Volume 29 · Number 2 · Winter 2012
A tree grows in Oakland
Urban forester Gregory Tarver brings greenery — and hope — to blighted city streets.
(Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
Near the corner of Market and 32nd streets in west Oakland, a minivan swerves to avoid a man pulling three shopping carts. A pair of tennis shoes dangles from an overhead telephone line and a battered motor home sits on a side street lined with chain link fences and coiled barbed wire.
To an outsider, it is a scene of urban bleakness. But to UC Davis doctoral student and forester Gregory Tarver Jr., it's a living laboratory and a seedbed of hope.
Tarver, who comes from what he calls "a very traditional forestry background of fighting fires and taking people on backpacking trips," now focuses his attention on urban forestry — the role that trees play in city and suburban communities. As part of his doctoral studies, he collaborates with Urban Releaf, a local nonprofit organization, to do research, develop curriculum, provide job training and restore trees to the urban environment.
His work in California's eighth largest city began with a focus on the biological benefits of trees for the environment but broadened to examine social issues, including youth development, urban renewal and social justice.
We're growing more than trees," Tarver said. "We're growing communities."
One warm day found Tarver on Market Street with two Urban Releaf staffers — brothers Akeem and Jamal Davis — examining Kawakami trees the organization planted 10 years ago. Noticing structural and health problems in a nearby tree, Tarver asked the young men what needed to be done.
"This tree has two co-dominant branches, and there is rotting under one branch," pointed out Akeem, Urban Releaf's tree maintenance manager.
"We need to cut out some of the branches," added Jamal, who manages the group's tree-planting efforts.
"All of the trees have some problems, and it's best to work on them now," said Tarver, who is a certified arborist with a master's degree in urban forestry.
As he works with Jamal, Akeem and the other young people participating in Urban Releaf, Tarver is intent on teaching them skills they can one day use as professional arborists. But he also wants them to catch an enthusiasm for science and understand the many benefits that trees offer for the urban environment.
"Trees in urban areas not only lower the temperature, draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen, they also result in reductions in respiratory illnesses like asthma," Tarver said. "And they reduce the amount of surface water and pollutants that run into the bay."
Trees planted in the urban landscape also yield countless economic as well as psychological benefits, including a stronger connection to the community, he said.
The land beneath Oakland was once home to coastal prairie vegetation, oak woodlands and even redwood forests. But the California gold rush brought a building boom to the San Francisco Bay area that quickly consumed the native timber.
Trees were eventually planted to landscape the bustling East Bay community, but most were felled during the 1950s as streets were widened, and even more were removed for safety reasons during the 1980s, Tarver said.
Today, Martin Luther King Boulevard, stretching north to south through west Oakland, is urban forestry's line of demarcation — you'll find street-side trees planted to the east, but generally not to the west.
Urban Releaf is working on erasing that boundary. The organization is coordinating teams of community members to plant trees and working with landlords, tenants, business people and politicians to support the effort.
The streets of Oakland are perhaps an unlikely place to find a young forester like Tarver, who with a soft smile admits to being "absolutely a tree hugger."
"I grew up in Louisiana and lived just three houses from the forest," he recalled. "The forest was where we went to play and look for adventure."
Boy Scout campouts frequently took him into the forests of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, he said.
"When I was 14, I was in Arkansas and had just a real epiphany that I wanted to someday work in nature," he recalled. And, eventually, college studies and work would bring him full circle back to the forest — this time to the urban forest.
He earned a bachelor's degree in natural resource conservation from the University of Montana and went on to work on his master's degree in urban forestry at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La. During that time he attended an urban forestry conference in Washington, D.C., where he met Kemba Shakur, the spirited founder and director of Urban Releaf, based in Oakland and Richmond.
When Shakur stood up before the predominantly white conference to ask why communities of color frequently lack trees, Tarver supported her. "He had my back," Shakur recalled.
The two would team up professionally in 2006 when Tarver began doctoral studies in nature and society geography through the UC Davis Geography Graduate Group. He now lives in Oakland and works as Urban Releaf's director of urban forest education, an integral part of his doctoral research.
Gregory Tarver and Urban Releaf employees Jamal and Akeem Davis discuss the best approach to caring for an Oakland tree. A dozen youth have gone on to jobs and college after participating in Urban Releaf. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
"It's a very different language and a very different environment in the community than it is at the university," he said. "Discussions with my professors help me to bridge the two worlds."
Tarver said that the pairing of academic and community work also gives him an opportunity to "have purpose and effect change, even if that change comes slowly."
The impact has been significant for a dozen young people who have gone on to jobs and college after participating in Urban Releaf.
Shakur and Tarver think often of one young woman, orphaned at age 4, who worked with Urban Releaf for eight years beginning at the age of 12. She is now working on her master's degree.
"We've changed her life," said Shakur thoughtfully, "We've really changed her life."
Tarver came to UC Davis to work on urban forestry issues with Greg McPherson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture urban forestry expert affiliated with the Department of Plant Sciences, and with water scientist Qingfu Xiao in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. His major adviser is Jonathan London, an assistant professor in the Department of Human and Community Development and director of UC Davis' Center for Regional Change.
"Gregory has developed close working relationships with community leaders, residents and youth," London said. "He has a whole other level of trust and therefore access to be able to really understand what's going on in the community in ways that someone who is doing what we call 'drive-by' research, wouldn't be able to do."
Tarver's studies of geography as well as forestry and urban forestry ecology meld the social and biological sciences — another example, London said, of UC Davis' cross-disciplinary innovation.
"I respect and admire Gregory for a number of different reasons," London said. "He approaches his work with a tremendous sense of humanity and humility that allows him to connect in a very deep way with the people he is researching. And he brings a very sophisticated analysis of race, ethnicity and social class, so his research is helping us understand the relevance of those factors for how sustainable or healthy those environments are," London added.
Tarver hopes to continue his work one day as a university professor — always with one hand in academia and the other in the community.
"I want for urban youth to be involved in forestry and science," he said. "I want them to see that science isn't just about laboratories and white coats but that it has practical applications in their everyday lives."
Those practical applications are evident up and down the streets of west Oakland. Trees planted by Urban Releaf have created new habitat for butterflies and other beneficial insects. Thanks to the Urban Releaf and those new trees, songbirds also are now part of the urban environment where once only seagulls were seen.