Renewed Call for Maintenance of City’s Urban Forest After Falling Tree Injures Pedestrian

On Thursday morning, amid light winds and misty rains, branches of a large water-laden Ficus tree on San Francisco’s Potrero Avenue fell to the street and sidewalk below, seriously injuring a pedestrian and serving as a reminder that San Francisco trees lining city streets need to be properly maintained.

Citing a lack of resources for tree maintenance, San Francisco Public Works for the last few years has been in the process of transferring the maintenance responsibility for the majority of its 105,000 street trees into the care of private-property owners, despite public demand for a dedicated funding stream for the public maintenance of the city’s urban forest.

The San Francisco Urban Forest Plan, crafted by Public Works in collaboration with the San Francisco Planning Department, Friends of the Urban Forest, Urban Forestry Council and San Francisco Recreation and Parks, identifies policies and strategies to proactively manage and grow the city’s street trees population.

The goal of the Urban Forest Plan is to create a thriving urban forest and ensure that trees, which are often thought of merely as an aesthetic part of the city, continue to serve their much-needed environmental, economic and social purposes.

Rachel Gordon, the director of communications and policy at San Francisco Public Works, said today that the large branches of the tree on Potrero Avenue that fell on a pedestrian, vehicles and Muni lines on Thursday had in fact been pruned just last month.

But Gordon said that with only ten full-time arborists and thousands of trees overdue for pruning, many trees are indeed a hazard on San Francisco streets.

Gordon said due to budget cuts to Public Works’ urban forestry staff, many trees have been pruned only once every 10 to 12 years, instead of every one to five years, depending on the species and location of the tree.

San Francisco Public Works “does not have the resources to prune and maintain trees at a frequency recommended by the tree care industry to sustain their health,” according to the Public Works website.

To tackle the safety issue, San Francisco Public Works is in the process of unloading its tree burden onto other agencies, such as San Francisco Recreation and Park, the San Francisco Housing Authority, as well as the owners of private residences in the city.

Gordon says she wishes Public Works had the budget to care for the trees, saying that there are property owners unable or unwilling to care for trees, unforeseen costs faced by property owners, and that caring for trees individually, instead of en masse, will cost more.

Gordon said Public Works needs about $20 million a year to bring about a more robust pruning cycle while also allowing the department to continue planting new trees.

She said unfortunately, the funding solution simply hasn’t emerged yet.

“Frankly, a lot of what we do is triage,” Gordon said.

Lack of maintenance is likely to result in property damage and is a risk to public safety, according to the Public Works website.

Additionally, a lack of maintenance will deprive the city of the benefits provided by trees, such as storm water filtration, decreased air pollution and greenhouse gases, increased property values, wildlife habitat, among others.

Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, released a statement following the pedestrian injury Thursday urging City Hall to create a dedicated funding stream for street tree maintenance.

He said that most other cities maintain their urban forests and that by not funding such a program, San Francisco is “endangering all who live in, work in, and visit the city.”

Many of San Francisco’s trees were planted 40 or 50 years ago, Gordon said, and while they provide big, beautiful canopies and green leaves year-round, they get very large and have co-dominant limbs that make them structurally weak as they grow older.

Sometimes reaching 60 feet tall, San Francisco’s large ficus trees need to be professionally pruned by arborists, not by property-owners standing on stepladders, she said.

Aside from crushing passersby, the extensive root systems weren’t given enough room to grow, and have caused sidewalks to crack and break across the city.

She said funding for an arborist apprenticeship program at Public Works has been approved and will allow eight full-time paid apprentices to join the urban forest’s current team of 10 arborists.

The apprentices will spend a portion of their time in the classroom and the remainder in the field assisting arborists, however, there is currently no funding to parlay the apprenticeships into long-term jobs, Gordon said.

Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News

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