Newsom’s missing trees

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION During his 2003 mayoral campaign, Gavin Newsom circulated a beautifully presented eight-page "policy brief" for "A Green and Clean San Francisco." The first four pages were devoted to a pledge to "grow our urban canopy" — a subject near and dear to my heart.

Newsom announced: "As mayor of San Francisco, I will lead the city government and community organizations to make San Francisco a city we can take pride in — a city with green [emphasis mine], clean, and livable neighborhoods." As his first action, he said, "I will grow our urban canopy by placing a priority on tree planting and care."

For good measure, he tantalized us with some goodies: "Visualize 19th Avenue as a welcoming beautiful gateway to the city, lined with trees and planters." He promised to improve the lack of coordination among city agencies and departments involved in street tree planting, care, and planning by using new technologies such as CitiStat. And, most important, he committed himself to addressing the massive underfunding of the expansion and maintenance of the urban canopy.

These promises were made in the context of the long-standing critical state of the city’s urban forest. The candidate put it this way: San Francisco lags behind other communities in providing a vital, vibrant, and ecologically sustainable urban canopy, as well as open space, in the city. San Francisco has an estimated 90,000 street trees. By comparison, San Jose boasts 231,000 street trees. Our urban canopy is full of holes: Friends of the Urban Forest estimates we have only 75 street trees per mile, compared to the national average of 120 trees per mile. That means San Francisco has a little more than half the street trees of similarly sized cities.

Today, after more four years in office, the mayor’s promises are still just that. Nothing close to what he committed to do has been accomplished or implemented. Instead the mayor has relied on press releases, disinformation, and a newly staffed position with a yet-to-be-defined role to publicize his claimed achievements.

As I speak, the mayor has seven full–time press officers polishing his image, which, coincidentally, is the same number — seven — of filled managerial/administrative positions in the Department of Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry, the division responsible for managing all the street trees in the city. The Department of the Environment has only two-thirds of one position (out of some 65 full-time positions) devoted to urban trees.

The Office of Greening, established in 2005, has had three directors, with no announced action from the latest one since she took over in February. The Greening Vision Council, chaired by the greening director, has been dormant for more than two years. The April 2006 Urban Forest Plan died in the Planning Department. And no one in the Controller’s Office has any direct knowledge of that new technology, CitiStat.

The mayor’s spinning was at its most inventive when he used creative accounting to claim on Arbor Day last year that more than 15,000 trees were added to the city in the years 2004 to 2006, when actual total was closer to 4,800 trees.

So much for "green and clean."

Allen Grossman

Allen Grossman is executive director of the SF Urban Forest Coalition.