An aerial view of trees and houses in San Jose
An annual study of disparity in Silicon Valley shows things have only gotten worse. File photo.

San Jose is about to get greener thanks to a federal grant to help expand its urban tree canopy.

The U.S. Forest Service awarded San Jose $6.6 million on Sept. 22 to plant, maintain and restore trees across the city. It’s part of a $1 billion program funded by the U.S. Inflation and Reduction Act giving San Jose and nine other Bay Area cities greenery grants, including $14 million for San Francisco and $8 million for Oakland.

The money will support planting and pruning thousands of trees in San Jose—mostly in areas where the tree canopy has dwindled due to development, failures in replanting trees and environmental stressors. About $1 million will aid vegetation management and wildfire mitigation efforts at Alum Rock and Overfelt parks through pruning, removing invasive trees and planting native, resilient trees.

San Jose’s tree coverage has dropped dramatically over the years. From 2012-2018, the city lost nearly three square miles of trees—a 1.5% overall drop in tree canopy. It disproportionately affected underserved areas such as East San Jose that already has fewer green spaces than other parts of the city.

“It gets less and less dense as you go farther east in general,” Colin Heyne, spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, told San José Spotlight. “Some of that is natural because it’s wetter and lusher to the west and it’s drier, hotter to the east. But we’re a city, this isn’t a wild area, we can control where trees go.”

San Jose’s tree canopy from the city’s Community Forest Management Plan and Urban Forestry Annual 2023 Report.

The urban canopy helps alleviate heat in the city, and can reduce, block or buffer air, noise and water pollution. This in turn can protect residents from pollution-related illness and boost overall quality of health, according to the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter.

A 2021 Nature Conservancy study based on satellite imagery from 2016 found that in 92% of U.S. urban areas surveyed, like New York City and Los Angeles, low-income areas had an average of 15% less tree cover than high-income areas, and were hotter by 2.7 degrees on average.

San Jose originally asked for more than $8 million to plant 3,000 trees and prune an additional 10,000 in the most underserved neighborhoods. Because the city only received $6.6 million, it is reevaluating how to approach this massive effort, Heyne said. The city will start planting and pruning by next summer and has five years to use the money.

The funds arrive as the city grapples with how to fix its broken tree management program, which aims to nurture San Jose’s 1.6 million trees and protect the health of the city’s urban forest.

A city audit in January found San Jose is mismanaging its urban forest. The city has failed to adequately track or verify that developers are replanting trees when required, as well as inconsistencies in tree removal permit reviews, according to the report. In 2018, the city started collecting in-lieu fees from developers that remove trees for projects. But of the total $1.5 million collected since then, only $88,000 has been spent. The remaining funds could replant about 2,000 trees.

A breakdown of tree coverage and collected in-lieu fees for replanting trees by council district. Image courtesy of San Jose.

North San Jose, represented by District 4 Councilmember David Cohen, has one of the lowest tree coverages in the city, according to the audit. As a result, Cohen took it upon himself to plant 1,000 trees across his district. Since April 2022, he and other residents have planted more than 600 trees. He said he has fundraised $60,000 from private sources, enough to exceed his goal over the next two years.

“I’m excited that the city has gone out and looked for other ways of funding this because one of the reasons we’re often behind is we don’t have enough money dedicated to tree planting,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “This is an indication that (the tree canopy) is taken seriously and progress is going to be made.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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