On any given weekend in San Francisco, they meet in a predesignated location, wearing adhesive tags with preferred first names and pronouns, hard hats and gloves. While working together and using equipment such as ladders, barrels, shovels, hammers, stakes and stake drivers for the task at hand, they chat, smile and laugh. They are Friends of the Urban Forest volunteers, from all walks of life, united in the effort to green the city by the Bay.

According to executive director Brian Wiedenmeier, the mission of Friends of the Urban Forest is simple: “It’s to connect people with nature and each other, to plant and grow and care for San Francisco’s trees and gardens.”

Friends of the Urban Forest volunteer Chris Weachock checks to see if stakes are firm around a tree planted in the Tenderloin’s Transgender District. (Photo by JL Odom)

The nonprofit organization founded in 1981 oversees the planting and ongoing care of trees, as well as the creation and subsequent maintenance of sidewalk gardens throughout the city. Since its inception, FUF has planted over 60,000 trees on San Francisco streets.

Notably, FUF focuses its plantings in areas that have a lower tree canopy — these locations are, correspondingly, where city residents encounter perceptible inequities.

Says Wiedenmeier, “It’s no accident that certain neighborhoods have less access to those resources and have higher rates of asthma. If you look back at the racist redlining maps from the 1920s and 30s and you overlay those with a map of San Francisco’s street tree canopy, it probably won’t surprise you to see that it matches up almost to the block.”

In wealthier neighborhoods where residents have better school and transportation options and where parks are a commonplace feature, the tree canopy is markedly more pronounced.

“So we’re really on a mission to expand those benefits where they’re needed most,” he adds.

With environmental justice, stewardship, community building and joy as its guiding values, FUF continually strives to have a positive impact on both living spaces and the environment. An expansive and dedicated network — including FUF staff and board members, San Francisco officials and residents as well as participants in FUF’s workforce development program — contributes to tree- and sidewalk garden-planting and upkeep.

Volunteers gather for a planting event in the Outer Richmond District. (Courtesy Friends of the Urban Forest) 

Wiedenmeier says, “We don’t do this work alone. Our collective impact model and our success depends on individuals and groups stepping up to volunteer, to donate financial support for our work and to advocate for their neighborhood and for their community. … We are able to accomplish more working together, organized and with one common goal, than any of us would be [if] doing this all separately on our own.”

At the FUF planting and care events that take place each month, volunteers establish personal, meaningful connections they may not have otherwise made. They converse with one another as they plant and tend to trees and gardens and also interact with passersby, who often pause to observe the process, ask questions and convey their support and appreciation.

From left, volunteers Jean Luc Reyes, Jeff Raymond and Steve Wasserman stake a tree on Jones Street in the Tenderloin during a Friends of the Urban Forest tree-planting event held in recognition of Transgender History Month in August. (Photo by JL Odom)  

As Wiedenmeier explains, “When we’re doing a community planting … neighbors are talking to each other, sometimes for the first time, taking shared ownership of that space that is public. So it’s about the connection to nature, but it’s also about the connection to other people and within communities and neighborhoods that is just as powerful to me.”

For ways to support Friends of the Urban Forest and its mission, go here:

https://www.friendsoftheurbanforest.org/support-us

Details about upcoming Friends of the Urban Forest volunteer opportunities are here: https://www.friendsoftheurbanforest.org/volunteer-opportunities