Before 1900, native oaks were abundant in many of California’s valleys. These trees thrived on hot open plains, enabling them to endure California’s long dry season and frequent drought. Oaks also played a foundational role for an exceptionally diverse array of native wildlife, reflecting a deep shared history of coexistence. By the early 1900s, agricultural conversion of many of California’s most fertile valleys had eliminated many oak woodlands. During the 20th century, urban expansion led a second transformation, replacing agriculture with cities as California’s economy boomed.
Today, the plants and animals that are distinctive of oak woodlands have vanished from our cities, replaced by vegetation from around the world and urban-adapted wildlife. These urban ecosystems do not provide the same support for wildlife, and they are not ideally suited to thrive through drought or hot summer temperatures. For example, trees from the eastern United States are adapted to frequent rainfall during the summer, and require irrigation to survive through California’s dry season.
“Re-Oaking” is an approach to reintegrating oaks and other native vegetation within the developed California landscape to restore this ecologically diverse and distinctive ecosystem to our cities. This idea could benefit people too - native oaks are drought- tolerant, provide heat-tempering shade in the summer, and sequester more carbon than many other common urban trees. Drawing on the beauty of California oak woodlands, Re-oaking could also help bring a unique sense of place back to our cities. As we design ecologically healthy and resilient cities of the future, Re-oaking could help integrate nature into our urban landscapes to benefit both ecosystems and people.
Re-Oaking Silicon Valley
In Silicon Valley, oak ecosystems were the defining feature of the landscape before large-scale transformation. Oak savannas and woodlands were so extensive that the valley was christened the Llano de los Robles, or Plain of the Oaks, by early explorers. In little more than a century, Silicon Valley’s oak woodlands were felled, replaced with orchards, and then replaced again with a patchwork of urban trees.
The rapid and continuing transformation of Silicon Valley creates an unusual opportunity to recover some of the region’s natural heritage by re-incorporating elements of oak woodland ecosystems. These changes could contribute to building landscape resilience in the region, increase biodiversity, and benefit people. Much of Silicon Valley's urban forest, planted 50-75 years ago, is nearing the end of its lifespan. Over the next few decades, local communities will create the next urban forest, shaping the sense of place, human health, and biodiversity of Silicon Valley for the rest of the 21st century. Given the challenges of drought and climate change, do Silicon Valley's native oaks – largely gone for a century – have a greater role to play in the coming century? This report begins to explore that question, focusing first on the benefits the re-oaking could have for local biodiversity and native wildlife.
Learn more about Re-Oaking Silicon Valley.
Re-Oaking North Bay
Vast expanses of oak savanna historically occupied the rich alluvial soils of Napa and Sonoma valleys. Over the past two centuries, however, much of this oak savanna has been cleared to make way for orchards, vineyards, and towns. Documentation of this loss, and recognition of the value of oaks for both people and nature, has led to a growing desire to restore this unique ecosystem and bring back many of the benefits that oaks provide. Despite the significant changes the North Bay landscape has experienced since European settlement, there are opportunities to restore oaks in settings as diverse as backyards, parks, streets, farms, vineyards, and creeksides.
Re-oaking North Bay is an initiative to restore our native oak communities in places where they could once again thrive and benefit our landscapes into the future. Land managers, public agencies, private landowners, and others interested in re-oaking the North Bay are seeking guidance on where to prioritize restoration efforts in order to maximize ecological benefits. This document provides a framework for re-oaking the Napa and Sonoma valley floors as a first phase of re-oaking efforts in the North Bay. It complements oak woodland management efforts in the broader North Bay region.
- Report (PDF) 2020 Re-Oaking North Bay: A strategy for restoring native oak ecosystems, focusing on Napa and Sonoma Valley
- Report (PDF) 2017 Re-Oaking Silicon Valley: Building Vibrant Cities with Nature
- Journal Article (PDF) 2010 in Restoration Ecology: Shifting Baselines in a California Oak Savanna: Nineteenth Century Data to Inform Restoration Scenarios (5.9 Mb)
- Poster (PDF) 2009 for the State of the Estuary Conference: Re-Oaking the Valleys: Bringing Native Trees Back into California’s Suburban Landscapes (2.7 Mb)
- Poster (PDF) 2009 for Reburbia Design Competition: Re-Oaking the Valleys: Bringing Native Trees Back into the Bay Area’s Suburban Landscapes (0.4 Mb)
Historical Reconstructions of Valley Oak Savanna
- Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas and GIS data
- Coyote Creek Historical Ecology Study and GIS data
- South Santa Clara Valley Historical Ecology Study and GIS data
- Western Santa Clara Valley Historical Ecology Study and GIS data
- East Contra Costa County Historical Ecology Study and GIS data
Press for Re-oaking
- Bay Nature: A Street Tree Revolution in Silicon Valley
- Canopy: Why we care about oaks
- California Re-Leaf: Re-oaking California
- Peninsula Open Space Trust: Re-oaking: The Future of Silicon Valley
- Estuary News: Re-oaking Silicon Valley
- Fast Company: How Google is Restoring Wildlife Habitats in the Middle of Silicon Valley Office Parks
- New York Times: In Napa Valley, Future Landscapes Are Viewed in the Past
- SFGate: Bringing back the Napa Valley shade
- Volunteers collect acorns to restore oak groves lost in Wine Country fires (SF Chronicle - Kurtis Alexander, November 4, 2017)
- Wine Country fires spawn massive volunteer effort to grow oak trees (Mercury News - Denis Cuff, November 1, 2017)
- Oaktober kicks off with the Great Oak Count in Palo Alto (Palo Alto Weekly - Sue Dremann, October 26, 2017)
- Re-oaking the Valley (Napa Resource Conservation District 2017)
- "Re-oaking" Oakland: Walter Hood Attempts to reintroduce Trees in Urban Environments (UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design/ East Bay Express, September 20, 2017)
- Oaks in the Urban Landscape: Selection, Care and Preservation. (University of California Cooperative Extension. 2011) Includes a section by SFEI on "Oak Landscapes in the Recent Past."
Programs and Focus Areas:
Design and Communications
Resilient Landscapes Program
Urban Nature Lab