Seattle residents love planting trees, and Seattle has been helping them to do so for many years. We have an array of tree planting programs scattered among different Departments, without either central coordination or dedicated oversight to ensure that trees are planted in a coherent fashion and are maintained and retained after planting. On Monday, June 13, the Council adopted legislation that will provide a unified focus for these programs, with a new, full time position located in Seattle Public Utilities that will staff a consolidated community tree planting and education program.
This legislation is one part of a long range program to increase our tree canopy cover, a goal which I sponsored adding to our Comprehensive Plan. That program will include both regulations to protect existing trees and incentives and programs to add and maintain new trees. We have created an Urban Forestry Commission to help guide our work in these areas. Our Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) provides a set of detailed guidelines as to how we can increase the tree cover, emphasizing residential zones as primary areas for canopy increase, since those zones make up 67% of the City.
However, while the effort to plant more trees in residential zones has had some success, it needs a significant improvement if we are to reach our long range goals. In 2009, the City Auditor reviewed our tree planting programs, and recommended that we create a full-time position to implement education and outreach under the UFMP. The Council, during the 2010 budget process, adopted a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) directing the Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) to develop and review options for the Council to provide a more effective administrative structure for the tree planting and education programs that involve the public.
OSE worked with an interdepartmental team of City staff from the Budget Office, Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Departments of Parks, Transportation, and Neighborhoods to review the proposed five-year implementation strategy for the UFMP and the recommendations of the City Auditor. This work concluded that centralizing tree work in a single department will increase efficiency and effectiveness, provide the best level of technical expertise and educational outreach, improve long-term tree survival through education and outreach, and best coordinate grant funding and direct services to the public.
Historically, the Department of Neighborhoods, the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and Seattle City Light have all provided trees to public planting programs. The Seattle reLeaf program educates the public and engages them in taking care of urban trees. The other Departments all have various levels of responsibility and engagement with communities around tree planting and maintenance.
After looking at all of these programs, OSE recommended, and the Council adopted, the proposal to consolidate all these programs in Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). SPU has numerous education and outreach programs, great technical capability related to trees, sustainable funding through the drainage rate, and a series of programs that are relevant to its mission that can be coordinated with the programs migrating from the other Departments (Restore Our Waters, Natural Lawns and Gardens, Rainwise, the Aquatic Habitat Matching Fund, and the Green Seattle Partnership).
During 2011, tree programs will be phased into the new relationship with SPU. In 2012, SPU will fully manage community tree work, with funding from SPU, City Light, and the general fund consolidated into a single program.
Expanding Seattle’s tree canopy will require a series of steps over a long period of time. This is one major step in that direction.