FREMONT, Calif. — For the past few years, Fremont has been working on a plan to grow and manage its urban forest, and this month the city reached a milestone.
The city of Fremont released its 115-page draft urban forest management plan, which details the state of the city’s public trees, the benefits of trees in the community and best practices for urban forestry, among other things. Broadly, the plan outlines a goal of increasing the urban tree canopy in the city from 13% to 24% over the next 40 years. That amounts to adding 121,700 public trees to the city’s current inventory of 77,387 public trees by 2062.
“This is the very first urban forestry management plan for the city of Fremont,” Roger Ravenstad, Fremont’s parks planning and design manager, said at a Tree Advisory Working Group meeting at Fremont City Hall on Wednesday night, though it wasn’t an official meeting since there was not a quorum.
While the plan is comprehensive, the half dozen community members who spoke, including City Councilmember Jenny Kassan, said the overall goal isn’t going far enough.
“I would love us to be more ambitious,” Kassan said. “It seems like we could do a lot better in terms of our canopy cover. It’s an urgent situation. We can’t wait to have a greener city and a city that’s going to hopefully help us mitigate climate change.”
Climate scientists agree that humanity has just under a decade to curb the burning of fossil fuels, keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius, and mitigate and adapt to the worst impacts of climate change. Planting trees is an important component in those efforts.
Richard Godfrey, of Tri-City Ecology, said the city can reach a higher target by better integrating the five or so groups in Fremont focused on planting trees into the citywide endeavor.
“I encourage you more than ever to work with your nonprofit groups,” he said. “It doesn’t always come easily because you have your processes that you need to work through and so do the nonprofit groups, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of communication to make that happen well.”
The benefits of public trees
Planting trees is a relatively cheap, nature-based solution state and local governments can use to improve the well-being of the environment and the public, Alessandro Ossola, an assistant professor of urban plant science at the University of California, Davis and lead of the university’s Urban Science Lab, told the East Bay Echo. In terms of the environment, they can provide shade during periods of extreme heat and soak up a lot of water during periods of heavy rainfall.
“If we didn’t have trees around us, the amount of stormwater runoff during these extreme weather events might be much, much higher compared to what we’re seeing,” Ossola said.
The 77,387 public trees that are currently in the city collectively prevent more than 73 million gallons of stormwater runoff and sequester 4,300 tons of carbon annually, providing $6.9 million in ecosystem services and benefits every year, according to the draft plan. They’re good for property values, too. The plan estimates that residents get $7.44 in annual benefits for every $1 spent on public trees.
“We know that nature is extremely important because it is creating a bond between us and the organisms living near us,” Ossola said. “Nature, itself, has been demonstrated to, for instance, reduce the amount of time that people spend recovering after surgery.”
The ubiquity of heat-absorbing materials like asphalt and concrete combined with a lack of tree canopy cover have turned cities, especially in underserved communities, into heat islands, which are hotter than surrounding areas.
“By having very low canopy cover, these areas tend to accumulate more heat during summertime and during very hot days,” Ossola said. “The heat stays in the landscape through the accumulation in buildings and surfaces like cement and so on. This heat is reemitted at night and that’s when communities are feeling the heat, they’re feeling the burn, simply because there is no shade and there is no evaporative cooling that is provided by the trees.”
Trees need to be seen as long-term investments that may need decades to mature and must be managed properly during the entirety of their life cycles, not just in the nursery and at the time of planting, Ossola said.
“If there is not enough money to follow up with tree maintenance for decades to come, then we are missing half of the story of the life of the tree,” he said.
Challenges with urban forestry
Underground infrastructure, inadequate soil and small spaces can all present challenges to planting and maintaining public trees. Ossola said an easy solution is to plant a diversity of trees to match the diversity of the landscape, such as planting a tree that grows fast, but remains relatively small for areas without much space. Diversity can also mitigate the risks associated with pests and diseases.
“In California, we are blessed in a way because we have more than 6,000 species of native plants,” he said. “Many of them are trees that have been adapted over millennia of evolution to dry and hot conditions, some of them also to fire conditions.”
The city of Fremont has been focusing on planting native trees, which are more climate-ready, and planting the right tree in the right location. The city’s public tree inventory includes 510 species; the most common species in the city are Chinese pistache (7%), common crapemyrtle (6%) and liquidambar (6%).
Community engagement is critical to the success of the urban forest management plan since many public trees are on private land and thus need to be maintained by the landowners. That can be empowering for residents, but also present issues, Ossola said. Research done in Australia found people have a tendency to chop down trees that shade their roofs when installing solar panels.
“This is not a sustainable option,” Ossola said. “We need to find better solutions to allow both solar panels and trees to do their jobs in our urban landscape.”
Kassan said she receives complaints from people in the community about trees’ roots tearing up the sidewalk and, while there are ways to prevent that from happening when initially planting the trees, staff should look into what can be done in the areas where trees are already planted.
“Listen to what the complaints are,” Kassan said. “Why are people illegally taking down street trees? How do we enforce the rules around street trees, but also make it something that people don’t feel as much of a need to do because there’s a way they can deal with a tree that they feel is unsafe or causing problems.”
Planning history and next steps
The city of Fremont initially received an $860,000 grant from Cal Fire in 2019, which Tara Bhuthimethee, the city’s landscape architect, said was used primarily to transition the city from a paper-based system of tree management to an electronic one. That included creating an inventory of all the public trees in the city, which can be navigated on the city’s TreePlotter website, and developing the urban forest management plan.
Some of those funds were used to plant 85 trees in disadvantaged communities and 338 trees were planted more broadly with the help of community group Urban Forest Friends. The city also established a new urban forester position to oversee the implementation of the plan, but the person who was hired almost a year ago recently left the city, leaving the position vacant once again.
The city received a second grant from Cal Fire for $850,000 during the past year that will go toward removing 318 dead and dying trees, planting 1,000 more public trees, creating a community tree stewardship program and community urban forest education program, establishing an urban forester training program, and more. Much of that work is expected to be done by the next urban forester.
Godfrey said his biggest concern is that the city does not have an urban forester already hired and “it looks like it’s going to be more than a half year” to hire somebody to fill the role.
“It’s so critical,” Godfrey said, “and you have a timeline.”
Ravenstad agreed hiring an urban forester is essential for moving the plan forward, “and once that position’s back in place, all the volunteer programs can start again.”
“I think in the next year, you’re going to see a lot happen,” Ravenstad said.
The draft plan is expected to come back to the Recreation Commission, which acts as the Tree Advisory Working Group, for an initial public hearing. At a subsequent meeting, the commission will decide whether to recommend if the Fremont City Council should adopt the plan. The City Council’s decision is expected in April.
If you’d like to find out more about the city’s urban forest management plan and provide feedback, visit https://www.fremont.gov/government/departments/urban-forestry/urban-forest-plan.