Click photo to enlarge
Urban Releaf Executive Director Kemba Shakur is photographed at their office on 57th Street in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Shakur founded Urban Releaf 15 years ago. Their mission is to plant trees, create jobs, and further environmental education in low-income communities. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Seen from the sky, the patch of 31st Street near Market Street in North Oakland once revealed itself as a quilt of dusty brown, rooftop black and asphalt gray. Barely a dot of green could be seen and the neighborhood with some of the lowest incomes in the city looked as tended to as an empty lot.

Today, two long rows of Chinese pistache, Saratoga laurels and other tree varieties stand like a leafy oasis, one of dozens planted by the Oakland-based nonprofit Urban Releaf.

Founded in 1998 by Kemba Shakur, the organization has also created a generation of urban foresters who are positioned to become a key component in California's environmental and economic future.

On Thursday -- 15 years and 16,000 trees later -- Urban Releaf is celebrating its crystal anniversary at Geoffrey's Inner Circle.

"Every culture has a connection to trees. It's colorless because we all breathe the same air," Shakur said.

But not everyone fully understands the benefits, she said.

Trees are nature's filtration system, helping to keep air and water cleaner. They affect real estate prices, public health, noise and soil quality.

And, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nation's 3.8 billion trees in 2002 had an estimated asset value of $2.4 trillion.

However, the city fails miserably to meet its own climate action plan where trees are concerned even though Oakland has 2,500 acres of open space, including 100 parks, and California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene age, according to landscape historians.

On a USDA heat map of the state, Oakland is one of the cities with the lowest per-person tree covers per square foot.

So it's no coincidence, Shakur said, that seniors and children particularly in the least forested tracts (East and West Oakland, especially near the Port of Oakland) suffer high rates of asthma or that heat stroke in flatlands is a startlingly common killer.

"People say Oakland is a green city. But it's not," Shakur said.

Working as a corrections officer at Soledad Prison in the 1990s, she saw how lush and green it was there compared to Oakland.

The inmates came from neighborhoods where low incomes and what Shakur called "asphalt jungles" went hand in hand.

The solution: urban forestry, a way to improve urban environments and provide job skills.

"I really want to see people work," said Shakur, who grew up in San Francisco.

She recruits crews responsible for the organization's research projects and the work necessary for maintaining the trees -- watering, pruning, cleaning, inspecting. One of them, Timothy Hudson, 27, is preparing to get his arborist certification. He grew up watching his grandmother tend her backyard garden just up the block from Urban Releaf's 57th Street headquarters.

But in 1998, there was not a single tree on the block, not far from where Black Panther founder Bobby Seale lived for decades. The median income was $12,000 and most of the homes were owned by absentee landlords. By comparison, the wealthier districts like Rockridge, the Oakland hills and hamlets like Piedmont were an emerald explosion.

Now, the young professional couples buying up homes in neighborhoods like Shakur's are demanding tree-lined streets and have the political clout to see them planted. They're also making organizations like Urban Releaf more critical to the health of cities, according to the USDA and U.S. Forest Service.

The swell of urban centers will make careful planning and management of trees crucial, the government researchers wrote. About 80 percent of the country's residents already live in an urban center so the agencies recommended partnerships with urban forestry advocates.

Shakur started building those relationships years ago, like one of the first big plantings when she got then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to compete for the most trees planted in a day. "We won 'em," Shakur said, meaning Oakland. She built alliances that helped reduce polluted stormwater runoff from California's oldest urban watershed, the Ettie Street Watershed in West Oakland, by planting more trees.

The goal is to see a million planted by 2028, Shakur said.

"So this only feels like the beginning."

RELEAF
What: 15th anniversary and member appreciation party
When: Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m.
Where: Geoffrey's Inner Circle, 410 14th St., Oakland
Info: www.urbanreleaf.org