How community leaders are putting the oaks in North Fair Oaks

by Ajay Ravi on May 14, 2023

On a chilly December morning in 2020, five people gathered at 3037 Waverly Avenue in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood (pictured top). They stood on grass resembling a tattered quilt — patches of pale yellow and green loosely stitched together, surrounded by holes of moist soil. They’d brought shovels, spades, mulch, and a black lab. One of them clutched a strawberry tree trunk with leather gloves, nestling the tree in a hole.

These planters were volunteering with Canopy, a mid-Peninsula urban forestry nonprofit providing free trees to communities lacking green spaces. Canopy’s event offered hope for a community plagued by redlining’s consequences: poor housing infrastructure, limited healthcare access, inadequate educational funding, and extreme heat from tree shortages. The last of these motivated Canopy’s planting.

North Fair Oaks is hotter than its next-door neighbor Atherton by up to 10 degrees — the difference between Atherton’s spring and summer—according to Climate Resilient Communities (CRC), an environmental justice nonprofit serving the Peninsula’s redlined communities.

This heat disparity affects NFO residents like Gabriela Valencia, who has lived in NFO for 27 years and is treasurer of NFO Community Alliance (NFOCA), a grassroots organization promoting NFO’s civic representation.

Gabriela grew up in a region of Mexico so famous for its heat it was called Hot Land (Tierra Caliente). Even so, she finds NFO’s heat unbearable: “When the sun is out, it hits my body the whole time. It feels like my skin is burning.”

Gabriela is not alone: NFO’s 14,000 residents suffer from extreme heat. Caroline Beckman, CRC’s program manager, attributes the problem to historical redlining and disinvestment.

NFO was originally part of present-day Atherton in what was called Fair Oaks. Caroline says, “When neighboring city Atherton incorporated in 1923, this majority-Latinx community was intentionally omitted from the new city boundaries.” NFO would occupy an area bordering Redwood City, Atherton, and Menlo Park on the east side of El Camino Real — a geographically distinct area from unincorporated Atherton and Menlo Park, which are west of NFO.

Immediately after Atherton’s incorporation, as a 2019 UC Berkeley report illustrates, the town established a racially exclusionary zoning ordinance requiring minimum lot sizes of one acre.

The majority-Latinx community has paid a heavy price ever since.

According to policy advocacy nonprofit Brightline Defense, NFO’s unincorporated status means it lacks a city council and is county-governed. Canopy advocacy associate Maya Briones suggests that the county has neglected NFO’s basic infrastructure needs, leaving NFO with fewer trees than Atherton.

NFO’s canopy shortage makes the community vulnerable to climate change. According to the EPA, trees help reduce air pollution, sequester carbon, and lower temperatures.

Recognizing trees’ environmental benefits in 2020, NFO community leaders responded with a reforestation initiative that organized planting events from September 2020 to March 2023.

NFOCA president Ever Rodriguez explains, “It is important to start promoting environmental friendliness at the local level, with easy, doable actions.”

Before planting had begun, Maya knocked on residents’ doors and asked whether they want free trees.

It wasn’t easy. “Getting the door opened and convincing them we’re offering free service was hard,” Maya recalls.

Mistrust has been observed in other redlined communities’ reforestation initiatives. As Baltimore and Detroit studies reveal, many residents thought tree planters marginalized their communities by excluding them from decision-making processes. Few redlined communities have overcome this challenge. NFO is one of them, thanks to the support of CRC and NFOCA.

According to Caroline, “CRC sets up tables on weekends where [staff members] talk with residents about projects like tree planting and how they can get involved.”

CRC’s and NFOCA’s people-first approach helped Maya get past the resident’s door. But she subsequently encountered additional challenges.

One was tree selection. According to Maya, Canopy’s funding only permitted the planting of shade (e.g., oak) trees, which lower temperatures more than fruit trees.

However, many residents preferred fruit trees. Gabriela says, “Canopy didn’t know what the community wanted. Culturally, a lot of residents, including myself, love fruit trees and shade.” Canopy has responded by giving residents a fruit tree for every shade tree accepted.

Another challenge faced by the tree-planting initiative is county policy.

Maya says, “Many residents were interested in street trees, as there were existing planting strips,” referring to dirt patches between the street and sidewalk. “We couldn’t offer these trees because our tree species list didn’t match the county’s list of approved trees.” In response, Canopy, CRC, and NFOCA have been proposing policy changes in county meetings.

Last Thanksgiving, I visited 3037 Waverly Avenue, where I saw the strawberry tree thriving. I saw that its sturdy branches had multiplied. I saw the trunk was nearly as straight and thick as the wooden handle of the shovel that the planters brought. And I saw berries glistening pink-red under sunlight that broke through the clouds.

This strawberry tree is one of 75 flourishing trees planted by Canopy, CRC, and NFOCA, whose staff hope the canopy will promote NFO’s well-being.

“I would love to see more trees in [NFO] because I can see and feel the difference,” Gabriela says. “My dream is that I wouldn’t see a difference in canopy between one area of the Peninsula and another.”

Though optimistic, community leaders face an uncertain future. According to Maya, the trees’ funding expired last month, and finding financial support is challenging.

Fortunately, our community can help to sustain the initiative’s future. Donate to Canopy here and CRC here. Consider also advocating for tree planting at 9:00 am county meetings on Wednesdays in the Redwood City County Center.

NFO resident Nick Peters says, “Because NFO is an unincorporated area, a lot of the change and movement that we need to make as a community requires true neighborliness and people really talking together.” Canopy, NFOCA, and CRC are making that happen. Let’s join them.

A graduate of Sacred Heart Prep, Ajay Ravi is currently a senior majoring in Materials Science & Engineering at Stanford who also conducts environmental justice research.

Top photo courtesy of Canopy; second photo by Ajay Ravi

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