The Sacramento Tree Foundation played a critical role helping the capital city earn the City of Trees moniker. Filling the shoes of longtime executive director Ray Tretheway is Jessica Sanders. Sanders will soon be moving to Sacramento from Washington, D.C., where she served as director of Science and Policy at Casey Trees.
She recently spoke with CapRadio about what she hopes to achieve in her new role, including addressing issues of equity and climate change.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
On her background and her vision for Sacramento
Yeah, so Sacramento is known as the city of trees, and it is a lovable city partially because of those trees. My background is I have a Ph.D. in urban and community forestry and I want to stress the community portion of that. I've done work all over the East Coast with trees, but I'm excited to come to a West Coast city.
My vision for the Sacramento urban forest focuses on three central themes. The first is community engagement and public input. I want to live in a city where nature is demanded by communities as an essential part of their daily lives. It's not just a vacation, but I want to create inclusive spaces, spaces where communities feel engaged and included in the urban forestry process. Trees should be used to create not only livable cities but also livable cities. People should walk outside and see trees as part of the place that they live in.
My second being is about trees being fundamental city infrastructure. We need to require them for healthy communities. They shouldn't be an amenity that's first cut, but they should be seen as an essential part of a resilient, sustainable city.
Lastly, I really want to focus on the people and that's the most important part. We want a future generation of engaged and informed residents. We want to diversify partnerships across urban forestry to understand, engage, and promote the value of trees. Not everyone is going to value a tree the same way. We want to make sure to listen and understand where people are coming from when they're thinking about trees. That's my big vision for Urban Forestry in Sacramento.
On how she’ll bring equity to Sacramento’s neighborhoods through the foundation
The first thing is that it's not just about coming into a neighborhood and putting trees in. That doesn't solve the problem. That actually creates another problem. We don't want green gentrification. What we want is an equitable community solution. That comes from actual community engagement and listening to what people who live there, what they want.
What I've found is that most people who aren't inherent tree lovers just aren't thinking about trees. If you think about the different needs that you have as a human, you need shelter, you need food, you need to feel safe. And if you don't feel those parts, how can you be thinking about trees? It's really working through partnerships and with the communities to make sure that, one, the community is engaged, that they want trees. And if they don't want trees working together to figure out what are the barriers. Is the barrier having to do with, well, “We don't want to rake leaves that takes up too much time?” Is the barrier “we're concerned about paying to water our tree?” What are these barriers and how do we work together to solve them, not to just come in and say, "you don't like trees, therefore you're a bad human being?" That's not the goal. That's not the solution. The solution is really working to get trees and to get services to the places that need them and the places that maybe don't even realize that a tree could really help change the way that their place feels.
On the role of the foundation in combating climate change
We want to think about climate change and we also want to think about climate resilience. In California, what climate change looks like is hotter summers, boom and bust rainfall. We're going to see increasing wildfires that devastate areas. Trees can combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. Then they store the carbon in their wood. They also lower temperatures by cooling buildings, absorbing heat from surfaces.
The tree foundation participated in a study with Dr. Vivek Shanda to learn that well-canopied Sacramento neighborhoods can actually be about 20 degrees cooler on a hot summer afternoon, then neighborhoods that have fewer trees and a lot of asphalt. This also plays back into the equity issue, right? If you're living in an area that's really hot, it's called an urban heat island. All sorts of health issues come with urban heat islands. You are likely to experience different health effects, heat stress, heatstroke, and trying to make sure that we're targeting our plantings and targeting our trees not only to deal with equity but also to deal with climate. Trees are the original multitasker. Trees can actually absorb soot from wildfires. Just one tree can contribute to a cooling effect for the entire neighborhood. The tree that is planted in your area could benefit your family, but it also benefits the entire community.
The time to act is really now. We had the mayor's Commission on Climate Change and they set ambitious tree canopy goals 25% by 2035 and 35% by 2045 in the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento. That calls for planting of 500,000 new trees starting in the most under-canopied neighborhoods. We really need to start planting those trees and to start thinking about how our tree canopy works across our city and across our region. That starts with individuals getting to know about trees. Sacramento Tree Foundation really plays a large part in educating and growing and planting for the future.
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