Earlier this month, general contractor Webcor Builders was brought before the San Francisco Board of Appeals for illegally removing two sidewalk sycamore trees at 2465 Van Ness Ave. The company applied for a permit alleging the trees presented an unforeseen safety hazard to the condominium project. The request received push back. The site is huge and the developer originally promised to save the trees.
San Francisco suspended the company’s removal permit to give the Board of Appeals time to review the request. But Webcor chopped down the trees anyway. In response, it received a $10,000 fine and condemnation by the Board of Appeals.
“The fine is light change on a big deal like this,” Rick Swig, vice-president of the Board of Appeals, said during the hearing. “You guys know the rules. This reeks of let’s tear it down, pray forgiveness, pay the $10,000 and move on.”
The exchange provides a snapshot of the dangers facing urban canopies across the country. Despite the value trees offer, cities and communities are failing to protect them. A 2018 study found that urban and suburban tree cover in the United States is declining at a rate of approximately 36 million trees per year.
San Francisco’s canopy is one of the smallest of any major city in the United States. While The City’s Urban Forest Plan recommends the addition of 50,000 trees by 2034, San Francisco is not currently on track to meet this goal. In fiscal years 2017-2018, the number of trees planted in The City exceeded the number removed only by one.
San Francisco Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon explained that The City may not see as much loss in the future. The recent voter-approved initiative StreetTreeSF has allowed Public Works to assess the urban canopy and remove trees that are diseased, dying or pose a hazard. Once this necessary maintenance occurs, removal will hopefully slow down.
“We now have a very robust maintenance plan that’s moving forward successfully,” she told me. “There have been a lot of trees that were neglected for decades.”
But StreetTreeSF does not provide funding to plant and water new trees. The City relies on other sources, such as developer fees, adopt-a-tree programs and general fund money, to increase the canopy. Although officials are exploring additional options for the future, the lack of dedicated funding may complicate The City’s goals to grow our forest.
This is a shame, because trees provide enormous infrastructure benefits. Cities are often warmer than their rural surroundings because buildings, streets and concrete sidewalks absorb heat. Trees can provide relief from these “urban heat islands.” They can also filter away pollution and suck up rainwater, giving our sewer system a break.
The urban canopy provides immense health benefits as well. Sidewalk trees can help reduce blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of stress, as well as increase mental engagement, attentiveness and overall happiness. A study based in Portland, Oregon found that a 10 percent increase in tree-canopy cover within 50 meters of a home reduced poor birth outcomes in pregnant woman.
“These benefits demonstrate that trees are an infrastructure and health resource to San Francisco,” Joshua Klipp, an attorney and urban forest activist, told me. “They are also critical in the battle against climate change.”
Klipp is hoping Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s pending legislation to declare a “climate emergency” in San Francisco may direct necessary attention and funding to protecting street trees. Klipp has also proposed extracting the existing Bureau of Urban Forestry from Public Works and creating a Department of Urban Forestry. The plan, which would need Board of Supervisors support, would provide better coordination between City agencies, as well as more oversight.
There is still time for San Francisco to meet its goal of expanding our urban forest by 2034. But changes are necessary. Companies shouldn’t receive a slap on the wrist for illegally removing necessary infrastructure. Agencies should receive dedicated funding to both maintain and grow our urban canopy. We need to value our natural resources, which give us so much.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist. Check her out at robynpurchia.com