Vast oak woodlands punctuated with lush willow groves once stretched from Palo Alto to San Jose and beyond, long before the rise of Silicon Valley.
“Centuries of agricultural intensification and urbanization have transformed these landscapes,” says Erin Beller, Google’s ecology program lead who studied Silicon Valley’s ecological history and restoration potential for her PhD. “We’ve lost over 99% of these valuable native habitats.”
Now, Google’s real estate and ecology teams are working to bring nature back into the built environment — in part, by restoring critical habitats like oak woodlands and willow groves across our Bay Area campuses. The goal is to revive the area’s ecological heritage and bolster the human experience while creating thriving, functional landscapes for a biodiverse constellation of species.
Already, the team has restored over 15 acres on Google’s campuses and in the surrounding urban landscape, in partnership with local NGOs, ecology experts and government agencies. This work includes everything from creating welcoming habitat patches for pollinators like native bees and monarch butterflies to partnering on larger projects like restoring the Charleston Retention Basin.
Together these efforts drive landscape-scale restoration of historical ecosystems like oak woodlands, willow groves, meadows and grasslands, and creek and wetland habitats. Oaks and willows are especially important to Beller’s team because they play a defining role in sustaining ecosystems. Both support a dizzying array of wildlife and have great potential to adapt to California’s changing climate. “Oaks and willows have superpowers,” says Beller.
Oak canopies: host to a community of creatures
Iconic trees of the California landscape, oaks once dominated Silicon Valley. Oaks are drought-tolerant, fire-resistant, and efficient at removing air pollution and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
Oak woodland ecosystems sustain some of the highest plant and animal diversity in California, supporting 2,000 additional plant species and around 5,000 insect species. Hundreds more birds, mammals and other wildlife rely on the richness of oak woodlands for food, shade and shelter.
Oaks can bring powerful benefits to urban areas, like creating wildlife corridors and mitigating the urban heat island effect. Already, Google has planted hundreds of oak trees across our Mountain View and Sunnyvale campuses, with plans to plant hundreds more. These efforts follow guidelines for tree density and spacing laid out in "Re-Oaking Silicon Valley," a study Beller co-authored with her extended team that also serves as a resource for other businesses and organizations.
Wetland willows: a stop for migratory birds
Whereas oaks thrive on well-drained valley soils, willows flourish in low-lying areas where groundwater is close to the surface. Because willows tap this groundwater, they stay lush and green well into the dry season, reducing the need for irrigation.
Like oaks, willows sequester carbon once mature. They’re also critical for insect biodiversity and can provide high-quality food for insectivorous birds and other wildlife. Silicon Valley has lost nearly all of its willow groves, which once served as essential stopovers for migratory birds heading south.
Thanks to Google’s willow grove restoration initiatives like those around the Charleston Retention Basin and on our Bayview and Charleston East campuses, there are more places for migratory songbirds to rest and find food to replenish their energy en route.
At the Charleston Retention Basin — home to one of the largest willow groves in the region — there are new trails, seats and lookout points so people can immerse themselves in the outdoors and appreciate the biodiversity around them.
Bringing nature back beyond the Bay
In addition to projects in the Bay Area, Google’s ecology team has urban greening projects in the works across several of our campuses, including in the heart of London, Munich and New York.
“Nature and people should be able to flourish together in the campuses and communities that Google calls home,” says Beller.
This work is part of a bigger global movement. The idea that nature in cities is crucial for both people and wildlife is taking root, and high-profile projects like London’s National Park City to The High Line of New York have brought it into the public consciousness.
“We know that access to nature has profound benefits for human health and wellbeing,” says Kate Turpin, director of design performance for Google’s real estate development team. “It can be a place of refuge, from a hot day or the busy pace of working life.”
A field researcher measures the height of native narrow-leaf milkweed on the Google campus, as part of biodiversity monitoring efforts.
To help scale their ideas, Beller’s team supports open-source scientific research, from local guidelines for native planting in Silicon Valley for institutions and residents to academic research about the value of urban nature. “From backyards to businesses, we hope everyone will pitch in to bring nature back into cities,” says Beller. They have also partnered with local scientists to monitor these new habitats on campus, using data to measure the impact of native landscaping on bird and insect biodiversity and inform future campus restoration efforts.
The early signs in the Bay Area are promising. “I can step out of the office and lose myself among the willow groves around the Charleston Retention Basin — enjoy a walk in the shade, spot birds and butterflies, and hear the hum of a functioning ecosystem all around me,” says Beller. “I’ve spent a large part of my career as an ecologist reflecting on what was. It’s awe-inspiring to think about what could be.”