Saving Our Urban Forest

Trees on San Francisco's sidewalks beautify our streets, make our city green, clean our air, filter storm water and cool our neighborhoods. They also cause huge -- and totally unnecessary -- headaches for San Francisco residents.

The problem isn't with the actual street trees, but rather how we as a city care for them by forcing property owners to maintain them even if property owners don't own or want the trees. Our dysfunctional street tree maintenance system creates stress and expense for property owners while undermining our entire urban forest as a result of inconsistent and, at times, shoddy maintenance. By reforming our approach to street tree maintenance and funding, we can increase the size of our urban forest and improve its health and vitality.

In the past, the city was responsible for maintaining all trees planted by the city. If property owners wanted to plant a tree on the sidewalk, they were encouraged to do so as long as they took on maintenance of the tree. This was a common sense approach: The city maintains a city-planted tree, private citizens maintain privately planted trees.

Unfortunately, common sense doesn't always survive budget cuts, and over the years approximately two-thirds of San Francisco's 105,000 street trees were shifted to property owners for maintenance, even if the property owners didn't plant the tree, didn't want the tree, or didn't have the resources, desire or knowledge to care for them adequately. As a result of even more budget cuts, the city is now turning over the remaining one-third of street trees to property owners for maintenance. The city is even turning over maintenance responsibility for street trees that the City recently planted without the consent of adjacent property owners and with the understanding that the cty would maintain the trees. In other words, the city planted thousands of new trees without any funding to maintain them.

To top it off, the city makes it next-to-impossible for a property owner to remove a tree he or she didn't plant and doesn't want but is required to maintain.

This unfair and irrational situation doesn't exist because our Department of Public Works (DPW) lacks the desire to maintain the trees. DPW very much wants to take on responsibility for street trees in order to perform more consistent maintenance. However, DPW simply doesn't have the funding to do the work, after years of budget cuts.

This haphazard maintenance system -- requiring people who lack the resources or desire to be the primary stewards of our street trees -- is a not a blueprint for a healthy urban forest.

In October, I held a hearing at the Board of Supervisors where DPW, the Planning Department, and the Recreation and Park Department all reported on the state of San Francisco's urban forest. Much of this discussion revolved around street tree ownership and maintenance.

One solution that we discussed at length at the hearing is to find a dedicated funding source that will allow the city to reassume maintenance responsibility for all street trees in San Francisco. This will create significant economies of scale, since it's far cheaper for one entity to maintain all trees than for each property owner to separately hire an arborist for one or two trees.

And, the funding source must be dedicated. As much as we all love trees, they don't do well in the budget process, where they compete against critical needs like public safety and public health. One funding option is for property owners to pay a modest parcel tax conditioned on the city assuming full maintenance responsibility for street trees and for sidewalk damage caused by those trees. If the city were to attempt to turn over maintenance responsibility in the future, the tax would be canceled. The parcel tax also would cover maintenance costs for any newly planted trees, so that the city stops planting trees for which it has no long-term plan for maintenance. Property owners could save money since the parcel tax very likely would be lower than regular maintenance of adjacent street trees and repair of tree-related sidewalk damage.

If the city assumes maintenance responsibility for street trees, it can establish citywide maintenance standards and achieve significant cost efficiencies. In addition to the cost savings of one operation maintaining all of the trees, consistent routine maintenance reduces the long-term costs of keeping a tree healthy and avoiding damage to surrounding property. It also leads to healthier and more long-lived trees.

We need to find a more responsible and sensible way to maintain our urban forest. We know what we need to do, and we just need to get it done.

Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. More information at