The History and Value of Volunteer Gardening in Berkeley's Traffic Circles

Nancy Carleton
Tuesday July 31, 2018 - 10:02:00 AM

Honorable Mayor and City Councilmembers:

I'm shocked and outraged to learn of the message received by neighbors living in the Le Conte neighborhood from Andrew Borzyna, Deputy Director of Public Works, announcing "the removal of any and all trees in traffic circles along with other vegetation that does not meet the required standards." The communication also apparently states that the city will "take over maintenance" and ban volunteers who have spent years caring for the traffic circles, often fundraising for the original and replacement landscaping over the past two decades. Existing mature landscaping would, under this draconian plan, presumably be removed to be replaced with bland and generic urban landscaping, destroying the community efforts of many years and stealing many of the much-loved trees and unique plantings that neighborhood residents have nurtured as part of ongoing efforts to beautify the city where we live. What a waste of our precious parks funding, which should be going to planting more trees, not cutting them down! 

This would be contrary to the multi-decade cooperation between the Parks Department and various "adopt-a-park" and "adopt-a-green space" groups across the city, whose volunteer "sweat equity" has allowed the city to stretch limited funds and to "green" underserved parts of the city. This cooperation goes back at least as far as the early 1990s, when I and others co-founded Berkeley Partners for Parks (BPFP) to encourage such partnership approaches. At the time, founders and members of BPFP met extensively with cou! ncilmembers, city staff, and members of the legal department to find ways to encourage, not discourage, volunteerism to enhance Berkeley's parks and green spaces. 

I'm sure many of you are aware that South Berkeley and parts of Central Berkeley are significantly lacking in terms of adequate green space and parks in comparison to North Berkeley and general urban standards, especially given the greater population density in these parts of town. The landscaped traffic circles in Le Conte, and landscaped features in other neighborhoods, including my own Halcyon neighborhood, where we created a park where there was once a parking lot -- Halcyon Commons -- and funded and created several nearby landscaped features, have represented a small gesture to redress this imbalance. It's absolutely unacceptable for a city that claims to have a green climate plan favoring increased planting of trees to treat mature landscaping, especially trees, so cavalierly. It's the antithesis of everything Berkeley claims to stand for. As someone who has chaired a couple of successful campaigns to secure and increase funding for Berkeley's parks, I can assure you that Berkeley's citizens are not interested in seeing a bland, cookie-cutter, suburban approach to our city's beloved landscaping! If you wish Berkeley voters to continue to vote to tax themselves to pay for parks and public landscaping, it's crucial that you respect the volunteers who help create and maintain them! Those should be your chief allies rather than be treated with the ultimate in disrespect and contempt! 

I ask the mayor and each city councilmember to make a referral to the city manager to place a moratorium on any destruction of landscaping and trees in the city's traffic circles and other landscaped features in our neighborhoods, especially those with a long track record of citizen i! nvolvement. Any new policies should be referred to the Parks Recreation and Waterfront Commission prior to substantive changes, with adequate notification of the public and the chance to hold public hearings prior to any such changes. This is definitely NOT a decision to be made at the staff level by Public Works. (Some of you may lack the historical knowledge that the Parks Department came into being when involved citizens refused to accept it merely being considered a subsidiary of Public Works; our Parks and urban landscaping deserve departmental status; they are not mere subsets of Public Works.) The relevant staff and associated commissions (Parks, Forestry, Public Works, Traffic) should be working directly with, at minimum, representatives from Berkeley Partners for Parks and the Le Conte Neighborhood Association, before any action is taken with regard to the much-loved plantings in the Le Conte traffic circles, especially the trees. I would also expect that the city's protection via ordinance for live oaks would be respected regardless (there are live oaks with greater than six-inch diameters in various plantings in Le Conte, Bateman, and Halcyon public landscaping, among others). 

Thank you for your prompt and urgent attention to this matter.