A scrawny fern pine seedling doesn’t look much like a traditional Christmas tree, but for the past several years, it’s the type of potted tree that Friends of the Urban Forest, a San Francisco nonprofit, has loaned out to residents for the holidays. In January, the live trees are returned to the nonprofit and eventually planted on city streets.
“Many people don’t want to invest in a tree that is just going to ultimately add to the waste stream, and they’re excited about the possibility of a live tree that they know is going to be planted,” says Karla Nagy, a program director at Friends of the Urban Forest. “You can buy a live Christmas tree at Home Depot—it’s not something new—but where are you going to plant that tree? In San Francisco, most people have tiny backyards, and they don’t have a place to plant a pine tree that’s going to get quite large—and may not even survive in San Francisco at all.”
Urban trees can improve air quality, reduce diseases like asthma, fight climate change, make people happier, and even make people feel younger. They can also help reduce the urban heat island effect, the fact that pavement-filled cities tend to be hotter than greener areas. But for these effects to work, cities should have a tree canopy that covers 40% of the city. In San Francisco, the number is only 13.7%, far less than some other major cities in the U.S.
San Francisco doesn’t naturally have a lot of trees—before it was developed, the area was much more open, with shrubs more common than larger trees. But given its current state of development, adding trees makes sense. In 2014, the city set a goal to plant 50,000 new trees over the next 20 years, but it isn’t on track. Last year, only one more tree was planted than the number of trees that were removed.
The nonprofit chooses trees from areas with similar climates that can survive long periods of drought. “Often, many of the trees that we lend out are like Charlie Brown Christmas trees,” says Nagy. “They’re a little gawky, they might have just a few branches, and most of them look nothing like a Christmas tree. So we’re targeting people who can think outside the box of what a holiday tree looks like.”
“I think it’s a great way to introduce people to urban forestry and the importance of street trees,” she says. “It’s a way to connect with people on a different level than planting trees in front of their house.”