Case Study

City Planning

Going Public — 2016 San Francisco Ballot Initiative Requires City to Maintain Street Trees


Too much pruning by private owner. Credit: Friends of the Urban Forest, San Francisco

When street trees suffer and sidewalks crumble, requiring homeowners to maintain them sometimes won’t work.

San Francisco, California

Varied micro-climates with cool, damp winters; dry, warm summers. Topography dictates many distinct micro-climates.


White, 48%
Asian, 43%
Hispanic, 15%
Black, 6%
Other, 6%
Two or more, 4%

Until this year, San Francisco required property owners to maintain trees in the public sidewalk area next to their property.

The policy didn’t work.

The Solution

In November 2016, San Francisco voters approved a ballot initiative that assigned responsibility for maintaining street trees to the City government. The initiative set aside $19 million from the City’s General Fund to cover costs.

“It’s silly that this is such a big deal and had to wind up on the ballot, after much back-and-forth and political argument, but it’s a big deal in a lot of neighborhoods.” San Francisco Guardian.

Seeking to shed costs, the City transferred responsibility to property owners several years ago. The results: not very promising.

topped tree by private owner

Not a good idea.Courtesy, Friends of the Urban Forest San Francisco

Given that owners reluctant to pay the price of periodic trimming would either cut them down or prune without mercy, both elected officials and a majority of residents agreed the City had to step in. The $19 million cost will be covered by what the San Francisco Guardian called a “remarkably progressive parcel tax based on the frontage size of a lot.”

Many communities don’t have access to a ballot initiative process as flexible as California’s. But this initiative was placed on the ballot by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While the mechanics of policy may differ, the San Francisco initiative demonstrates how elected officials can get behind robust urban forestry initiatives if they understand the stakes. San Francisco residents and political leaders got the message. Not only did they know their city had one of the smallest tree canopies among major cities; they could see for themselves how much more care their city trees needed.


  • Ballot initiative requires funding by the City at $19 million annually to maintain roughly 105,000 street trees and adjacent sidewalks.
  • The City may change the level of funding if revenues are inadequate.
  • Eliminating or vastly scaling back the program may require ballot action.
  • Strong community pressure from a variety of groups energized policymakers, and turned out a majority vote on the Proposition.
  • The most severely affected neighborhoods became the most vocal.
  • While the ballot initiative process may not be available in most communities, it’s important to understand all options available to influence changes in public policy.
  • Proposition E was supported by Friends of the Urban Forest, and endorsed by 55 organizations, including both local Democratic and Republican parties, labor unions, educators and neighborhood organizations.
Lessons Learned
  • Explore all pathways to achieve the urban forest policies and funding your community needs.
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