Tag Archives: urban forest

In 300 pages or so

Why oh why does every city plan/EIR/”initiative” needs to be 300 pages give or take, including this here Master Tree Plan? That’s just like the perpetual $800 estimate my van always gets whenever anything goes wrong. Lost the remote, $800, busted runner board, $800, CD stuck in the player, $800. No kidding. Manufacturer suggested repair bill for van-driving suburbanites? Cars assembled in equally priced units? But enough complaining and asking the unanswerable life questions. The CD will remain stuck. The money is better spend on printer paper and ink.

I’ve read it folks (after I killed a tree to print it)! I read the Master Tree Plan and while I think it’s comprehensive and covers a lot of ground, I do have some concerns with it as well. Since I already wrote and sent my comment to the Planning Board, I’ll just copy and paste it here. The short version—too many reasons for tree removals, not enough new tree planting. My hope is there will be enough speakers tonight to emphasize the need to go easy on the existing forest until all empty spots are filled and newly planted trees are well on their way to becoming strong and permanent. A positive aspect of the plan—calls for a lot of community involvement. More on this to come.

The meeting is at 7 pm tonight, Council chambers as usual. Agenda and staff report are here.

My comment:

Planning Board September 24, 2009
City of Alameda
Re: 9/28/09 meeting: Master Tree Plan

Dear Planning Board members,

I have read the Master Tree Plan and I am impressed with the amount of work and detail that has gone into it. Nice work on behalf of Tanaka and city staff who assisted them.

There are many portions of the plan I have questions about but it is impossible to address them all here. My comments here are limited a few major issues, listed below. To focus on the specifics, I would appreciate an opportunity to sit down with any of you and go over the Plan in more detail, between now and the time the Plan is submitted for approval to the City Council.

Management Priorities/budget allocation, (Chapter 4, Sections 4.1–4.3). Main concern: The way the priorities are ordered and rated could result in a reduction in the urban forest both in numbers and in canopy cover in the next 20 years, which could lead to reduction of property values, increase in crime, and have a general demoralizing effect on residents.

• Hazard tree abatement is given the highest priority, as well as the highest level of service (LOS 4) (meaning removal of all hazardous trees within a year, or 400 trees in the first year to eliminate backlog). At the same time, young tree planting is given a LOS of 2 (replacing yearly removals only, or only 150 trees a year). That means that in the first 2 years Alameda will see a net loss of trees, and will only begin to catch up on the numbers in the third year of implementation (if budget stays similar). Even if the replacement ratio is 1:1 in the first years, Alameda could still see a reduction in its forest presence and the benefits derived from it, as the trees deemed hazardous are typically old and large, and newly planted trees have a high mortality rate. It is not clear whether replacements will be provided for in the budget to maintain the target number for new plantings. It is also not clear whether the budget given to Tree Planting includes replacements of trees removed for other reasons (construction, sidewalk damage, undesirable species, clearances, etc.)

• There is no clear definition of “hazardous.” The way the text reads, these appear to be the same as “dead and dying trees”, but the actual definition of hazardous trees is probably broader, e.g. including trees that are structurally unbalanced and appear ready to fall over. Also, is “hazardous” the same as “high-risk,” and high risk to what—life?, property?, city infrastucture? Finally, how do trees that are removed for sidewalk repairs fit into this definition, since there appears to be no provision for tree removals other than for “high-risk” (or “hazardous”) trees.

• Young Tree care (pruning and training) is given less priority (#3) than mature tree care (pruning) (#2), and the recommended level of service (LOS) is lower as well. In reality, mature trees require less pruning once structure is established, while young trees need more frequent and careful pruning to ensure long life and less maintenance cost later.

Suggested changes to priorities:

• Young tree care should be a higher priority than mature tree care. Mature care is best done on a tree-by-tree basis at the discretion of the tree maintenance supervisor, while young tree care needs to be applied to all young trees more frequently as recommended in the LOS table. Any budget surplus resulting should be directed towards young tree training to reduce future maintenance costs.

• Immediate tree planting and filling of the 3,500 ready-to-plant locations identified by the consultant needs a level of priority at least equal to hazardous tree abatement. This will mitigate the effect of removals for all reasons and prevent conflict due to the perception that more large trees are taken out than new ones are planted.

Distances Between Infrastructure and Trees (Vol. 1, Appendix 3). Main concern: The distances as recommended differ significantly form the realities on the ground and if strictly applied can have an effect of eliminating many healthy trees that are not in compliance with the recommended numbers.

• The recommended distances differ, sometimes significantly, by those listed in the previous Master Tree Plan (for example 10 feet from driveways in the new MTP as opposed to 2 feet previously)—what new criteria and/or information was used to develop these specs?

• What priority is given to enforcement of these distances?

Collaboration between departments (Goal 4 in Chapter 4, Section 4.0, Management Policies, Standards and Actions). Main concern: The policies address tree management plan rather than department coordination.

• I support the creation of a City Arborist position. In the absence of such position, it is in the best interest of the forest that the Public Works Tree Maintenance supervisor coordinates all work performed on trees within the City of Alameda, whether the work is for routine pruning or utility clearance, and include trees on city streets, in parks, and those on private property but encroaching on public utilities.

• Appropriate standards for pruning should be provided based on the tree’s location within the city—for example, parks trees and trees on certain wide medians need not follow guidlines for overhead clearance as sidewalk trees do. Contractors need to be given the proper instruction and guidelines—this includes using the CPUC standards when doing work for AMP. This individualized attention is best done when a single source of work orders exists. (I am not sure if guidelines for pruning park trees exist?)

• Create a process of coordination between the Planning Department and Public Works when a project requiring a permit involves potential tree removal. Any Public Works decision for street tree removal involving a development project on adjacent property must be made through the normal public notification process (and the City Council appeal period expired) before a decision is made on the related Planning permit and possibly even before a Planning Permit application is accepted as “complete” for purposes of the State Permit Streamlining Act. The idea is to ensure that all reasonable development alternatives that might save the tree are considered (through the tree removal permit process) before the development plans get too far along. To streamline this process, it would be helpful add a tree checkbox on the application submittal list and to require a description and/or photo of any adjacent trees.

Removal notification procedure—suggestion for improvement. Though trees proposed for removal are noticed now, it is typically just the people in the neighborhood who see the notice. Because trees are a concern and benefit to all of us, not just the immediate neighbors, it would be helpful to create a notification process that reaches more residents. I suggest a removal notification section on the Public Works webpage, and possibly email notification service to people who sign up or subscribe to it, perhaps for a small annual fee.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I look forward to discussing the above issues with you in more detail, at your convenience.

MTP—see it at the library

According to Barbara Hawkins, city engineer, the Master Tree Plan Update is available for review at the library as of this week. It may also be available to download from the city’s website (but isn’t yet). I will post a link when it is. Download is here.

Planing Board will review and take comment on the MTP on Monday, September 28, at its regular meeting.

With an eye on the hawks

Over the weekend I was forwarded an email by a couple who has been keeping an eye on Cooper’s hawks around Alameda for the past several years and gathering data on them. The data they’ve collected is important from the standpoint of preserving urban wildlife habitats and should therefore be used to inform the approval and implementation of the new Master Tree Plan, which will shape those habitats in the future. The basic conclusion is that the more tall (50-foot or more), dense trees we manage to cultivate and preserve, the better the hawks population (and other high-nesting creatures) will be. I’m copying the email verbatim, and will post an update when they complete their recommendations to the city with regards to the MTP.

This year, we monitored 4 Cooper’s Hawk nests, which fledged 10 birds. Over the last 4 years (2006-2009), we have monitored 17 nests, which have fledged 48 birds. The number of birds fledged per nest per year: 3.8, 2.5, 3.3, and 2.5.

The number of nests by tree species 2006-2009:

Sweet Gum (Liquidambar) 5
London Plane 4
Red Alder 2
Douglas Fir 2
Blue Gum Eucalyptus 1
Moreton Bay Fig 1
Modesto Ash 1
Southern Magnolia 1

Nests by locale:

Street trees 10
Park trees 6
Back yard trees 1

As you can see from the above lists, the most popular nest trees are Sweet Gum, and London Plane. These trees have been deprecated in the city’s tree plan. Also note, that over half the nest trees are street trees.

The next step is to look at the trees recommended in the city tree plan to see if any of them will provide an adequate nesting alternative. Will do this soon and will keep you posted.

Thanks to everyone for their help this season. A special thanks to Monica for visiting all the nest sites today and doing the tree IDs.


For those unfamiliar with the birds in question, here is some background on Cooper’s hawks, excerpted from a letter written to the City last year by Corinne Lambden, another hawks observer:

Alameda is an established nesting environment of Cooper’s hawks and therefore I recommend that the city consider the nesting requirements and the overall wellbeing of these hawks as an environmental management issue, incorporated into a long-term tree management plan.

A vital reason for doing this is that Cooper’s hawks are a California Species of Special Concern, which is a designation applied when a species shows a sudden and measurable decline in numbers. Because of this designation, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, with funding from the California Parks Conservancy and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, has instituted a Cooper’s Hawks Intensive Nesting Survey (CHINS) to more closely monitor the nesting success of Cooper’s hawks in urban environments.
These hawks prefer to locate their nests on groups of older, mature trees and the nests are typically a inimum of 50′ above the ground. Examples of nesting sites are Gibbons Drive, Washington Park, Chapin Street, Central Avenue and Jackson Park. [….]

Unfortunately, it appears that the types of trees that he hawks favor for nesting, because they provide the necesety height and thickly foliaged canopy, are the same trees that frequently cause problems because of the habit of their roots to raise sidewalks and street surfaces. It is therefore particularly important that the city be aware of the needs of Cooper’s hawks, as well as other worldlife that rely on our urban forests for food and cover, and include these considerations into their actions to mitigate the damage cause by liquidambars and similar trees.

I want to personally thank Corinne, Harv, Monica and all the other volunteers taking time to monitor, advocate for, and enhance the habitat of all the wild creatures we share this pleasant island with. If you want to be involved in this endeavour, drop me a line and I will see that you get in touch.

How does your forest grow?

A couple nights ago on BBC they had a piece about the urban forests of Rio de Janeiro (Tijuca and Pedra Branca). They are not what we normally mean by urban forest—a collection of all trees throughout a city. They are real forests, the kind where wild, endangered animals live and native plants grow wild and free. What’s interesting is that while they both are claimed to be the world’s largest, one is natural (having become incorporated into the city as it grew), and the other is entirely hand-planted, thanks to a very wise man who happened to be the mayor of Rio in the 19th century. The news story was about the pressure by middle class Brazilians to encroach and built their homes in the forest; it also mentioned the problem of foraging and raids into the forest by the poor population of the city. So the government is building a wall around it.

Another interesting fact I’ve been meaning to mention for some time is the European Greenbelt project. Again, this is not what you would typically think about when you hear the word “greenbelt”—a ring of land restricted for development, encircling a populated area. The European greenbelt is a ribbon of undeveloped land weaving across all of Europe from the Arctic Ocean to the Black See and the Mediterranean and consisting if every type of habitat imaginable—tundra, boreal and broadleaf forests, meadows and rivers. This not-so-accidental nature area has come into existence not by the conservation efforts of man but as a result of 40 years of iron curtain policies and enforcement of a buffer zone between Western and Eastern Europe. As a result of the restricted movement of people across this land (save border guards and Eastern European fugitives dashing across) the zone became a wildlife sanctuary of sorts, home to all kinds of endagered species, and a migratory bird route—probably the only man-made bird route in the world! When people noticed this, the Greenbelt idea was born (and I think, the phrase). Sadly, less than a decade later, it too is under pressures of development, suburban and agricultural alike. A wall alongside it though, as in Rio, would just be just too much of an irony (or something), I’m afraid.

Now these two bits have nothing to do with the fact that the Beltline is now officially city property and zoned as open space (thanks once again, Jean Sweeney!), other that it made me think that the Beltline is our own impromptu greenbelt, and that it could become our urban wild forest, if we so desire. It has been a de facto no man’s land the whole time legal wrangling was going on, and meanwhile it’s grown quite wild and unfamiliar, and I should add, littered. What animals dwell there, I don’t know, but birds are audible and insects are omnipresent. A stroll through the abandoned property is a trip of its own, and it does feel like you’ve stepped away somewhere. Last time I visited I was thinking how sorry I would be to see something tamed and manicured replace this impromptu wilderness, even shabby as it is; that while I would hope that some day it would once again be used as a train or light rail route, I would hate to see it all asphalted and sodded and lanscaped and sprinklered, and mowed by a gas-powered lawnmower. Rather, I’d like to see native plants and wild, tangled trees growing untamed and dirt paths that meander through, with small and tasteful benches here and there, where the adults can rest and listen to nature’s sounds while the kids explore the jungle on their own. Sound fun?

Speaking of growing a forest, another prime spot is Neptune Park, between Webster Street and Constitution, and the whole area along the approach to the Posey Tube, on the right. Right now, that’s all yellow grass and sickly trees. There is landscaping plan for part of that area, but it is oh so bland and boring, and requires ongoing maintenance and irrigation—a very silly thing indeed for a sliver of land nobody would actively use. Wouldn’t an oak forest be just the thing for this otherwise dead spot?

Telling the Tail

Trees were much on my mind last week, so much in fact, that I haven’t had time to write about them. Since the tree pruners are going about it like crazy in my ‘hood, aka “Zone 4,” I’ve been unable to escape their white truck and orange cones no matter what route I take, and the noise of their branch-crunching machinery has become a major cause for anxiety, if it’s okay to share that publicly.

What is there so much to worry about? The fact that the other day A-Plus Trimmers were on Broadway, hacking away at the ashes there. Since I wrote about the trees on Broadway a while ago (specifically the way they’ve butchered/lion-tailed in the past), I’ve been watching them carefully since and I was literally praying they would be spared this time. So when I saw those people in hard hats roping’em up, and the pile of branches on the ground, my heart just sank. Needless to say, I called PW to have them supervise the work, as I believe there’s no more room for mistakes there. I had a long conversation with someone named Flavio who assured me somebody did go on location quickly, and that the job the pruners were doing is okay. But I’m not at all sure. Even though the bad shape of the Broadway trees is not this contractor’s fault, they seem to go on maintaining the bad cut, instead of allowing the tree to recover and try to restore its crown. This is not acceptable. I know that I and a few other people called to express concerns. But more pressure on the city is needed to stop this destructive practice that slowly kills so many of our street trees.

Lion-tailing is so bad, it is truly a mystery to me why it continues to be tolerated. Some of it is probably ignorance, but I’m sure that’s not all. Here’s an excellent article (informative AND funny) that offers some guesses as to why we do what we do to trees. Something’s weird with the PDF and I can’t copy the best parts from it, but just go ahead and read it—you’d be a better person for it and will be able to speak with some authority should you happen to converse with a tree worker who tells you your tree’s “load” needs to be “lightened.”

Here’s a few examples of lion-tailed trees (fine, one is a joke—it’s okay to look that way in a children’s book):

Do you recognize the shape? Do you think THIS is the way a NORMAL tree looks? Hope not. These are not Broadway trees. I have pictures of them here. Make a note of how many trees you see around town have no leaves whatsoever for full 2/3 of their height, and a few tufts whipping around on the top of a shaved branch. This is WRONG. If you see someone doing it—please stop them. It you can’t—report it. The city should—and they do—know better—if they were to follow their own guidelines. But we need eyes on the street, watching for this. The damage is permanent, and it IS your business, I have no problem saying, because you are the one who will have to look at that cripppled creature daily or watch the tree die of malnutrition because of the leaf mass lost. I’ve been advocating a lot of personal action on this blog—even though it would be easier to say it is the city’s job to do things right. For a variety of reasons, they either don’t, or can’t always.

The best way to deal with a lion-tailed tree is to leave it alone— allow it to fill itself first, and maybe later selectively choose some of the new growth and let it develop into branches (not the perfect branch the tree would have had if it never got lion-tailed, but better than nothing). The worst way to act is to continue to “do something” for no good reason whatsoever, typically repeating the previous mistakes all over again, by cleaning out the “suckers” until the tree dies of malnutrition.

Will you help stop the tails now?

250,176 and counting

San Jose is yet another city that does not immediately evoke the idea of “lush” or “verdant,” for me anyway. I think of it more as big, diverse, and pragmatic as a Silicon Valley capital, and rather dusty from what I’ve seen driving through. Nevertheless, it’s a city of some quarter million trees, or one for every 4 inhabitants, and I heard that it’s working towards a one-to-one ratio (increasing the number of trees, that is, not getting rid of residents). Who is responsible for this worthy goal? Why, a non-profit tree group of course, called Our City Forest, that has been working closely with the City of San Jose for over 15 years. I happened to be there last Saturday for a job fair, learning more about the group and listening to what some of the attendees, many from San Jose themselves, had to say. (Two themes that stuck out: “The air in San Jose is so dirty, I had to do something about it,” and “People really take their trees for granted until they are gone, and then it’s too late.”) But guess what? OCF does not wait until it’s too late: Their rather small staff and 4,000 (!) unpaid volunteers plant anywhere for just a few to up to 40 trees on public rights of way EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY! The group, which receives funding through grants and gets recruits through the AmeriCorps service program among others, owns not one or two but a fleet (!) of vehicles, including watering trucks (it’s the heart of the valley after all) as well as several nurseries, and helps homeowners comply with the San Jose’s strict tree ordinances.

San Jose has an extensive Municipal Code section dealing with trees, residents’ responsibilities towards trees, tree removal permits, and enforcement. For starters, San Jose homeowners are required to have a tree fronting their property (3 trees per corner property and 2 trees per mid-block property, as space allows, and in their deed it needs to state whether the property complies with the requirement or not). The trees are to be planted, watered, mulched and even pruned (with a permit) by the responsible homeowner. It is a city that clearly takes its urban forest seriously (It has an official City Arborist position for god’s sake!). I haven’t read the entire code in detail, but the two things I gleaned from it so far are that 1) it places a lot of responsibility for the adjacent street tree on the individual homeowner, and 2) provides excellent incentives and resources for residents to assume this responsibility, OCF being its prime educator and assistant in this task.

I will leave you with couple links to browse at your leisure. I have to say I really enjoy the look of the OCF’s website, and the programs they offer are definitely worth learning about to see what could be applied here on our fair island. Like the Sacramento Tree Foundation I wrote about here, OCF too has an alliance with PG&E to reduce energy consumption through strategically planted trees.

Our City Forest website
San Jose Tree ordinances, Chapters 13-28 and 13-32

Yes you can!

I stopped by this morning to check out a tree marked for removal on High Street. It’s not posted because it is one of those trees Public Works decides are “hazardous” and does not have to post, according to policy. (How do you know a tree is to be taken out?—There a pink line drawn across the trunk, at right about neck height. Pretty obvious, huh?) To be honest, I’m not sure why one tree would be labeled hazardous while another down the block in the same shape or worse is not, and I’m trying to find out the criteria, as well as what’s budgeted for this work as opposed to let’s say planting, but meanwhile, as I was checking it out, the resident walked out and we chatted a little. He said the city removed the tree next door 5 years ago, some flowers taking up the planting strip now. He said the city would not replace it. “Oh no, I said, maybe they would, if you call them and ask them.” “Really, he said, then maybe I will.” “Bye.” “Bye—thanks for letting me know.” I hope he follows through.

My point telling this is that yes you can cause a tree to be planted! You don’t need to suffer quietly as you look out on your treeless sidewalk, grumble that the city never does anything right (which it often doesn’t), or shrug your shoulders and declare it not your business. All you need to do is pick up the phone, call 749-5840, give them your address and say that you’d like a replacement tree (or two) in front of your property. Don’t forget to mention you’d water, weed, and take good care of the new tree.

Yes, it takes that kind of personal initiative, even it feels like that shouldn’t be “your business.” We all know that the budget is in shreds and dozens of city workers just got laid off, making the work of all departments that much harder, but the folks at Public Works will appreciate your active interest in making your street a better place, and just might help you do that. At any rate, they would rather plant a tree near a residence where the people care, as opposed to a place where nobody gives a hoot.

Should you decide—and you very well could, considering how good trees are for your property value—to pay for the street tree (or an extra tree) yourself, be sure it’s a species approved in the Master Tree Plan. Because cities receive pretty decent nursery discounts, you may get it cheaper by offering to pay for one of their trees than if you just go for it on your own.

Good luck. Let me know how it goes.