By Juliana Gonzalez
In 2014, my journey into the world of urban forestry in Richmond began with the concerted act of planting trees in neighborhood spaces. This endeavor was a collective approach by several non-profit organizations in Richmond looking to partner with the city to plant 10,000 trees and seed an urban forest. This initial plan was a wonderful learning opportunity for all of the partners as we advanced in our efforts to implement the urban greening master plan laid out by the coalition of organizations and the city.
We learned a lot from that initial effort and took note of the key elements necessary to start a similar program in neighboring communities such as unincorporated North Richmond or El Sobrante. The Watershed Project planted the first few trees in North Richmond in 2015 and started looking for funding to pilot an Adopt-A-Tree program in the subsequent years. Contra Costa County was interested in a small-scale effort but was unsure about assuming a large-scale program to increase and manage its urban forest.
The community was also unsure about the benefits of urban trees. Despite the evident positive impact, some residents still harbored safety concerns, viewing trees as potential hiding spots for undesirable elements, while others feared the perceived burden of care and maintenance. These types of comments highlighted the importance of starting an educational effort to foster a deeper understanding of the crucial role of trees in our community and of involving community residents in the planning and implementation of an urban forestry plan for the neighborhood.
In 2017, The Watershed Project partnered with Contra Costa County to pilot a partnership with non-profit organizations, to make North Richmond Greener. This innovative project was recently completed in 2023 and was designed to help link the community with its green spaces through elements that serve to enhance the health of both residents and San Pablo and Wildcat Creeks, while also improving access to local natural resources and community amenities.
The North Richmond Watershed Connections project offered a vivid demonstration of how taking an integrated approach through installing green infrastructure (GI), increasing the urban tree canopy, and improving both walkability and bicycle access through a public/nonprofit partnership, creates a community-based model for cultivating watershed stewardship, community resilience, and “place-making” that can be replicated in other communities around Contra Costa County.
Blueprint for a Greener Future:
Today we have two great accomplishments to celebrate. First and foremost we are proud to share that the North Richmond Watershed Connections project, a partnership between The Watershed Project, Urban Tilth, and the County, recently received the Contra Costa County Watershed Forum Award for Outstanding Watershed Project. This initiative not only invested in greening infrastructure but also in people, uniting different partners to create a shared vision for a greener, more walkable, and livable neighborhood. Through engaging conversations, storytelling, and multimedia projects, including a storybook for elementary school students and art installations, we have successfully activated an urban nature loop, allowing community members to explore their neighborhood’s natural and cultural history.
Our second announcement is that the Contra Costa Sustainability Commission has voted to incorporate an urban forestry program for Envision Contra Costa 2040 and is taking the North Richmond Adopt-A-Tree and urban forestry neighborhood implementation toolkit as a model to draft a comprehensive plan for the County. In the last few years, we have tested the model, inventoried the existing trees and mapped the planting opportunities, selected viable species to plant along the sidewalks. created a work plan, installed the first 50 trees, hired interns and community members to help implement the plan, and developed a maintenance and operations plan. As a result, the Urban Greening Master Pan and Neighborhood Implementation Toolkit created by The Watershed Project (2023) serves as a blueprint for transforming our urban areas of Contra Costa County into vibrant, green spaces that benefit both the environment and the community.
As we think about our future and the perils of climate change, we are committed to helping develop a viable model for urban forestry that employs local people, partners with neighbors, and educates our youth as we work together to enhance the beauty of our neighborhoods, improving air and water quality, and providing numerous benefits for years to come. This way we are laying the groundwork for a greener future as we plant not only trees but seeds of understanding, community engagement, and deeper relationships with the land.