In a city full of tree-huggers, one Monterey cypress is sparking controversy and underscoring the need for stronger protections for our urban canopy.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency requested to remove the tree to make way for a safer pedestrian crosswalk at Geary Boulevard and Buchanan Street. When Public Works denied the request, the agency decided to exercise its own authority and held its first ever tree removal hearing, last Thursday. Now, the cypress’ fate hangs in limbo as officials, community members and advocates await a decision.
“We never want to lose a tree like this unless it is absolutely necessary,” Rachel Gordon with Public Works told me. “It’s not unusual for there to be compelling competing needs in San Francisco; in this case, protecting the urban forest and making the streets safer for people who walk. Sometimes, all the needs can be met; other times, not all can be accommodated.”
This is true and the Monterey cypress may pose a legitimate hazard to people who use the crosswalk. But it’s hard to stomach the loss of another mature, healthy tree. While other cities are addressing equity, health and resiliency by adopting broad policies to prioritize their urban canopies, San Franciscans continue to watch as beloved trees are forced to make room for new development and improvements. The City needs a stronger plan and only one agency to implement it.
It should go without saying that trees are necessary pieces of urban infrastructure. They reduce air pollution, shade hot sidewalks, suck up stormwater and green our cement landscape. As leaders respond to a global pandemic and the climate emergency, it is critical to ensure equal access to these health and environmental benefits. The city of Pittsburgh recently announced a program to better distribute and maintain trees in low-income and low-canopy neighborhoods.
San Francisco should be doing the same, but it’s not. In the Tenderloin, for example, emails provided in response to a Sunshine Request reveal that city officials are planning to remove five healthy trees to improve safety on Taylor between Ellis and Eddy streets. Of the block’s residents, 82% are people of color and 57% are in poverty, according to the nonprofit American Forests. The block only has a 2% canopy cover.
It’s likely Public Works has final authority to permit this removal; although SFMTA could exercise its authority too. The transit agency did not confirm before publication.
“Transparency and responsiveness to neighborhood needs should be key metrics for any city agency,” Kasey Rios Asberry, a resident and worker in the Tenderloin, told me. “In light of the declared climate emergency and COVID’s extreme public health impact in the Tenderloin, I am hopeful they will prioritize conserving our few mature trees and replant at a ratio between 5 and 10 to 1.”
City leaders should not let this hope be misplaced. To make it easier for residents’ to speak for the trees and voice their needs, San Francisco needs to bestow only one agency with authority to approve removals. Currently, the Public Works Department, the Recreation and Parks Department, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the SFMTA all have that authority.
San Francisco must also address illegal removal of trees. Low penalties encourage developers to speed up construction by chopping down trees without obtaining approval first. To raise awareness of this serious problem, the Board of Appeals alerted city lawmakers last week that the current regulatory framework “does not provide sufficient deterrence of illegal tree removal because the administrative fines for this violation are too low.”
“This is an example of what can happen when a city entity takes action to make a meaningful contribution,” Joshua Klipp, who opposed the removal of the Monterey cypress on Geary Street, as well as countless other permits, told me. “I hope this is the first step in a larger, more comprehensive change in how we approach canopy management.”
It may not be possible to save the Monterey cypress and keep San Franciscans safe. But that doesn’t mean The City should continue to let a broken system eat away at our bits of green. To adopt an equitable, healthy and resilient city, leaders must prioritize our canopy.
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 opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.