Sacramento – From Parks to Transportation to
Public Works

Sacramento created its Parks and Recreation Department in 1911. For the next 96 years, this group would oversee the city’s urban forestry concerns — from annual street tree plantings beginning in 1923 to a series of tree-damaging catastrophic windstorms from the 1930s to 1950s to an aging, sick elm canopy in the 1980s.[1] By the early 2000s, though, the city’s urban forestry program was languishing as a tiny section for Parks Maintenance within the Parks and Recreation Department. That would soon change.

From 2003 to 2004, the department brought in an industry expert to conduct a best management practices study. This study focused on operations activities, such as crew training levels and work output. When the study was completed, a recommendation that would change the city’s urban forestry practices emerged: to elevate urban forestry out of Parks Maintenance into a division of its own that would be run by a new urban forester who would serve as the division manager. This idea was seconded by a citizen advisory group that was put together to offer feedback on prioritizing the study’s recommendations.

In 2005, the city hired Joe Benassini to fill this management role: “The idea was to address not just some of the operational things, but also some of the policy issues because the best management practices study also pointed out [urban forestry’s] lack of strategic planning and policy foundation.”

For the next several years, the Urban Forestry team worked to address structural issues within the new division, hiring Todd Martin, an experienced operations manager with a background in municipal, utility and commercial arboriculture. The division would devote many staff hours and resources to training, bringing its staff and crew up-to-speed with the best practices for urban forestry work. Part of this work involved looking to outside experts to help with maintaining the city’s canopy. “One of the key elements was to recognize that we couldn’t do it all ourselves,” says Benassini. “Our crews have specific talents and responsibilities, but there was just no way to get through all of it. We had a five-year backlog of work orders. Today, we have none.”

Trees provide shade for a Sacramento neighborhood. Credit: City of Sacramento

Trees provide shade for a Sacramento neighborhood. Credit: City of Sacramento

A few years into Benassini’s tenure as the urban forestry manager, the division would undergo another change, as it was transferred from Parks and Recreation to the Department of Transportation in 2007 — a change that made logistical sense because 70 percent of the Urban Forestry team’s work focused on right-of-way spaces, which are the purview of Transportation. This change also allowed Parks and Recreation to focus on the social issues of recreation, while the maintenance side was handled elsewhere. Cross-training opportunities between forestry and street crews arose from the new arrangement.

In 2012, the city departments would realign again. Transportation became Transportation Engineering, narrowing its focus to traffic engineering concerns, and Urban Forestry found itself as a section of the Department of Public Works. However, this latest administrative change hasn’t affected Urban Forestry’s plans or focus. “The objective has always been to go from a reactive to a proactive goal for tree work,” says Benassini.

“One of the struggles that cities have is that they were founded, developed and planted — or sections were — and then the planners moved on,” Benassini continues. “You end up with an even-aged stand that grows, flourishes and provides a wonderful canopy and then begins to decline as a result of trees aging. The big trick is how you provide for a mix of trees across the city that provide even benefits citywide over a long period of time sustainably.” In Sacramento, the Urban Forestry team is addressing these concerns in a few ways.

Step one was beginning a three- to five-year pruning cycle in 2007 and 2008 — which matches industry standards for tree pruning, but is often not something cities are able to accomplish with limited funds — to help protect and maintain the existing urban canopy. Step two is planting between 1,000 and 2,000 trees per year to maintain the diversity of ages in the canopy. Step three is ensuring these new trees survive in Sacramento’s arid climate by addressing irrigation needs for the first three to five years of a newly planted tree’s life, along with early structural pruning. With this system in place, Sacramento’s Urban Forestry team hopes to maintain and increase the 115,000 street, park and city-facility trees for which it is responsible, particularly in underserved areas where canopy coverage is low. While Urban Forestry is doing this work, other groups in the city are focused on building Sacramento’s urban forest to help with other concerns.


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[1] McPherson and Luttinger.