn how to submit proposals.

In these times of change and inequality, we must turn to our own communities for collective change and action. Perhaps there is a group of concerned individuals in your neighborhood. Or maybe you know a leader in your community who wants to take action but does not know where to get the funding to make it possible. It is time to organize our communities to bring forth new projects in the areas that matter the most. Supporting our local leaders to advocate for greener spaces and less heat islands can benefit the health and well-being of the communities that need it the most.