Seattle – Partnerships for the Urban Forest

Seattle’s emergence into the national spotlight for green initiatives is often linked to former-Mayor Greg Nickels, who in 2005 began a campaign to encourage mayors across the country to adopt the climate change goals of the Kyoto Protocol on a city level. Just two years later, the 500th mayor signed onto the Nickels-led U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.[1] In reality, though, Seattle’s sustainability efforts began earlier, notably under Nickels’ predecessor, Mayor Paul Schell, whose background was city planning and development. Schell and others started the ball rolling for Nickels to solidify. As Jill Simmons with the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment told a Seattle Met reporter in 2008, “The city has been committed to sustainability for a long time. It’s not like Seattle magically began looking at climate change in February 2005. But the mayor’s Climate Protection initiative really gave everything a kick in the butt.”[2] Over the next few years, the city would institute a number of management plans designed to enhance Seattle’s greenspaces.

Student Conservation Association volunteers on Green Seattle Day. Credit: Larisa Lumba

In 2004, under prompting from Nickels, the city of Seattle and the nonprofit Forterra (then-known as Cascade Land Conservancy) joined together to create the Green Seattle Partnership. This publicprivate partnership is based around a 20-year strategic plan to create “a healthy, livable city with a sustainable urban forest.” The plan identifies 2,500 acres of greenspace managed by Seattle Parks and Recreation — Seattle has more than 6,000 acres of parkland in total — for restoration by 2025 and will focus specifically on addressing invasive plant issues plaguing the city and planting a sustainable, near-native forest for the future. It’s estimated that without management, 70 percent of Seattle’s forested land will be ecologically dead in 20 years due to invasive plants.[3]

Kory Kramer, Forterra’s Green Cities program manager, describes how Green Seattle’s restoration work plan began with habitat “Treeiage,” developed by Seattle Parks and Recreation, which involves breaking down the 2,500 identified acres into small units for individual management strategies. These strategies are then built around four key phases of restoration work — removing invasives, doing a second sweep for invasives while conducting planting activities, short-term maintenance and long-term maintenance. The important next step is to assign costs to each stage and type of area, creating a funding target. The success of the Green Seattle Partnership has not only spurred five other Puget Sound communities to adopt the Green City model, but New York City has also used the partnership as a model.

One of the most interesting things about this work is that it’s being conducted mainly by volunteers. “If we want to look at what’s unique about the Green Cities program — and we hear it over and over again from our city partners — its biggest strength is getting the community involved in this work,” says Kramer. “The Green Seattle Partnership last year had well more than 80,000 volunteer hours dedicated to restoration work on the parks.” Adds Mark Mead, senior urban forester for Seattle Parks and Recreation, “Another measure of our success is that through direct donations, grants and outside sources, the citizens and nonprofit partners have matched Parks funding at a two-forone level. This is truly an amazing program.”

Mead attributes the success of the program to the direct application of the Urban Forest Sustainability Model that was presented in the January 1997 issue Journal of Arboriculture by leading urban foresters. The model outlines the three elements essential for a sustainable, beneficial urban forest: a healthy forest and other vegetation, community-wide support and a comprehensive management approach. It also emphasizes the need for periodically assessing the status of each of the elements to ensure that sustainability goals are achieved.[4] “The model emphasizes that a successful urban forestry program must know the science behind what is happening in the forest, or our Treeiage; it must know who is managing the forest with what resources; and it must fully engage the community in the work and advocacy. The Green Seattle Partnership works on all three of these elements at the same time, assuring its success.

“While planting projects are included in the Green Seattle plan, these volunteers are also helping plant trees as part of Seattle reLeaf. Seattle reLeaf is a city program devised as a way to help Seattle achieve the canopy goals set forth in its firstever urban forest plan, the 2007 Urban Forest Management Plan. In the plan, Seattle identifies that by 2037, the canopy cover in the city should reach 30 percent through the addition of an estimated 649,000 new trees on private property, in parks, on commercial property and industrial sites and more.[5]

With approximately 74 percent of Seattle’s land privately owned, the city identified a need to engage residents in planting efforts outside of the park work happening with Green Seattle. Since 1996, the city’s Department of Neighborhoods has provided more than 17,000 trees to more than 600 neighborhood groups for planting through its Neighborhood Matching Fund’s Tree Fund program.[6]After the release of the Urban Forest Management Plan, this program morphed into Seattle reLeaf’s Trees for Neighborhoods, which provides free trees to Seattle residents each fall for planting on private property.

The Trees for Neighborhoods program works hand-in-hand with Seattle’s Tree Ambassador program, which trains residents in the basics of urban forestry, leadership and community organizing with the goal that they will engage their individual communities around urban forest work, such as invasives removal, tree plantings and pruning. Kramer relates that Seattle’s more than 130 Forest Stewards and 40 Tree Ambassadors contribute thousands of valuable volunteer hours to urban forestry work every year.


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[1]  The U.S. Conference of Mayors. Climate Protection Center. U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. (accessed Oct. 1, 2012).

[2] Barcott, B. Shades of Green. Seattle Met [Online] 2008. (accessed Oct. 1, 2012).

[3] Green Seattle Partnership. 20-year Strategic Plan. (accessed Oct. 1, 2012).

[4] Clark, J.R.; Matheny, N.P.; Cross, G.; and Wake, V. A Model of Urban Forest Sustainability. Journal of Arboriculture. 1997, 23(1), 17-30.

[5] City of Seattle. Office of Sustainability and Environment. Plans and Documents. Urban Forest Management Plan April 2007. (accessed Oct. 1, 2012).

[6] City of Seattle. Office of Sustainability and Environment. Plans and Documents. Urban Forest Management Plan April 2007. (accessed Oct. 1, 2012).