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A TREE GROWS IN OAKLAND: UC Davis urban forester engages youth in greening inner city

By Pat Bailey on October 25, 2011 in University

UC Davis Engages Oakland Youth in Inner City 'Releaf'


The most promising change created by the nonprofit Urban Releaf is seen in the lives of the dozen young people who have participated in the program and gone on to jobs and college.

Releaf Director Kemba Shakur and UC Davis graduate student Gregory Tarver Jr. think often of one young woman, orphaned at age 4, who began working with Urban Releaf when she was 12 and continued on for eight years.

After graduating from high school, she went to college and is now working on her master’s degree. “We’ve changed her life,” Shakur said thoughtfully, “We’ve really changed her life.”

It’s all part of what Tarver dreams of doing, not only now as a graduate student but one day as a university professor — always with one hand in academia and the other in the community.

“I want for urban youth to be involved in forestry and science,” he said. “I want them to see that science isn’t just about laboratories and white coats but that it has practical applications in their everyday lives.”

And he has a word of advice for incoming UC Davis students just starting to formulate their own dreams. “Freshmen and sophomores should think about what excites them and what they are naturally drawn to,” he said.

“You have to have a passion. Explore that passion and test it with classes and internships. See if your passion for that career is sustainable.”

— Pat Bailey

OAKLAND — Near the corner of Market and 32nd streets in west Oakland, a minivan swerves to avoid a man pulling three shopping carts. A pair of tennis shoes dangles from an overhead telephone line and a battered motor home sits on a side street lined with chain link fences and coiled barbed wire.

To an outsider, it is a scene of urban bleakness but to UC Davis graduate student and forester Gregory Tarver Jr., it’s a living laboratory and a seedbed of hope.

Tarver, who comes from what he calls “a very traditional forestry background of fighting fires and taking people on backpacking trips,” now focuses his attention on urban forestry — the role that trees play in city and suburban communities.

As part of his doctoral studies, he collaborates with Urban Releaf, a local nonprofit organization, to do research, develop curriculum, provide job training and restore trees to the urban environment.

“We’re growing more than trees; we’re growing communities,” Tarver said.

His work in California’s eighth largest city began with a focus on the biological benefits of trees for the environment but broadened to examine social issues including youth development, urban renewal and social justice.

Teaching Oakland youth

A midsummer day found Tarver on Market Street with Urban Releaf staffers Akeem and Jamal Davis, examining Kawakami trees that the organization planted 10 years ago. Noticing structural and health problems in one tree, he asked the young men what needed to be done.

“This tree has two co-dominant branches, and there is rotting under one branch,” pointed out Akeem, Urban Releaf’s tree maintenance manager.

“We need to cut out some of the branches,” agreed Jamal, who manages the group’s tree-planting efforts.

“All of the trees have some problems, and it’s best to work on them now,” said Tarver, who is a certified arborist in addition to having a master’s degree in urban forestry.

Pruning is an arborist’s main task after planting, trimming branches for clearance that would eventually cause damage to the urban infrastructure, Tarver said.

Excitement about science

As he works with Jamal, Akeem and the other young people participating in Urban Releaf, Tarver is intent on teaching them skills that they can one day use as professional arborists. But he also wants them to catch the excitement of all that science encompasses and understand the many benefits that trees offer for the urban environment.

“Trees in urban areas not only lower the temperature, draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen, they also result in reductions in respiratory illnesses like asthma,” Tarver said. “And they reduce the amount of surface water and pollutants that run into the bay.”

Trees planted in the urban landscape also yield countless economic and psychological benefits, including a stronger connection to the community, he said.

The land beneath what is now Oakland was once home to coastal prairie vegetation, oak woodlands and even redwood forests. But the California Gold Rush birthed a development boom that quickly consumed the native timber to build San Francisco and nearby cities.

Oakland’s history of losing trees

Trees were eventually planted to landscape the bustling East Bay community, but most were felled during the 1950s as streets were widened, and even more were removed for safety reasons during the 1980s, Tarver said.

Today, Martin Luther King Boulevard, stretching north to south through west Oakland, is urban forestry’s line of demarcation — you’ll find street-side trees planted to the east, but generally not to the west.

But Urban Releaf is beginning to turn that around, coordinating teams of community members to help plant trees and working with landlords, tenants, business people and politicians to support the effort.

The streets of Oakland are perhaps an unlikely place to find a young forester like Tarver, who with a soft smile admits to being “absolutely a tree hugger.”

“I grew up in Louisiana and lived just three houses from the forest,” he recalled. “The forest was where we went to play and look for adventure.”

Boy Scout campouts frequently took him into the forests of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, he said.

An epiphany about nature

“When I was 14, I was in Arkansas and had just a real epiphany that I wanted to someday work in nature,” he recalled. And, eventually, college studies and work would bring him full circle back to the forest — this time to the urban forest.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resource conservation from the University of Montana and went on to work on his master’s degree in urban forestry at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La.

During that time he attended an urban forestry conference in Washington, D.C., and there met Kemba Shakur, the spirited founder and director of Urban Releaf in Oakland and Richmond.

“He had my back,” said Shakur, recalling that Tarver supported her when she stood up before the predominantly white conference to ask why communities of color frequently lack trees.

Oakland job integral to research

The two would team up professionally in 2006 when Tarver’s academic career brought him to UC Davis to pursue a doctoral degree in nature and society geography through the Geography Graduate Group. He now lives in Oakland and works as Urban Releaf’s director of Urban Forest Education, an integral part of his doctoral research.

It’s an opportunity that has allowed him to build a bridge not only between UC Davis and Oakland, but also between the often theoretical realm of academia and the very real world, where the only intellectual discoveries that count are those that make a difference in people’s everyday lives.

“It’s a very different language and a very different environment in the community than it is at the university,” he said. “Discussions with my professors help me to bridge the two worlds.”

Tarver came to UC Davis to work on urban forestry issues with Greg McPherson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture urban forestry expert affiliated with the Department of Plant Sciences, and with water scientist Qingfu Xiao in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources.

Community development and social justice

Tarver's major adviser is Jonathan London, an assistant professor in the Department of Human and Community Development, and director of UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change.

“Gregory has developed close working relationships with community leaders, residents and youth,” London said. “He has a whole other level of trust and therefore access to be able to really understand what’s going on in the community in ways that someone who is doing what we call ‘drive-by’ research, wouldn’t be able to do."

He noted that Tarver’s melding of the social and biological sciences through studies of geography as well as forestry and urban forestry ecology “embodies that interdisciplinarity that UC Davis is so well known for and continues to innovate in.”

“I respect and admire Gregory for a number of different reasons,” London said. “He approaches his work with a tremendous sense of humanity and humility that allows him to connect in a very deep way with the people he is researching.”

Race, ethnicity and social class

“And he brings a very sophisticated analysis of race, ethnicity and social class, so his research is helping us understand the relevance of those factors for how sustainable or healthy those environments are,” said London, an authority on community development and social justice.

But to Tarver, the academic and community work is simply an ideal pairing that has allowed him to “have purpose and effect change, even if that change comes slowly.”

And change is definitely happening on the streets of West Oakland, where some of the trees planted by Urban Releaf have created new habitat for butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Thanks to the trees, songbirds also are now part of the urban environment where once only seagulls were seen, Tarver said.

Pat Bailey writes about agriculture and veterinary medicine for the News Service unit of University Communications.

Media contact(s)

Pat Bailey, Research news (emphasis: agricultural and nutritional sciences, and veterinary medicine), 530-219-9640,