Putting Down (Oak) Roots in Oakland: How Community-Building & Placemaking Catalyzes Change

The campaign to “re-oak” Oakland — by planting saplings to reestablish the city’s namesake groves of drought-tolerant, fast-growing, California native coast live oaks — aims to reduce air pollution, protect wildlife habitat, and lower the temperature of urban asphalt on hot summer days. Although it will be a gradual process, the establishment of “urban forests” provide long-term community health benefits, including that children get more exercise when they live in a greener neighborhood. Just as important, these tree-filled public spaces serve as community hubs and catalysts for social transformation.

“If a landscape changes, our way of life changes, whether it’s a freeway cut into a neighborhood or a new dense canopy of trees,” explains Walter J. Hood, landscape architect and professor at University of California, Berkeley. He talks of the importance of reimagining “the everyday and mundane” aspects of cities — neglected urban spaces like traffic islands, vacant lots and freeway underpasses.

Theaster Gates’s 2015 TED talk also speaks to the importance of building community spaces. He alludes to “Placemaking” as both a process and a philosophy, and highlights the importance of public spaces as the heart of any community, a place for people to get reinvested in reshaping their world. Who can argue with the beauty and fulfillment of planting the seeds to cultivate a better place to live?

Tree Project Aims to Put the Oak Back in Oakland

By Patricia Leigh Brown | The New York Times | May 23, 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. — In the beginning, before stylized images of oak trees started appearing on T-shirts, bumper stickers and even Mayor Libby Schaaf’s election-night earrings in November, there were actually oak woodlands in Oakland.

And while this may be the largest city in America named after a tree, these days there are very few of the oaks left.

Thus began the fledgling campaign to “re-oak” Oakland, which started on a recent weekend when a team of volunteers planted an inaugural stand of 72 saplings of coast live oaks in plastic buckets in a West Oakland park.

“Names are a powerful way to think about a place,” said Walter J. Hood, a landscape architect and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who lives and works in Oakland and came up with the idea of resurrecting the city’s forgotten groves.

“If a landscape changes, your way of life changes,” he said, “whether it’s a freeway cut into a neighborhood or a new dense canopy of trees.”

After planting the 72 trees, Mr. Hood and a group of students and others ceremoniously affixed an image of a historic Oakland map dotted with oaks to a chain-link fence in Lowell Park, where the new trees will incubate until they are large enough to transplant. Over the next five years, the plan is to donate the oaks to residents of West and East Oakland — neighborhoods in the city’s flatlands, which are far less verdant than the more affluent Oakland hills. The seed money of $10,000 for these first trees came from the endowment of Mr. Hood’s university chair at the College of Environmental Design.

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