In 2015, Our City Forest, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a healthy Silicon Valley through the promotion of urban forestry, acquired a parcel of land at Martial Cottle Park and created an outdoor urban forestry education center and arboretum, the Outdoor Educational Center.
The 2-acre plot of land features over 200 trees and shrubs planted by hundreds of volunteers, as well as a California Native Garden to showcase different California Native species and other successful species in the California climate. This garden was created as a resource for the community to learn about the California ecosystem and native species, as well as how they can create a native garden at their own homes. Lawn busting workshops are also hosted at the Educational Center as well, to show people how to convert their grass lawns into sustainable lawns. This workshop is one of many programs that will be offered throughout the ongoing work at the Center, which will feature a multitude of opportunities for volunteering and community engagement, including a new two-part volunteer course they’re offering in mid-April.
With the remarkable progress made at the Education Center and the array of exciting opportunities on the horizon, one might struggle to imagine the considerable obstacles Our City Forest has had to overcome for this project to gain momentum. “This project is an unfunded parcel,” says Natasha Lamperti, the Business and Fund Development Manager at Our City Forest, and who has been overseeing the development of the Education Center this last year. “And progress slows down considerably without adequate funding or resources.” This struggle echoes the same issue faced by many community-based organizations that frequently are hindered by inadequate funding and emphasizes the need for grant programs like those at the Open Space Authority.
In 2018, Our City Forest received a $100,000 grant from the Authority’s Urban Grant Program that was used to help install the educational center and fund many features of the center that are typically difficult to find funding for. Our City Forest wanted to provide ample opportunity for the community to spend time outdoors and at the park to relax, so with some of this grant money, they purchased 14 convertible bench tables that can be used for picnicking and relaxing. They also used some of the grant funding to pay for signage. “Grants like this help purchase capital items for these projects and it’s so important,” says Lamperti. Items like signage and tables are often difficult to allocate funding for when there are so many larger tasks at hand, yet these are often the kinds of additions that make all the difference in both welcoming and educating the public. “Because this project lacks funding, it’s completely reliant on receiving grants – we're so happy for what this grant has helped us accomplish at this center, and the Authority has been wonderful to work with throughout the process.”
The pandemic has also complicated things considerably for Our City Forest – another struggle shared by most organizations throughout this trying year. Maintenance and construction of the parcel for the Education Center is typically conducted by volunteers, but with COVID restrictions, OCF had to dramatically decrease its volunteer capacity, and the maintenance duties have fallen on service members with other responsibilities. With ambitious goals and limited staff capacity, progress certainly slowed – but never stopped.
Despite these challenges, Our City Forest has made strides developing the center and Lamperti has been proudly watching it progress. The fence is now lined with pepper trees growing beautifully, and with mulch and woodchip donations they’ve recently received, the soil on the property is thriving. The trees throughout the center are also providing the parcel with much needed shade to protect parkgoers from sunlight, providing visitors with the well-documented benefits of the tree cover, and the lawn-busting section of the property “looks great,” as Lamperti puts it. She is greatly looking forward to all the good that this program will do for the community.
Before Lamperti worked at Our City Forest, she volunteered with them in the past planting trees throughout San Jose. She was impressed by the importance and intentionality of their work from the perspectives of social justice and climate resilience. Urban Greenery is a very important and very beneficial feature to have in cities, and Our City Forest is strategic in picking planting locations. Many of their grants and community tree plantings are targeting areas where canopy cover is typically lower than average, and where people will benefit the most from them. With issues of social justice so deeply intertwined with the health of the environment, targeting planting in these strategic areas can help mitigate some of the environmental justice implications of inequitable access to nature. After working with the organization on these plantings, Lamperti joined the team in January of 2020, and hit the ground running at the Martial Cottle Educational Center. With this intentional and beneficial work, Lamperti is excited for the future of Our City Forest, with many exciting projects coming down the pipeline.
As vaccines become more widely available, Lamperti looks forward to welcoming more volunteers back for community projects. There will be new programs, workshops, and community plantings open to the public that will help foster environmental education. Capacity will increase overall, which will allow for quicker progress at the Martial Cottle Education Center.
The work at the Center will be ongoing. There are a few more potential funding sources Our City Forest is looking at for the parcel, and in the meantime, they will continue working on the development of the Center to get it ready for the public. As funding comes in, they’ll be able to offer the community more programs and demonstrations, like rainwater harvesting and water rebate workshops. They want to potentially install a greenhouse where they can host plant workshops like a propagation lesson.
Our City Forest’s Educational Center at Martial Cottle is successfully connecting people to nature and exemplifies the positive impact that partnerships and public grant programs can have on our communities.