San Diego’s Tree Canopy Needs a Boost: The Journey to a Greener City

San Diego’s Tree Canopy Needs a Boost: The Journey to a Greener City

In a Facebook group for San Diego moms, there has been a growing concern about the lack of shade at playgrounds. The scorching temperatures and direct sun exposure are causing discomfort and worry for parents like Erica Keller, who has a family history of skin cancer. But the issue of San Diego’s missing tree canopy goes beyond just playtime. It has become a matter of public health and climate resilience.

The city set a goal in its 2015 Climate Action Plan to increase its tree canopy coverage from 13 percent to 15 percent by 2020. However, even after seven years, little progress has been made. Some areas, like Barrio Logan, have as little as 1 percent canopy coverage. In response, the city has set even more ambitious goals in its updated 2022 Climate Action Plan. It aims to more than double its tree canopy coverage to 28 percent by 2030 and 35 percent by 2035, which translates to planting approximately 8,300 trees per year.

While funding and support for tree planting seem promising, there are several challenges standing in the way. A lack of maintenance, limited water resources, and limited green space are just a few of the logistical and environmental hurdles to overcome. To ensure the success of tree planting efforts, long-term funding and commitment are essential. Trees take at least 40 years to reach their maximum benefits, but the average tree lifespan in southern California is only 7-9 years. This short life span can be attributed to the lack of ongoing care and maintenance.

Finding space to plant trees is another obstacle. With much of the city already developed, there is limited room for mature trees to thrive in the urban landscape. This is especially critical as urban heat islands pose a significant health risk, particularly to vulnerable populations like the unsheltered. Access to shade is part of a harm reduction approach for the unsheltered population, helping to mitigate the health complications and mental stress caused by extreme weather events.

In addition to planting trees on public property, it is crucial to involve private landowners. However, finding individuals and organizations committed to the lifelong care and maintenance of trees has proven to be challenging. Furthermore, renters make up a significant portion of households in San Diego, and they often lack the authority or stability to plant trees and maintain them.

Water expenses and drought conditions have also deterred residents from considering tree planting or properly caring for existing trees. However, Tree San Diego, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the city’s urban forest, believes that these concerns may be overblown. With the proper selection of drought-tolerant trees and irrigation systems, young trees can thrive with less water than anticipated.

Despite these challenges, there is hope on the horizon. CAL FIRE has made $117 million available in grants for greening schoolyards, which will contribute to the city’s tree planting efforts. This funding will not only enhance the well-being of children but also contribute to achieving the Climate Action Plan goals.

The journey to a greener San Diego may require breaking some cement, as Kurt Peacock from Tree San Diego suggests. Overcoming the logistical and environmental challenges will take time and effort. However, with increased funding, community involvement, and a commitment to ongoing care, San Diego can make significant progress in expanding its tree canopy. Creating a city with ample shade, healthier residents, and improved climate resilience is a collective effort that requires everyone’s support.

To explore more tips and resources on tree planting and care, visit Tips Tree Planting. Let’s work together to make San Diego greener, one tree at a time.

Correction: A previous version of this story described Kurt Peacock as a city arborist. He is an arborist with Tree San Diego, a nonprofit group.