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Urban Collaborative Project and Community Health Improvement Partners Empower Southeastern San Diego Through Tree Equity

Post Date:02/21/2024 3:30 PM

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Submitted by: Urban Collaborative Project and Community Health Improvement Partners 

How can the community work together to increase trees in Southeastern San Diego?

The Urban Collaborative Project hosts monthly community meetings where residents discuss priorities and solutions focusing on transportation, housing, and infrastructure in Southeastern San Diego. The intersection of health and the built environment is a recurring theme, especially the inequity of tree coverage in Southeastern San Diego when compared to other communities.

Overall, trees can play a big role in improving community health and the built environment. Growing trees can help mitigate public health and environmental health impacts caused by pollution, extreme heat events, and other sources. Trees provide clean air to breathe, carbon sequestration, environmental cooling, decrease mental stress and promote walking for exercise and recreation. Tree equity scores indicate that increasing tree canopies in Southeastern San Diego is a high priority when compared to other communities in San Diego.

To tackle this, Urban Collaborative Project decided to develop a Resident Leadership Academy (RLA) focusing on increasing trees in Southeastern San Diego in partnership with Community Health Improvement Partners, Tree San Diego, Kate Sessions Commitment, several subject matter experts, and passionate resident leaders.

Resident Leadership Academy

The Resident Leadership Academy is a model developed by Community Health Improvement Partners with the County of San Diego that empowers residents with the skills, tools, and leadership training needed to identify and effectively address neighborhood issues together. Aligning with these values, the Urban Collaborative Project recruited six (6) passionate leaders to participate in a RLA with the mission of cultivating their capacity as leaders, organizers, and advocates for trees in Southeastern San Diego. The RLA culminated with the planting of several trees within Southeastern San Diego.

The goals of the 2023 RLA cohort were as follows:

1. Increase trees in Southeastern San Diego to improve health and climate action in our community.

2. Advocate for tree equity in Southeastern San Diego by sharing information about our community's needs, including resources and tree maintenance alternatives.

The RLA cohort included residents from Emerald Hills, Valencia Park, Oak Park, and a tree advocate from Kate Sessions Commitment. Half of the participants were youth under the age of 18. The participants engaged in a tailored nine-week curriculum to learn from local government leaders, urban foresters, community organizers, and other subject matter experts from across the San Diego region on the topic of trees and community health.

Partners from the San Diego Urban Sustainability Coalition, Kate Sessions Commitment, Paradise Gardeners, and Tree San Diego covered topics involving environmental justice, tree maintenance, and advocacy.


The RLA cohort learned about the decades of financial disinvestment and inequitable policies that have resulted in Southeastern San Diego ranking amongst California's lowest when it comes to public and environmental health. Several of its neighborhoods fall within the bottom quartile of California’s Healthy Places Index and rank within the top 25th percentile of disadvantaged communities in CalEnviroScreen 4.0.

According to the San Diego Association of Governments, 48% of regional emissions of greenhouse gasses are sourced from on-road transportation (including light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles). Being that Southeastern San Diego has been heavily divided by highway infrastructure, its residents are further disproportionately impacted by air pollution and poor air quality.

Southeastern San Diego is also more vulnerable to the urban heat island (UHI) effect. The UHI is a concentration of higher temperatures within communities due to the absorption of heat by urban infrastructure. A 2021 study tracked heat in the City of San Diego at certain times of the day–the Southeastern San Diego community experienced elevated UHI when compared to other areas. Elevated heat can increase energy costs (e.g., for air conditioning), air pollution levels, and heat-related illness and mortality.

The RLA cohort also learned about Maintenance Assessment Districts which are needed to ensure street trees planted in the City of San Diego public right-of-way are properly tended. Seeing a roadblock with having to work through several Maintenance Assessment Districts to get this project off the ground, the RLA cohort decided to focus their climate action efforts on planting trees on school campuses.

The school campuses agreed to provide the necessary watering and maintenance of the trees to ensure that they can grow successfully once planted. The team also wanted to encourage climate action among youth in the community and improve the built environment that impacts youth daily.

RLA Tree Projects

The first RLA tree project began with the planting of two trees at Horton Elementary School in the Chollas View neighborhood, in partnership with Tree San Diego, who was able to provide the technical training and trees for the project.

With the first tree project being a success, the RLA team was determined to continue their efforts at another school. Two of the RLA participants were students from Gompers Preparatory Academy and wanted to increase trees on their campus and get other students involved. They worked with their school’s staff, Urban Collaborative Project, and Tree San Diego, to coordinate a tree planting project at the school.  The project was able to be completed in time to honor California Clean Air Day in October 2023 with the planting of 10 beautiful trees. This second project convened over 30 volunteers and supporters, including seven students from Gompers Prep Academy, along with a representative from the City of San Diego Planning Department.


Understanding Southeastern San Diego's climate and environmental justice needs through data and community voices, Urban Collaborative Project, teamed up with several partners to create an engaging RLA program that promoted community-led climate action, resident leadership, and capacity-building. Though the RLA has ended, the skills that the RLA Ambassadors learned will continue to serve them and their community as they keep on advocating for trees in Southeastern San Diego and other under-resourced communities.

Community-led urban greening, planning, and environmental justice action in Southeastern San Diego will continue in 2024 with the Urban Collaborative Project’s newly awarded Transformative Climate Communities Planning Grant from the Strategic Growth Council.

Additionally, any Southeastern San Diego school interested in planting trees at their campus with the RLA Ambassadors should contact the Urban Collaborative Planning team at Every tree counts!

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