SF campaign aims to harness nature for benefit of residents

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 27, 2023
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Scott Sampson, Ph.D., executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, is part of a collaboration to make San Francisco greener. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Scott Sampson, Ph.D., executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, is part of a collaboration to make San Francisco greener. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

At their home in the Castro husbands Steve Kawa and Dan Henkle are growing plants native to San Francisco. By doing so, they are assisting pollinators and other insects in the city.

It may seem inconsequential but the couple's action is part of a larger effort to make the City-by-the-Bay more hospitable to nature. Doing so can also bring about benefits for San Francisco's human residents.

"Everyone can participate in improving our city by doing small things and by doing big things," said Kawa, a former chief adviser to several of the city's mayors who now serves on the board of the California Academy of Sciences.

Kawa was speaking with the Bay Area Reporter on a recent cloudy, cool San Francisco morning on the living roof of the research and educational institution in Golden Gate Park. He is one of numerous leaders whose organizations are part of the alliance behind Reimagining San Francisco, which is working to improve the city's ecological health and ensure all of its residents can benefit from the local natural environment.

They had gathered at the Cal Academy to officially announce the new initiative on September 7, which was California Biodiversity Day, and take part in a native plant planting atop the building. The institution's executive director, Scott Sampson, Ph.D., joked it was a typical "gorgeous San Francisco summer day."

With concerns growing that such weather may become exceedingly rare in the city due to climate change, impacting not only its native fauna and flora but also human residents, nearly three-dozen local organizations and city agencies came together last year to form what Sampson described as a "vital citywide collaboration" focused on making San Francisco a healthier and greener place to live. Cal Academy had spearheaded the creation of the collaborative effort.

"We are already engaged in wonderful work to make the city healthier for people and nonhuman inhabitants," said Sampson at the rollout event, noting the alliance members are "taking a leap of faith to work together."

That is because the founding organizations of the effort have not always seen eye-to-eye on various issues in the past. As just one example that gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman brought up during the news conference, Cal Academy had been at loggerheads with City Hall and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department over the decision to shut down car access to a main arterial through Golden Gate Park near its building for fear it would reduce visitation.

Yet the roadway closure, done to provide a safe venue in the city park for bicyclists and pedestrians, was one example of how the city is trying to address various environmental issues that Mandelman referenced. He also brought up the city's ban on natural gas stoves and financial support for the creation of the new Tunnel Tops park site in the Presidio.

"In San Francisco we are doing a lot of amazing things. We have been an environmental leader," said Mandelman.

Kanika Bansal, left, joined Hieu Hoang during a Friends of the Urban Forest tree-planting day September 9 in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Seeking positive impact
Sampson brought up the rash of negative headlines in the press about San Francisco this year, from the vacant office buildings downtown to the inability to move homeless people off city streets into housing, and pointed to the new nature initiative as a way to have a positive impact on the city, its residents, and those who come to visit.

"Yes, housing is astronomically expensive. And yes, downtown has yet to find its feet post-COVID," he said. "San Francisco still ranks among the world's most beautiful cities with jaw-dropping views at almost every turn."

The diversity of its population is another benefit, he added, referring not only to its human residents but its biological diversity. And just as essential as protecting that biodiversity for nature is protecting the natural environment for the health of humans, argued Sampson.

"Nonhuman nature and humans depend on each other," he said.

How might the doom loop narrative be flipped, and local leaders build a path upward not downward, asked Sampson.

"The city needs a new north star," he said, suggesting it be "Mother Nature."

Nature corridors needed
While San Francisco in 2017 became the first U.S. city where all residents were within a 10-minute walk to a city park or open space, Thompson argued much more needs to be done. Nature corridors should be connecting the parks and more streets should be lined with trees.

"Buildings should be festooned with nature," he said. "Citizens should be encouraged to plant native plants even if just in window boxes."

A main goal of the initiative is seeing, by 2030, that 30% of San Francisco is biodiverse green space. Another key component is increasing the city's tree canopy.

"Tree cover matters," said Sampson, as he pointed out it can "potentially mean life and death during heatwaves."

Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced the city would receive a $12 million federal grant for planting and maintaining street trees, as well as combating extreme heat and climate change, creating green jobs and improving access to the city's natural areas. It was the largest single award granted in California for growing an urban tree canopy under the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The city's Recreation and Parks Department is also receiving a $2 million Inflation Reduction Act grant to create a plan for managing the tree canopy in public parks located in San Francisco's southeastern neighborhoods. Compared to other large U.S. cities San Francisco is a laggard when it comes to its tree canopy, with just 13.7% of the ground when viewed from above sheltered by the leaves and branches of trees. The national average is 27.1%.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service is giving more than $1 billion in competitive grants to expand urban tree canopies across the nation. The funding is particularly meant for the planting of trees in low-income communities that typically have the least amount of trees compared to more affluent areas of cities and disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution from industry and vehicle emissions.

Members and supporters of Reimagining San Francisco gathered on the living roof at the California Academy of Sciences on September 7, California Biodiversity Day. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Seeking equity
In San Francisco, the tree canopy is inequitably distributed among the city's neighborhoods. Underserved census tracts have only about half the canopy at 8%, compared to the 15% canopy coverage in other census tracts.

"This funding will help us strengthen our urban canopy, particularly in neighborhoods like the Bayview-Hunters Point, the Tenderloin, and South of Market, which lack the benefits that street trees can bring," stated Breed. "I want to thank President Biden and our federal partners for investing in a greener future. Soon, the Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry will plant and work together with neighbors and nonprofit partners to advance the health of our communities for generations to come."

The federal financial support comes as Public Works readies to open this fall its new Street Tree Nursery in SOMA. It will be on land owned by Caltrans that straddles the off and on ramps to Interstate 80 at Fifth Street between Bryant and Harrison streets.

"We are thrilled to be selected in this highly competitive grant process," stated Public Works interim Director Carla Short, a certified arborist. "We have the infrastructure in place and professional tree crews and nonprofit partners ready to get to work planting and caring for the new street trees in communities that need them the most."

At the rollout for Reimagining San Francisco the director of the city's Environment Department, Tyrone Jue, noted that when viewing the city from the air, greenspaces account for less than 5% of the city, meaning there is an opportunity to activate the other 95% through the new initiative. While pointing out that the city's climate action plan calls for having net zero carbon emissions by 2040, more still needs to be done to address the impacts of a warming planet, said Jue.

"We need to get bigger and bolder in terms of how we are going to heal our planet," he said. "It is not only going to be a government-led solution or just through nonprofits and institutions, it is something we all need to work on together."

One member of the Reimagining San Francisco alliance is Friends of the Urban Forest. Brian Wiedenmeier, a gay man who is the nonprofit's executive director, told the B.A.R. its mission dovetails with that of the collaborative effort to make the city healthier and greener.

"Reimaging San Francisco is at the heart of what we do, connecting San Francisco to nature," said Wiedenmeier. "This is right up our alley."

He noted that his agency has formed a collaboration with the city's public school district to turn the asphalt outdoor yards at its school campuses into greener spaces. It hopes to begin its first project by the end of the year.

"With the extreme heat we are now experiencing, imagine how hot it can get on those schoolyards," noted Wiedenmeier.

And for years the friends group has been planting trees along sidewalks across the city, especially in its LGBTQ neighborhoods from the Castro to the Tenderloin. Earlier this month it held a volunteer tree planting in the SOMA district, long a haven for the leather and kink community, and often sees LGBTQ individuals participating in such events around the city.

"I am excited to see where this goes," Wiedenmeier said of the new citywide initiative. "I am thrilled and excited to have the Friends of the Urban Forest be involved in this."

While LGBTQ-specific organizations in the city have yet to officially be listed as members of Reimaging San Francisco, Mandelman told the B.A.R. he hopes they consider joining the effort. The environmental issues it aims to address impact everyone in the city, he noted, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"All of San Francisco should be part of it. The bigger the coalition this builds and the more interest there is in a sustainable city the better," said Mandelman, noting that even in the Castro there is still not enough of a tree canopy. "We need more trees all around."

State guidance
Meanwhile, California Attorney General Rob Bonta recently released a comprehensive guide for how local governments can effectively address environmental justice issues in their land use planning as required by a state law adopted in 2016. The guidance, prepared by the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Environmental Justice, includes a chart with more than 120 real-world example policies that have been adopted by local governments all across the state to address such concerns as reducing air pollution exposure and improving access to parks and green spaces.

"Every Californian deserves to grow up, live, and work in an environment that is clean, safe and healthy," stated Bonta. "The harsh reality is that some of our most vulnerable communities — particularly low-income communities and communities of color — continue to suffer disproportionate harm from unjust land use policies set into motion decades ago."

San Francisco now has an opportunity to "reimagine itself," said Sampson, via the new urban nature alliance.

"We will regenerate the plant one place at a time. It is always better to begin at home," he said.

To learn more about the Reimagining San Francisco initiative, visit its website at reimaginingsf.org.

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