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City’s Urban Forester Promotes Stewardship of Trees

City’s Urban Forester Promotes Stewardship of Trees

Walter Passmore, the City of Palo Alto’s Urban Forester, says he is extremely enthusiastic about the Art Center’s winter exhibition, Rooted: Trees in Contemporary Art.

“I’m excited about the way the exhibit will get people to interact with trees and realize why trees are so important to the urban landscape,” says Walter, who became the City’s official urban forester in 2012. “I’m very eager to see how the artists in the exhibition bring out the different aspects of trees that they’re observing.”

From his teenage years growing up in San Francisco, Walter has always been interested in the planting and stewardship of trees.

“When I was 16, I taught forestry and nature in summer camp,” he recalls. “In fact, one of the counselors I taught with, John Muir Laws, is now a published author, artist, and accomplished naturalist working at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.”

Walter pursued a career in rural forestry in Mississippi and became the community assistance forester for the entire state in 1999. In 2012, he moved west and was appointed Urban Forester for the City of Palo Alto.

He now oversees the welfare of all the trees on public lands (street and park trees), is responsible for overseeing the trimming of trees near power lines, and makes sure that established trees are not negatively impacted by new construction.

“The world is becoming more urbanized, so making nature more accessible is very important for physical and mental health,” says Walter. “People are so stuck to their computer screens that they don’t get out and experience nature the way we used to.”

There is also an aesthetic and added value component to the planting and maintenance of trees in urban areas, says Walter.

“You can see that element in real estate ads, for instance,” he says. “The advertisements talk about tree-lined streets and nearby parks. There can be a substantial difference monetarily between a property with trees and a property without them.

Walter estimates that there are now about 760,000 trees on both public and private lands within the city boundary. This equates to a canopy cover of a little more than 38 percent. Canopy cover is commonly expressed as a percentage of total ground area: at 50 percent canopy cover—a number the Palo Alto City Council created as an aspirational goal—half of the total ground area is covered by the vertical projection of tree crowns.

Palo Alto has been accredited by the National Arbor Day Foundation as a Tree City USA for more than 30 years, and last year was named as a Tree Line USA city for the fifth consecutive year. Palo Alto has also received accreditation for the Society of Municipal Arborists, the highest recognition for municipal urban forestry programs.

Walter says the Urban Forestry Department also has a contract with Canopy, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization dedicated to growing an urban tree canopy in Midpeninsula communities, to engage in public education, outreach, and events.

“They help us with our work on newly established trees and they conduct a young tree care survey that we use to make maintenance corrections on trees that need to be pruned,” he says. “Canopy has also developed an online tree library and a survey of all the oak trees in the area. It’s important to know how the oaks are doing because their condition relates to the quality of animal and human habitat as well as function of the environment.”

According to Walter, people are the most challenging part of his job.

“People have opinions and they don’t always coincide with the overall needs of the community,” he says. “For instance, it seems that everyone has an opinion on what trees should be planted where.”

But Walter says that people are also the most rewarding part of his job as well.

“The fact that we’re planting and maintaining trees is making a difference in people’s lives, and that’s probably the most rewarding aspect of what I do,” he says.

The Art Center’s winter exhibition, Rooted: Trees in Contemporary Art, will be on view in the main gallery from January 25-April 5.

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Last Updated: January 15, 2020