Organic Consumers Association

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Urban Releaf: How One Community Group Is Saving Urban Neighborhoods and Creating Jobs While Sequestering CO2

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Organic Transitions page.

After working in Soledad Prison in the Salinas Valley, Kemba Shakur moved to North Oakland and realized the prison grounds were more attractive than many of the treeless neighborhoods throughout her city. She decided to change this by planting trees, not only to improve the landscape but also the quality of life.

"The conditions that you see here on the Oakland streets are a lot of young people hanging out on corners, idle, with no jobs, underemployed and a terrible education...but then at the end of the day they are blamed. So, I wanted to do something to give people jobs as well as make them stewards of their own environment," Shakur explains.

In 1999, Shakur founded Urban Releaf, a non-profit organization dedicated to planting trees in the urban landscape of Oakland as well as providing job training and education for local youth. The organization focuses its efforts primarily in East and West Oakland, otherwise known as the "flatlands" because of their geographic and socio-economic contrast to the nearby "hills" (where there is an abundance of trees - and wealth). Since 1999, Urban Releaf has planted 15,600 trees and worked with over 4,000 youth through their Urban Forestry Education program.

Urban Releaf is not merely a response to unattractive city streets (common not just to Oakland but to disadvantaged places nationwide) but also to the environmental hazard known as the "heat island effect." This dangerous situation is common in urban areas in which there are few trees and an abundance of dark or cement surfaces that radiate heat and increase the temperature above those of surrounding areas - a dangerous duo when combined with more extreme heat waves associated with climate change.

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