HOK’s Heike Kaiser Is Greening San Francisco One Tree at a Time
A senior landscape design professional, Kaiser developed a love of nature in her native Germany and now shares that passion with her California colleagues and community.
Fifteen staffers from HOK’s San Francisco studio recently spent a Saturday volunteering in the city’s Bayview neighborhood. They were shoveling dirt and holding up trees and chatting with people walking by as they planted trees along the sidewalk. Guiding them through this process was their planting leader and colleague, Heike Kaiser.
Kaiser grew up in the German countryside town of Winterberg, an area with plentiful natural lakes, forests and fields. Her family encouraged her to play outside, taught her skills like gardening and farming, and instilled a sense of social and environmental responsibility.
“I grew up very connected to nature,” said Kaiser. “I went hiking with family and friends. From a very young age I walked home with friends from school, and I noticed every tree on the way, plus every new flowering plant and their distinctive shape, color and scent.”
It was only natural that Kaiser would study to become a landscape designer while at the University of Kassel in central Germany. She went on to become a teaching assistant and lecturer there and later would teach online classes in landscape architecture and planning for students from all over the world. She also practiced landscape and urban design in Tel Aviv, Israel, before relocating with her husband to San Francisco in 2016. Once in the Bay Area, Kaiser began volunteering with the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s horticulture and gardening teams for over a year.
Kaiser, left, led a group of HOK volunteers in a community planting in San Francisco’s Portola neighborhood.
In 2017 she joined HOK and also started volunteering with Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), a nonprofit organization that works to promote urban forests as part of San Francisco’s green infrastructure. Urban trees help clean the air, reduce flooding, calm traffic, provide shade and beautify a neighborhood.
Last summer, Kaiser trained to become a planting leader for community planting events; her background in both landscape design and education have made her well-suited for the role.
Said Kaiser: “I’ve really enjoyed the hands-on approach that comes with tree planting, and greening the city is so beneficial to the health of the neighborhoods we live in. This work has also introduced me to different people and has proven to be a tool for community-building since it involves many different people working together for a common goal.”
Kaiser has led two recent tree-plantings with HOK’s San Francisco staff—one in the Portola neighborhood and the other in Bayview. These plantings have brought staff from different disciplines together and have helped employees get to better know each other and their community. Passersby sometimes ask the volunteers about the plantings, giving them an opportunity to talk about the importance of trees and how residents can get more trees in their neighborhood. Residents that request the trees also get involved in the process, as they, along with FUF, help with the first few years of watering and maintenance before San Francisco Public Works takes over.
Kaiser, left, holds up a tree at a community planting event in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.
Kaiser looks forward to soon leading more plantings with her HOK colleagues, but it might have to wait a while—she’s expecting her first child any day. Already she is thinking about how her work and respect for nature might influence her child and her child’s peers. “My hope is that my work is helping even just a little to create a sustainable future for the next generation,” she said. “And maybe they can share some of the wonderment and reverence for nature that I experienced as a child and still do today.”