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The threat of climate change and rising temperatures in Orange County will directly impact homeless people, seniors and low-income residents who live in units with poor or no air conditioning.

Local officials are looking at one way for urban areas, which could see hotter temperatures become more intolerable in the coming years, to address these threats: 

Trees. 

In Garden Grove, the issue — and a long-term, strategic guide for funding, maintaining and planting more trees in the city over the next 40 years — will come before City Council members on Tuesday.

Not only do trees provide shade and cover to residents, outdoor workers and the homeless — they also sequester carbon, help combat pollution, contribute to mental health in park-poor or highly urbanized areas, and curb stormwater runoff, which can cause flooding and damage property.

In a 2019 report, Orange County Grand Jurors warned there aren’t enough trees in some parts of the county that are partial to “large parking lots and blocks of concrete buildings,” which “create heat islands that keep releasing heat after sundown,” thus “night time temperatures are elevated.”

“However, a canopy of well-maintained trees provides shade during the day, captures carbon dioxide, filters out dust and serves as a habitat for wildlife,” the Grand Jury wrote that year, adding that trees help to cool such heat islands.

Garden Grove officials next week, as a result, will face questions about how they plan to invest in such a resource, and whether their long term plans will adequately stem the tide of dangerous temperatures.

City Council members will decide Tuesday whether to adopt a new “Urban Forest Management Plan,” which, as it’s currently written, lays out officials’ plans to address some of those issues. Click here to read it.

An “urban forest” is known among planners as a city’s portfolio of trees in public spaces and community areas, excluding trees in private property.

Garden Grove’s average number of trees per resident, 17 trees per 100 residents, is lower than the county’s average of 22 trees per 100 residents, according to city data.

And since the 2008 recession, budget cuts have reduced staff in Garden Grove’s Trees Division and disrupted efforts to plant new and replacement trees, officials say.

Meanwhile, many of the city’s mature trees have been removed over time, and the ability to replant them faces barriers through insufficient staff and funding, officials say, as well as long-term maintenance costs and limited space for planting.

As “infrastructure conflicts” persist and the city’s current roster of trees age, officials predict more frequent tree maintenance will be required, according to the city’s draft plan. 

Tree services accounted for less than 1% of Garden Grove’s annual city budget between 2005 and 2018.

OC Grand Jurors, in their 2019 report, found that “urban forestry budgets in Orange County cities ranged from $20,000 to over $1.8 million, and per capita spending ranges from $1.26 to $9.19.”

The proposed plan lays out what officials say are key priorities among residents and stakeholders, which include more care of trees along streets, regular tree inspection, increasing the city’s overall canopy coverage and revamping irrigation, among other things. 

Though there are things to be optimistic about, according to the city’s plan: 

Planting in the city has increased in recent years from around 50 trees to 520 trees per year.

There’s also a real dollar value to some of the benefits that come with trees.

Annually, trees in Garden Grove’s public areas provide environmental benefits to the community valued at $125,795 — or an average of $7.31 per tree — according to the city’s Urban Forest Resource Analysis from 2020. 

“Over half of the environmental benefits are attributed to pollution removal at $74,381, with carbon sequestration at $45,426, and avoided stormwater runoff at $5,987,” the report reads. “These conservative estimations are for only community trees and do not include the benefits from trees located on private property.”

Officials will face challenges to these efforts when it comes to public safety and the hazards presented by things like fallen trees and roots coming out of sidewalks, grand jurors warned in their report — as well as cities’ limited jurisdiction over their urban forests when large swathes of their towns consist of private property. 

One goal outlined in Garden Grove’s proposed plan includes public outreach. 

One person’s comments taken during past outreach campaigns, included but not named in the report, stated: 

“The city desperately needs more trees, having grown up in Lakewood/Long Beach I was shocked by the lack of trees here when I moved here. Poor urban areas like Compton and Watts have similarly sparse trees, conversely areas like Rossmoor and Pasadena have numerous trees.” 

“What kind of city do we want to be?”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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