Catherine Martineau was on her third career when she joined Canopy, Palo Alto's urban forest advocacy organization, more than 18 years ago. She had no background in forestry, nor in arboriculture.
The idea that cities can grow a forest on their own streets and in backyards, which makes the environment more livable, was the first awakening for Martineau, she said. But since she joined in 2004, Martineau has grown Canopy into a multi-branched urban forestry organization that has not only planted thousands of trees, but also offered numerous volunteer opportunities, education events on tree care, school forestry program and advocacy that has influenced city governments to preserve, protect and expand their urban forests.
Now the executive director, who is retiring on Feb. 28, will leave a legacy of a strong nonprofit that has grown from one-and-a-half full-time-equivalent employees to 17 and an annual budget increase from $100,000 to $1.7 million, she said.
Her achievements include having influenced urban forest master plans in two cities; creating multiple education programs; an interactive, citywide tree survey in Palo Alto; and reducing urban landscape inequities in multiple communities of color.
Martineau was born in Normandy, France, but she was raised in the Paris area, she said. Now 65, she said that she "chose the moment" to retire after shepherding the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to joining Canopy she worked with her husband, Pierre, at their boutique consulting practice based in Silicon Valley. They helped companies internationally to bring technology to market, she said. Before that, Martineau was a securities analyst and worked as an associate in a small French venture capital group.
She decided to join Canopy, then called Canopy: Trees for Palo Alto, after receiving an invitation from a friend on the organization's board of directors.
"I was kind of an accidental executive director because I had never managed a nonprofit. I knew nothing about nonprofit governance and management, and it's very specific. And I love trees, but I didn't know anything about the biology of trees and certainly nothing about arboriculture and nothing about urban forestry," she said.
Martineau's husband was taking the consulting practice in a somewhat different direction at the time and she was interested in doing something different. Canopy, then a small nonprofit with a small budget, was looking for a new executive director.
"I never thought of urban forestry. I didn't. I have never given a thought to the fact that most trees in the urban environment are planted. It had never occurred to me. So I thought it was great that Palo Alto had this amazing forest for its residents," she said.
"So there I was. I was supposed to be part time. I never really was part time because I don't know how to do that. And then I had a colleague who was part time and doing programs mostly."
During flights into San Francisco International Airport, Martineau was struck by the immense difference in the landscape color from one urban area to another. Some areas, particularly underserved communities, were less green, she said.
The observation through the plane portal windows was an awakening.
"We should try to bridge that green gap and bring the benefits of trees to other communities. And why is it that it's not always a priority? Sometimes those communities have challenges that are pretty urgent and dire and creating an urban forest is not necessarily a priority, especially if it has not been baked into the development, the urbanization," she said.
Martineau experienced other awakenings, such as "understanding the deep reasons why the urban forest or access to nature has not been baked into certain neighborhoods versus others."
She realized the legacy of redlining and how that has influenced who lives where and who gets access to what resources. "It's not always evident, or sometimes it's a little more nuanced," she said.
Canopy took its first step toward expanding its mission to improve urban forest equity in communities of color 15 years ago. Then-East Palo Alto Mayor Pat Foster asked the organization to help the city develop its urban forest. Canopy's budget was small, but with grant funding it planted 1,000 trees in East Palo Alto. In partnership with the community, Canopy helped plant about 20%-25% of all street trees in East Palo Alto, she said.
"That kind of put us on the map, especially because we launched that program at our 10th anniversary. This is something that we were able to do very early in my tenure at Canopy and then grow to other communities: Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks and Mountain View. But really, it was pretty early on that we were able to make that transformation and then grow our other programs," she said.
Canopy also offers a paid internship program for East Palo Alto youth, Martineau said. The city also developed its first urban forest master plan.
Palo Alto, which already had a robust urban forest and an urban forest master plan, in 2012 hired its first urban forester, Walter Passmore. The city continues to keep an urban forester on its payroll; Peter Gollinger succeeded Passmore in 2021.
In recent years, greening the urban environment has gained traction as research and science has established a connection between a lush tree canopy and health benefits and climate mitigation.
But it took a crisis — the isolation caused by the closure of parks and open space preserves during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — to cement appreciation of the urban forest.
"This is where people were going to exercise; to get out and to be outside to come together because we couldn't be inside. I think that is something that at some point (people) connected with Canopy's message," she said. "And that's also when folks started thinking about the inequity between different communities that don't have trees and those that do," she said.
Last June, Canopy celebrated its 25th anniversary. As Martineau draws closer to her retirement, she said she's most enjoyed building relationships with the communities in which Canopy works.
When someone else takes over her role, they'll face challenges to keeping trees in the urban forest and getting trees added to new developments. It's a delicate conversation since there is only so much land, she said.
There's also the aging of the existing urban forest and climate change.
"Palo Alto has one of the most beautiful urban forests around. But a lot of the trees are old," she said. Many city trees planted 50 years ago were not well adapted for the urban or the local environment and are now dying.
"One thing that the urban forest master plan has been able to do — and we've seen a change already, a real noticeable kind of needle-moving change — is that the master plan is directing the city in particular to plant trees that are climate adapted." Many of those trees are native to California, particularly native oaks.
Martineau would also like to see Canopy increase its advocacy and work more closely with communities now that people can get together again after the pandemic lockdown.
"I'm curious; I'm intrigued to see what's going to happen. I think the organization is in a good place. There is interest in what we do more than ever, to be honest," she said.
She pointed to an encouraging development that occurred last fall. For the first time ever, trees and nature-based solutions were mentioned locally during the Climate Summit for San Mateo County.
"We in urban forestry are in our own echo chamber. We talk about trees, the role that trees can play in climate, but in climate summits or workshops or whatever, usually it's transportation and energy. These are the two main levers. That day, nature and trees were mentioned as important parts of the solution, and I thought, wow, you know, I can retire now. Because when it's no longer just Canopy who advocates, when it's other organizations, when we do it together, that's completely different," she said.
Martineau said she plans to take a few trips, including visits to her native France where her father and family members still live.
She also plans to take some time to unplug and reflect.
"I'm a member of a small group of women. We meet on a regular basis twice a year at little retreats and the theme for the next one that's in a few weeks is, we are supposed to all come with one word. And my word, I think, is going to be 'rediscover'; rediscover my family, my friends, and try to think about what I would like to do next. I may go back to school. I think it would be fun to do. I feel young. I'm 65, but I feel young and I feel there's probably things that I can still contribute."
An interim executive team started taking over from Martineau on Feb. 1. Kammy Lo, a former board chair, will be the interim executive director, Martineau said. At the same time, the board is conducting a search for a new executive director.
"I've made amazing friends through this whole thing. Collaborating, working with, not against — working with the cities, working with partners, trying to find common ground and work together. That's, I think, what I've enjoyed the most," she said.