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The Short Version: Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) unites thousands of people in a citywide effort to make San Francisco greener, one tree at a time. Every week, the nonprofit organization runs volunteer-driven programs, including neighborhood tree planting events, to ensure that the local tree population will grow and thrive for generations to come. Since 1981, FUF has planted over 60,000 trees and established a far-reaching network of helpful and friendly environmentalists. From its tree planting events to its tree landscaping programs, FUF fosters a healthy living space for trees as well as people throughout the city. You can get involved with the organization to make a difference in your local community and meet new friends or love interests who share your values.
When my great-uncle passed away last summer, everyone in the family traveled to Georgia to pay our respects and honor a long and well-lived life. Standing under a canopy of oak trees outside the church my great-uncle had helped establish in the ‘70s, my mom commented on what an incredible legacy he’d left behind.
“Yes,” my great-aunt said, gesturing around us, “he left us all this.” At first, I thought she’d meant our family, but then she clarified, “All these trees were planted by him. Years and years ago.”
We were stunned. About 20 trees surrounded and towered over us. They were beautiful guardians over the small church, and it warmed my heart to think of them as saplings in my great-uncle’s hands. Decades ago, he’d planted trees that would give shade, shelter, and joy to others long after he was gone. Those trees stand as a lasting legacy to his boundless compassion and tireless work ethic.
Along the busy streets of San Francisco, Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) is building an impressive legacy of its own by planting thousands of trees each year. San Francisco currently has over 120,000 street trees, but the nonprofit organization seeks to grow that number and support a healthier living environment in the big city. FUF’s staff members, interns, and volunteers plant over 1,500 trees each year and care for thousands more in a never-ending effort to make the world a little greener.
“Trees, to a large extent, are invisible to the public. Even though everybody likes them, they’re just taken for granted,” said Ben Carlson, the Public Relations Manager for Friends of the Urban Forest. “My job is to make trees interesting again and hopefully get you to notice them, appreciate them, and understand that they’re not just pretty — they’re also important to making the environment better.”
A diverse staff of certified arborists and administrators come together in a common cause to protect and grow the tree population in San Francisco. The field staff lead volunteer tree plantings in neighborhoods twice a month, and each event adds 30 to 40 new trees to the urban forest. The volunteer events offer a great way for environmentalists to give back to the community and meet people who have the same goals and values.
In addition to its volunteer work, Friends of the Urban Forest advocates for the welfare of San Francisco’s street trees. In the fall of 2016, the organization pushed for a ballot initiative that would create a dedicated funding stream for a municipal tree care program. Proposition E passed with over 78% of the vote. “Now tree survival should improve, and our urban forests can start to grow a little faster,” Ben said.
Whether they’re planting trees in a neighborhood park or fostering new growth in the ballot box, the Friends of the Urban Forest team works hard to ensure that the San Francisco tree population thrives for many years to come.
Unlike most of today’s developed cities, San Francisco didn’t have many trees to begin with — it was mostly sand dunes when settlers in 1776 founded the city. Its natural environment is challenging for tree growth because the soil is sandy, the Pacific gives off a salty breeze, and the summers are arid and unforgiving. Friends of the Urban Forest has had to scout around the world, from Italy to Australia, to find tree species that can stand up to such conditions. Its urban tree species directory goes into detail about the different types of trees scattered throughout the city.
“When planting an urban forest here, we were almost working from scratch,” Ben explained. “The fact is there are very few tree species that are native to San Francisco, and, for the most part, those species aren’t really suitable as street trees.”
FUF’s first tree planting event took place on March 7, 1981, in Noe Valley. Five men felt motivated to start the tree planting organization when San Francisco’s board of supervisors cut funding to urban forestry in the late 1970s. The tree plantings became a popular social opportunity to give back and beautify the city streets.
Today, Friends of the Urban Forest has planted over 60,000 trees and increased San Francisco’s tree canopy. Although the team has made significant progress, there’s still a lot more that can be done. Currently, San Francisco’s tree coverage is at about 13.7%, which is low for a big city, so the nonprofit has room to grow in neighborhoods, sidewalks, and even backyards throughout the city. “San Francisco is one of the less leafy of the major cities,” Ben said. “We’re stepping up where the city falls short.”
A recent citywide tree census identified approximately 40,000 tree-less sites where trees could potentially grow. That gives FUF a blueprint for what it needs to do in the future. By 2030, the organization plans to have planted trees in all those sites.
By building San Francisco’s green infrastructure and planting more trees, Friends of the Urban Forest does a lot of good for the city as a whole. Trees provide shade for pedestrians, clean the air, offer a habitat for wildlife, and decrease flooding by capturing stormwater when it rains.
Additionally, Ben told us that just looking at trees can improve people’s mental and physical health. “Research has found that trees improve people’s mental functions and reduce stress in all kinds of ways,” he said. “That’s just one of the many benefits of urban greening.”
FUF’s tree planting events provide unique social environments for dozens of tree lovers in San Francisco. Everyone goes through an orientation that morning, so all newcomers can learn how to plant a tree and ensure that it will have a long a healthy life. No prior knowledge or experience is necessary. The nonprofit provides all the tools and expertise from tree planting volunteer leaders who have worked with the organization for years.
Once the orientation is over, the volunteers divide into smaller crews of about a half dozen people. A lead volunteer will head up each crew and help people plant trees at designated neighborhood sites. Each crew will plant three to five trees in a single afternoon.
“It’s a great bonding experience,” Ben said. “It’s physical, but it’s something that most anybody can do. It doesn’t require superhuman strength, and we provide the tools.”
When the work is done, the volunteers gather together for a neighborhood potluck lunch thrown by the homeowners in the area. This casual get-together is typically held in someone’s backyard and is the neighborhood’s way of showing their appreciation for the volunteers’ efforts. Everyone there has something in common: They love trees and want to support the local environment.
“It’s an opportunity for all the volunteers to celebrate what they’ve accomplished together,” Ben said. “You’ll meet other friendly people, these are like-minded people who have an interest in nature and in beautifying their city”
You can check out FUF’s events calendar to find out about upcoming tree planting or tree care events and RSVP online as a volunteer if you want to get involved. While the tree planting is what FUF is most known for, the nonprofit also has programs to maintain the health of the city’s tree population by pruning, watering, and sometimes removing unhealthy trees. The organization’s volunteer-driven programs are perfect for anyone looking for an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.
Additionally, you can sign up for a free tree tour, led by a certified arborist, and take a comfortable walk through a San Francisco neighborhood and learn more about the trees that have grown there. It’s an interesting way to spend a morning and a great date activity for outdoorsy couples who want to take time to appreciate the green world around them.
Friends of the Urban Forest operates on a community model, so it relies heavily on individuals in the community to give their time to the cause of planting and caring for San Francisco’s trees. It’s a volunteer-driven effort that unites people from a variety of backgrounds. On the Friends of the Urban Forest’s Flickr page, you can read dozens of testimonials from volunteers ranging in age from teenagers to seniors.
“I like having trees in our city because they provide a peaceful and beautiful break from the hustle and bustle of our lives,” said Grace Swan-Streepy, a local volunteer.
Many volunteers show up at a FUF tree planting event as strangers and come away as friends who have accomplished something good together.
“Often we see volunteers who live in the neighborhood meet each other for the first time at the tree planting,” Ben said. “We think that’s good for neighborhood cohesion and pride.”
A tree planting leader named Albert Wald has worked with FUF for over a decade and said, “I love the sociability, love meeting the people committed to their communities and their street.”
Outdoorsy folks can enjoy the fresh air and get their hands dirty while working with a team of friendly and active people. It’s a social environment rich with dating opportunities, and Ben said he wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a few dates have sprung up as a result.
“FUF has a very good reputation in San Francisco,” Ben said. “People feel very appreciative when they stop and think about the city’s trees and realize there’s an organization watching out for them.”
“We just can’t say thank you enough!” said Lori Hébert and Thaddeus Homan in a testimonial. “This has been such a life-changing, street-transforming, neighborhood-lifting experience.”
“It’s rewarding to work for an organization that everybody has really positive feelings about,” Ben said. “We feel very proud as we go through the streets of San Francisco and see the results of our work. Because the work we do lasts for generations.”
The people we love root us to this world. Everything branching out from that love — our joys, our accomplishments, our families — adds beauty to our lives and creates a legacy that endures from season to season and from generation to generation. It’s a towering achievement, and it all starts with a single seed and someone, like my great-uncle, kind enough to plant it, nurture it, and watch it grow.
San Francisco residents can go to a Friends of the Urban Forest event to make a positive difference in the community and meet people who care about protecting the environment. And who knows? You might plant the seeds of a relationship that’ll last a lifetime. You never know what could grow from one afternoon of goodwill and friendship.
As Ben said, “One day, you plant a tree, and forever after, when you go down that street, you’ll notice that tree and be able to see it grow over the years and feel pride every time you see it. That’s one of the most satisfying things for our volunteers.”