Santa Ana is one of many California towns rethinking their urban forests, a city’s portfolio of trees on sidewalks and public spaces that sequester carbon and keep neighborhoods cool on hot days.

Urban forests are seen as especially important for central Orange County’s built-out, densely-populated communities of working-class residents and heat islands, vulnerable to climate change and increasingly intolerable temperatures.

[Read: Are OC Officials Preparing Enough for Rising Temperatures? Garden Grove Next Week Looks to Trees]

Yet, when city staff last week presented their current, working plan for updating and maintaining Santa Ana’s urban forest, some publicly questioned whether City Hall’s preferred tree species can withstand drought and keep up with the community’s shade needs. 

“This tree list is disconcerting if you go through it,” said Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan during the council’s most recent meeting last Tuesday. 

Namely, she raised questions over the city’s choice of trees which aren’t native, are vulnerable to drought, provide little shade, and even damage cars and property with debris droppings. 

The city has approved 23 different species of trees which can be planted on city corridors and public areas, according to its working Urban Forest Management Plan

Of those, three are listed as “California Native,” 11 are not identified as “drought tolerant” and three are considered drought-tolerant “once established.”

Neighborhood along Alona street in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“As you all know, we are going through a water crisis and we really need to focus on plants that are drought-tolerant,” Phan said during the meeting, adding she’s also “very worried about trees that are merely ornamental or cause a lot of waste, trash, and destruction to both public and private property.”

She listed a few examples of tree types which she suggested staff “prune” from the list, “no pun intended.”

One suggestion was to remove Queen Palms. 

“I know everyone loves palm trees, we’re in Southern California, but palm trees in my opinion are somewhat ornamental, they don’t create shade, they’re actually dangerous when the Santa Ana winds come around and they’re not drought-tolerant,” Phan said. 

In a letter to the council before the Tuesday meeting, former city staffer and past council candidate Manuel Escamilla voiced a similar concern:

“We should remove Queen Palms as an acceptable tree. The City should move towards shade trees whenever possible and (transition) away from palms like those along Main Street.”

Escamilla also laid out concerns with the city’s parkway size restrictions, which limit the types and size of trees planted along sidewalks:

“The parkway size limits (5-8ft) seem to prevent pine trees from being planted on Pine Street,” he wrote. 

He added, “Very few areas within the City provide 8ft parkways required for the Camphor trees that are a great addition to Cypress Street. I believe it is worth moving towards wider parkway standards within new developments and during street redesigns.” 

A row of Indian Laurel Fig trees shields homes and pedestrians from the sun. Located on Flower Street in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Escamilla also suggested staff “undertake an analysis outlined by the USDA Forest Service of where the tree canopy is thriving and where investments need to be made.”  

That data from the U.S. Forest Service specifically looks at tree canopy coverage in different U.S. Census tracts, overlaid with data on other quality of life factors like socioeconomic status, air quality, and frequency of asthma-related hospital visits.

In one census tract spanning some parts of Santa Ana’s Madison Park neighborhood, 80% of the more than 5,674 people living there as of 2010 lived below two times the federal poverty level, while the tract has a 17% tree canopy cover in proportion to its total area.

In that same tract, more than half of emergency room visits per 10,000 people were for asthma-related problems between 2011 and 2013.

In a census tract spanning El Salvador Park and parts of the Artesia Pilar neighborhood, 88% of the 5,822 people living there lived below two times the federal poverty level, while the area has a 24% tree canopy cover, according to the data. 

In that tract, 40% of emergency room visits per 10,000 people were for asthma-related problems between 2011 and 2013.

“This should be a standard part of the Urban Forest Management Plan as our City undertakes efforts to mitigate heat island impacts,” Escamilla wrote.

Nabil Saba, the city’s Public Works Director, responded to the concerns at last Tuesday’s meeting by clarifying “this document is a working document, and we’re very much open to adding and taking out species that we don’t see fit or maybe want to change it to something else.”

He said there are currently 4,781 palm trees in the city, mainly along Broadway, and 4,188 Jacaranda trees — another species Phan took issue with for being a “nuisance” due to its flower droppings. 

Saba assured last Tuesday that staff was looking into more drought-tolerant, shade-providing species. 

“If we’re going to make that transition to a green city and have a more beautiful environment, we’re just going to have to make those hard decisions,” Phan said. 

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