Urban Releaf: Improving The Environment & Reducing Racial Stressors In Oakland

July 18, 2012
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Kemba Shakur, founder of Urban Releaf. Photo Credit: Chronicle/Michael Macer

Concrete sidewalks offer little inspiration for environmental awareness or creating a positive effect on race relations in a community. Their chief duty is for pedestrian transportation, and the maze design is not aesthetically pleasing or a respite from the city streets. A concrete wilderness is ideal to navigate through a confusing city, but these urban trails cannot connect all the needs of the people in a bustling thoroughfare.

A new project is helping kids with on-the-job training while also enhancing low-moderate income neighborhoods and promoting environmental knowledge in the middle of the city. Urban ReLeaf began in Oakland, California and over 4000 youth now take part in planting trees in appreciation of their neighborhoods, as well as educational experiences for populations of largely minority kids.

Kemba Shakur moved to Oakland 15 years ago and decided to change a city absent of trees, according to Crystal Ross O’Hara in the article “Urban ReLeaf.” Founded by Shakur in 1999, Urban ReLeaf began in an area known as the “flatlands,” an area of Oakland congested with freeways, industrial sites, and escalating racial issues caused by the urban setting. To combat the pollution, unemployment, and concrete desert, the program now plants 600 trees annually in the city.

Through planting trees and caring for the growing sprouts, studying soil pollution reduction, air and water quality, entering GIS data, and preventing erosion, Shakur identifies the work youth put into Urban ReLeaf as supplying a valuable experience — a necessary tool for employment. O’Hara says, “Shakur believes more job opportunities for young people could stem the tide of violence.”

altPlanting trees also offers participants pride in their neighborhoods, and by putting in their own sweat, the trees become a symbol of their community and their ability to start and complete a task that improves their lives. In an NBC Nightly News broadcast “From Concrete Jungle to Urban Oasis,” on April 25, 2012, Robert Bazell reports that the program inspires an interest in forests, and Marcus Evans, an Urban ReLeaf volunteer, says the program is a way to make Oakland better. In 12 years, the project planted over 15,000 trees.

The South Carolina Forestry Commission finds that trees screen callous city scenes, soften masonry, glass, and metal, provide colorful flowers and shapes, and supply continuity in the landscape, which affects peoples’ emotions and moods. The Commission report states that trees generate feelings of well-being and relaxation, as well as offer a spot for privacy, which invokes security and an important feeling of solitude.

Gregory Tarver, a forestry expert who educates kids on the benefits of trees, explains that a tree reduces heat by decreasing the ambient temperature, making cities cooler and the air fresher. Planting shade trees over sidewalks reduces the heat that rises due to the absorption of the sun’s rays from the asphalt, and with less energy use, the environment improves even more after the trees remove carbon dioxide from the air.

The Urban ReLeaf project in Oakland is igniting similar programs in San Francisco and neighboring California cities. The benefits of trees are contagious and Shakur’s ultimate goal is to have a self-sustaining tree planting program in Oakland. The former prison guard’s Urban ReLeaf project is currently sustained through volunteers, grants, state and federal agencies, and private donors.

From the inner-city of Oakland, Shakur found a way to find the beauty of the city. It wasn’t in the traditional streets and sidewalks. The beauty was found in the people living in those once graffiti filled and absent of pride streets in the neighborhood. Trees sparked self-respect, and the people of Oakland grew from the Urban ReLeaf roots that now strongly bind the community.


Benefits of Urban Trees. The South Carolina Forestry Commission: USDA Forest Service April 1990. Retrieved from: http://www.state.sc.us/forest/urbben.htm

O’Hara, Crystal Ross. Urban ReLeaf. California ReLeaf. Retrieved from: http://californiareleaf.org/releaf-at-work/urban-releaf

Williams, Brian & Bob Bazell. From Concrete Jungle to Urban Oasis. NBC Nightly News. NBCUniversal Media, LLC. 04/25/2012. Retrieved from: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=58380