The history of oak trees in Oakland runs deep, starting with the acorn harvests of Ohlone Indians.
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 oak woodlands in Oakland.
And while Oakland may be the largest city in America named after a tree, these days there are very few oaks left.
Thus began the fledgling campaign to “re-oak” Oakland that 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 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.
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“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, Hood and a group of students and others 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. In the next five years, the plan is to donate the oaks to residents of West and East Oakland, neighborhoods in the city’s flatlands that 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 Hood’s university chair at the College of Environmental Design.
Though he is restoring the gardens of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, much of Hood’s work focuses on re-imagining what he calls “the everyday and mundane” aspects of cities, neglected urban spaces such as traffic islands, vacant lots and freeway underpasses.
The history of oak trees in Oakland runs deep, starting with the acorn harvests of Ohlone Indians. In the 19th century, Spanish and Mexican residents named the place “encinal,” or oak grove. The city’s first mayor, Horace Carpentier, tried to protect the trees, which were disappearing fast even in the 1850s. But as Oakland boomed, its namesake oaks were felled to make way for development and for streets laid out in an orderly grid.
Today, few survive. The most celebrated tree is the imposing Jack London Oak in front of City Hall, a landscape unto itself with vast tributaries of branches. It was planted in 1917, a year after London’s death, and inspired both the city’s logo and the emblem for Oaklandish, a local apparel company.
Charles Birnbaum, head of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, compares the “children and grandchildren” of the city’s original oaks to “witness trees” on Civil War battlefields.
“They’re like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ holes,” he said. “They’re portals of the past.”
Like other trees, Oakland’s surviving coast live oaks, a drought-tolerant native species, reduce air pollution and erosion, shelter wildlife and lower the temperature of urban asphalt on hot days.
The people restoring the oaks point out that there is a strong link between urban trees and health, and that children get more exercise when they live in a greener neighborhood. In Oakland, disparities between the leafy hills and low-income flatlands — sometimes called the “green-gray divide” — went viral three years ago when satellite imagery of income inequality seen from space was posted on the blog Per Square Mile.
According to state data, 25 census tracts in Oakland are in the top quarter of the state’s worst toxic hot spots of air pollution and other negative health factors.
The city had a flurry of tree planting in the 1980s when the U.S. Forest Service developed a program that provided funds for urban forests. But because of recent cuts, the city can now respond only to tree crises, such as roots buckling a sidewalk.
A 17-year-old citizens group, Urban Releaf, which is based in Oakland, has planted some 20,000 street trees throughout the East Bay and has been helping Hood’s effort. “It’s a reawakening of history,” said Kevin Jefferson, an Urban Releaf program manager who was at the park placing wooden stakes beside all 72 trees.
Re-establishing the groves in residential backyards, parks and other public places will be a gradual process that requires a long-term view. “A landscape is not about the here and now,” Hood said. “It’s about designing in rhythm with a place.”
Across the San Francisco Bay in Silicon Valley, technology companies are also re-oaking. In the distant past, the valley was known as “Llano de los Robles,” or “Plain of the Oaks,” a name that evokes a visual contrast to the reflective-glass office buildings there now.
The new headquarters Apple is building in Cupertino, known as Spaceship and designed by Norman Foster, will include oak trees, and Google, in Mountain View, will play off the area’s historic habitat, “folding in oaks and willows,” said Audrey Davenport, Google’s ecology-program manager.
The oak is a fast-growing California native and requires watering only in its infancy, which in the current drought may involve “lugging shower water,” said Janet Cobb, executive officer of California Oaks, a project of the California Wildlife Foundation, which is based in Oakland. In California, she noted, this hardy breed has already survived eons of drought, floods and earthquakes.
“Oaks like neglect,” Cobb said, “and they persevere.”