The London Plane trees along the Campanile Esplanade were planted after the 1915 PPIE in San Francisco. Now their history is told through a phone app created by a UC Berkeley graduate. Photo: UC Berkeley.
The London Plane trees along the Campanile Esplanade were planted after the 1915 PPIE in San Francisco. Now their history is told through a phone app created by a UC Berkeley graduate. Photo: UC Berkeley.

By Cathy Cockrell, UCB NewsCenter 

The London plane trees on the Campanile Esplanade were brought to Berkeley about a century ago, as young saplings, from San Francisco, where they’d been planted for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. And the stately southern magnolia on the north end of Sproul Hall belongs to an ancient group of plants whose large, cup-shaped blossoms evolved to catch beetles.

That’s a little of what you’ll learn from a campus guided tour created by the College of Natural Resources and introduced during last week’s conference at Berkeley celebrating the National Parks’ centennial.

No reservations are required for the “Tall Tree Tales of Cal.” If you own a smartphone, download “Point” – a free mobile app developed by a Cal alum’s software company, Canogle (signifying “can” plus “ogle”). Then browse for and cue up the tree-centric guided tour.

This eucalyptus grove was planted in 1877. Photo: UC Berkeley

In the app’s hands-free mode, users hear the recording of a voice actor playing a virtual tour guide.

First stop on the tree tour is the eucalyptus grove near the campus’s west entrance, where the virtual guide describes the unique botanical characteristics of these hardwoods, native to Australia, and how these now-towering trees were brought to California during the Gold Rush.

Completing the Tall Tree Tales of Cal tour can take less than an hour, with stops at 16 exemplary tree specimens that help illuminate the Berkeley campus’s landscape and cultural history.

Like some 20 other outdoor tours available, so far, through Point, the mobile tour includes photos of highlighted features, as well as a digital map of the tour route, using the phone’s GPS system to trigger each audio segment.

Canogle founder Arthur Bart-Williams, who graduated from Cal in 1988, admits that when he was at Berkeley in the late 1980s – a transfer student majoring in engineering who held a part-time job and commuted to campus – he barely noticed his physical surroundings. All these years later, working with CNR scholars and campus history experts to develop the tree tour has “opened my eyes to the natural beauty of the campus,” he says.

Canogle founder Arthur Bart-Williams

A native of Sierra Leone, Bart-Williams started Canogle in 2011 and launched its first smartphone tour at the end of 2013. By now the company has partnered with numerous Bay Area land-management agencies and organizations – among them the Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco Bay Trail and the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park – to develop mobile tours (in lieu of traditional signage, guidebooks or maps) to help bring sites to life for visitors.

According to Bart-Williams, Canogle now plans to “get out of the way a bit” by empowering users to develop interpretive content for the platform themselves.

See a UC Berkeley slide show on the trees on the campus.

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