Oakland Overgrown 

More than 250,000 trees along city streets are growing out of control because of deep budget cuts.

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With older trees, regular maintenance involves removing overgrown limbs and foliage before they become hazardous, thinning and removing dead branches, and pruning for shape on a regular basis. Trees in parks should be trimmed every three to five years to maintain their appearance and safety, Zahn said. But the city can't afford to do any of that anymore, either.

Instead, an arborist now assesses all incoming complaints to the Tree Services Division and codes them by level of urgency. Priorities on hazards range from low (like a limb blocking a stop sign) to medium (broken branches on residential streets or sidewalks) to high (typically, trees that have fallen or may be on the verge). If a new incident report or maintenance request doesn't meet the city's criteria, it's ignored. "With our current staffing levels, we just can't keep up with the complaints," Ryugo said candidly.

Berkeley's tree staff, by contrast, has it much easier. According to Park Superintendent Sue Ferrera, the city currently employs ten workers in its Urban Forestry unit, who are responsible for new plantings and maintaining approximately 46,000 trees citywide: a ratio of 4,600 trees per employee. But in Oakland's Tree Services Division, nineteen employees — including administrators — oversee at least 250,000 trees, and vastly more once medians and parks are factored in. At minimum, that amounts to 13,000 trees per employee.

Even when Oakland's crews were fully staffed a few years ago, managing the city's massive number of trees was no easy task. Tree maintenance was driven more prominently by annual work schedules, but frequent complaints still resulted in a lot of jumping around, Ryugo said. Regular schedules were particularly important in cases like the Chinese elms that line many of North Oakland's more well-heeled streets. Each July, the trees can be counted on to hang their drooping, willowy limbs over sidewalks and streets, occasionally impeding tall trucks, scraping the tops of passenger cars, or obstructing walkways. Regular sweeps through the neighborhood, usually every 18 to 24 months, helped stem most complaints.

Ryugo said the goal at the time was to develop a maintenance pattern that divided the city into grids. Crews would sweep up and down blocks regardless of complaints, eliminating problems before they arose and trimming trees evenly to achieve a consistent, aesthetically pleasing appearance. These days, however, such systematic pruning is out of the question. Merely responding to the steady influx of hazard reports is difficult enough.

Making financial matters worse, as routine work-week maintenance is deferred, emergency weekend and late-night shifts may become more common, further taxing workers and reducing the department's projected savings by adding to overtime pay. On a recent stormy weekend, crews responded to 22 emergency calls, including a large number of downed trees. That burden is bound to increase in coming winters — and with it, the city's legal liability whenever property damage or personal injury results.

It's not always easy to see major tree failures coming, but there are a few tell-tale signs, Ryugo said. Uplifted soil around a trunk can signal that a tree's roots are being pulled loose by the weight of an overgrown canopy. Visible cracks in large limbs often foretell dangerous falls — but not always. And dead, twisted, and otherwise compromised branches have a higher risk of failure. The rest of the time, especially with large trees on urban streets, the key is to stay on top of preventative maintenance and hope for the best. Anything less may be waiting for a bad accident to happen.

Given Oakland's budget crisis, more tough choices lie ahead. And because of last year's layoffs and the city's continuing crime problems, there promises to be a strong push this spring to spare the police department from further budget cuts. The fire department also is insulated from deep budget reductions because of union contracts and Measure BB. Consequently, quality-of-life services, such as libraries, parks, and trees, could be relegated to the wrong end of the ledger.

However, for many residents, trees aren't just some line item in the city's budget. Instead, they view trees as crime fighters, too. The San Pablo Corridor Coalition, a community group founded in early 2010, uses greening efforts to improve its West Oakland neighborhood — and that means responding to illegal dumping, drug dealing, and even murders by planting Japanese maples, flowering cherries, and other ornamental trees. Its efforts seem to be working.

In recent years, the intersection of Myrtle and 30th streets had experienced multiple killings. Then community volunteers planted twenty trees in the area, and the murders stopped. When the neighborhood registered its first murder of 2011 at Market and 27th streets, they landscaped the whole block. And along Mead Avenue, amid a sea of concrete with a reputation as one of the city's deadliest blocks, the group planted another twelve trees in a neglected curbside planting strip, complete with moisture-retaining mulch. Since then the block has improved dramatically, with marked reductions in drug activity and no homicides since last spring. "I can't really tell you that planting trees is stopping murders," said co-founder Alex Miller-Cole, "but it's doing something."

At the very least, trees in urban areas have been shown to raise property values, help manage storm-water runoff, improve air quality, and even boost residents' moods. That's why trees are in such high demand among many property owners throughout Oakland. It's also why there's now an argument to be made that the city needs more trees even though it can't afford to take care of the ones it has.

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