Petaluma’s Youth Plant Trees to Reduce Air Toxics

The Mayors Innovation Project, in partnership with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, provided grants to cities across the country to work toward better health outcomes for children. We are excited to share the story of one of our grant recipients, Petaluma, CA.

By Cindy Chong | Superintendent of Parks & Facilities  City of Petaluma, CA

In the City of Petaluma’s McDowell neighborhood, lack of affordable housing creates hardships for families, and 92% of the residents are socially and economically disadvantaged. Many McDowell families are forced to share homes, and it’s not uncommon for a family to live in just one bedroom.

Low-income parents often work multiple jobs and are unable to take their children out during the weekends. Since many of their homes lack usable outdoor space, the only time many McDowell students spend outside is when they are at school.

What’s the Solution?

Project partners came together to “give a little love” to the 12-acre McDowell School and Park land to create a welcoming haven of green space for community members.

This was no small challenge: the school and park are next to a 20-acre shopping center with massive asphalt parking lots — just 340 yards from Highway 101 and. The site fronts one of the city’s busiest commercial thoroughfares, filled with heavy bus and truck traffic.

Despite this location, McDowell Park is almost entirely used for youth baseball and soccer. Due to the outdoor temperatures reaching 105 degrees or more and the heavy use by children, this park is a clear case of environmental justice — that is fixable.

Our team set out to plant 125 native trees (86 canopy shade trees and 37 smaller trees or large shrubs). Increasing tree canopy dovetails with several strategic goals of the City of Petaluma, making this project funded by Healthy Babies Bright Futures and the Mayors Innovation Project a terrific fit.

A key project partner is the ReLeaf Petaluma and their Teen Tree Corps. ReLeaf Petaluma mentors teens in the discipline of urban forestry. Members of the Teen Tree Corp are recruited and supervised by our social services partner and engage in training, mentoring, and field experience. As often as possible, teen projects include a picnic lunch with volunteer urban forestry professionals.

What’s Happened So Far?

As Wendy from ReLead Petaluma says, “We are changing the Park and School for future generations. It took a lot of collaboration but what we are creating is a better space for the children.” We planted most of the trees in early February. The school and park were abuzz with activity all day as we spread across the two sites to plant trees. Tree stewards are now overseeing the trees for three years until they are established. We will continue to work with ReLeaf Petaluma and Petaluma City Schools to plant more trees at the McDowell School by coordinating asphalt removal.

How Can Other Cities Replicate this Project?

It starts with one conversation, a brainstorm session, and the coordination of several different organizations. Our recipe for change is:

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Find funding.
  3. Lay out the plan and timeframe.
  4. Research and procure the trees.
  5. Hold a train the trainer session on how to properly plant and support trees.
  6. Schedule regular maintenance schedule.
  7. Plan for community outreach to get the word out and gather volunteers.
  8. Planting day coordination.
  9. Follow up post planting day and clean up.
  10.  3 year steward program to periodically check and prune trees.

We found that consistent small steps help move the project along. And collaboration is essential! Don’t hesitate to teach out to local professionals who are willing to volunteer their services such as Arborists and Landscape Architects to help with the design and planning phase. Last but not least, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here in Petaluma with any questions.