Seattle – Plans for the Future

A hallmark of Seattle’s urban forest successes lies with the city’s cooperative efforts. For decades, an interdepartmental team representing various parties concerned with Seattle’s trees has been meeting to make sure all departments are on the same page. The Urban Forest Management Plan further solidified the collaboration among all of the different departments responsible for Seattle’s urban forest. Urban forester Mead relates that there’s good communication today among all of the different parties, resulting in a well-coordinated urban forest effort. As with the Green Seattle Partnership, the Urban Forest Management Plan is based upon the Urban Forest Sustainability Model.

Seattle skyline. Credit: David Herrara

Nolan Rundquist, city arborist with the Seattle Department of Transportation, mentions that three different assessments of Seattle’s urban forest have been completed over the years, but each contractor used a different methodology. The city is currently working on updating the Urban Forest Management Plan in an effort to assess the city’s progress in the last five years and part of this involves analyzing the different assessments to provide a more uniform look at Seattle’s forest.

“We’ll have more definitive and specific information and the ability to actually gauge how successful we’ve been in managing this forest,” Mead says. “We feel really comfortable that we’re going to find out some good info. Probably some bad [info], too, but I think we’re going to be pretty happy with what we find.”

Like many other cities, Seattle is also struggling with a lack of age distribution in the urban forest. “We planted pretty well up to 1930s. Then, we stopped planting,” Mead says. “The forest was basically planted 80 years ago, so now they’re falling down. We had pretty poor management up until 10 or 15 years ago.”

Finding the funding for a robust management and maintenance program — so essential to ensuring the long-term health of the urban forest — has also been difficult, adds Rundquist. “We’ve been able to add another maintenance crew to our staff, but we could definitely use more staffing for maintenance,” he says.

Updating the tree ordinances is another key to maintaining the health of the urban canopy. As Rundquist mentions, the city’s ordinance that deals with street trees hasn’t been updated since 1962, and the Tree Protection code, which deals with private property trees, hasn’t been updated in a decade.[1]

“We’ve made a lot of strides as far as tree protection in public places,” says Rundquist. “We’ve implemented tree protection zones. We have posters that display the values of trees when a construction project is underway so that people will stop and think, ‘I can’t damage this tree because it’s worth $20,000.’ We’re making good inroads in making sure the value of trees is out there in the development community, but a more involved education effort is needed to reach out to all of the constituents. If we’re going to grow the canopy, we really need to market the benefits and desirability of having canopy.”

Despite its challenges, the city is making tremendous progress in restoring Seattle’s urban forest, Mead says. “Certainly not getting the total amount of money we want to invest is hindering our work, but using what we have, we’re doing outrageously well,” he says. “The economy has hurt us just like everybody else, but we are continuing to thrive despite that. Seattleites love their trees.”


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[1] City of Seattle. Department of Planning and Development. Planning. Tree Regulations Update. (accessed Oct. 2, 2012).