San Diego’s Trees are Going…Going…

by on March 15, 2023 · 6 comments

in Environment, History, San Diego

By Anne S. Fege / SOHO Newsletter March – April 2023

Considering the history of shade and ornamental trees in San Diego neighborhoods, it’s clear the numbers are going down—just as we need thousands more in every part of the city.

In older “privileged” neighborhoods (Kensington, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla, for example) that were developed in the 1920s and 1930s, there were large lots for trees. Some developers planted street trees, which were likely watered by tree roots reaching soil water in irrigated front lawns.

In older “redlined” and lower-income neighborhoods (south of the 94 freeway, now the Promise Zone) that were developed in those same decades, the lots were small, the streets were unpaved, and there were no sidewalks or street trees. Today, there are few places to plant trees, as paved parking areas cover many front yards and business districts.

Developments begun in the 1950s included larger commercial spaces, and parking lots were permitted with shade trees, that serve as “de facto” public green spaces. Many of these trees have been dwarfed, topped, or removed over the decades.

In neighborhoods developed since the 1960s, there were Maintenance Assessment Districts (MADs) or Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) set up to establish and maintain landscapes and trees in boulevards, neighborhood pocket parks, and other areas with public trees.

In recent decades, trees are being lost in older neighborhoods to infill development, with limited tree protection or replacement required by newly approved code changes. Other older trees, such as Torrey pines, have “outgrown” their sidewalk or yard spaces; are uprooted in storms and high winds; die because they aren’t watered deeply (once, each month without rain); or have to be removed because of public safety risks.

This stark loss of trees is one reason I co-founded Kate Sessions Commitment. You’ll remember she planted 100 trees in City Park, now Balboa Park, to help transform it from scruffy, untended land to the jewel of a park it is today. We invite communities to keep large trees healthy, and commit to planting and caring for another 100 trees each year on public and private land. Please join us.

Learn more at

Dr. Fege is a co-founder of Kate Sessions Commitment and chair of the City of San Diego’s Community Forests Advisory Board. She’s an adjunct professor of biology at San Diego State University, and was Forest Supervisor of the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego for 13 years.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

retired botanist March 15, 2023 at 4:21 pm

Thanks for publishing Anne’s missive! It was a tremendous pleasure collaborating w/ Anne some years ago during the Torrey pines debacle, and when we drafted the SD Tree Stewardship Handbook. She’s bright (that’s an understatement), committed, energetic, and has wonderful vision on where we SHOULD be with all this tree effort. I’m now somewhat out of the loop, not being in SD, but I will drill down on the Kate Sessions Commitment, to see how we might ALL, near or far, be able to contribute to this worthy effort. The big, take-away message (imo) is that its critically important to remember that a 150-yr old tree’s function and service to a community, habitat, and wildlife, simply cannot be replaced with some “Jacaranda sapling”! The City has performed so poorly on efforts to “mitigate” the removal of old trees, its literally an affront to science as we know it. Old, large trees are an incredible resource to any City, public safety notwithstanding, and deserve the very best intentions of preservation rather than demolition. That was partly what the Heritage Tree program was all about. From what I’ve read, that effort has languished, a lot! Please, if you have a specimen tree in your community, embrace it. Follow it, find out who’s taking care of it, if anyone is, and do your best to ensure it continues to thrive, whether for another 5 years or 50 years! The planet will be so grateful! As will Anne and I! :-)


sealintheSelkirks March 16, 2023 at 2:06 am

Man, does this bring me back to my Granny C’s house on Oliver Street in PB that was maybe three blocks east of Mission Blvd but not quite to Cass St. back in…1963?

They lived there for years until I was at PB Jr. High which was when they moved into another house on Diamond St. that had smaller ones but still a large backyard/front yard with lots of greenery that had overgrown the front fence.

But the Oliver house had huge trees (a relative term being as I was maybe 8 or 9 yrs old) and the entire block was shaded including the backyards and surrounding the houses and lining the street. They were so big that they almost met overhead in the middle of the street. I can still see them in my head and I haven’t thought about that house in probably five decades! How strange is that?

I don’t remember if there were sidewalks out front…or what kind of trees they were (maybe Torrey Pines?) but it was at least 10’F cooler on that street than anywhere else in middle of summer. Literally. Way cooler than riding to OB to visit my Granny K as palm trees suck for shade. But the surf was better in OB….

I’d ride my bike from the boiling hot sandbar of MB and cross PB Drive and instantly the air would cool off when I turned onto Oliver St. It smelled so good! And I loved climbing those trees as a kid, way up high until you got near the top where it was swaying this way and that in the ocean breezes but still be in the canopy shade. Watching the baby birds grow up in the nests that were up there. Those were the trees from the 1920s mentioned in the article I’d assume.

I wonder if they still exist?

Humans are a stupid species. When there is nothing left but concrete, asphalt, and buildings they’ll wonder why everything is going to shit, why it’s so hot (what, developers have never heard of ‘heat islands?’). But bank accounts will be fat for some. Until the banks crash. Then they won’t even have a tree to sit under.

I live in a pine & fir forest in these mountains with some out the window at 100 foot+ on my property, but I remember the Oliver Street trees having much wider canopies and spread out limbs than what I see out my window now. Far better for climbing than Lodgepole or Ponderosa pines, Red Fir, or Western Larch.

Thanks for bringing up this old memory. And very sorry to continue to read about the devastation being wrought on what’s left of the planted forests that used to shade my home down there. San Diego IS part of the northern Sonora Desert remember…most of those trees are not native.



nostalgic March 16, 2023 at 8:20 am

The City of Sheffield (England) appeared this morning in an email to me with the same lament, “Sheffield city council behaved dishonestly in street trees row, inquiry finds.” The report says events surrounding felling of thousands of trees was a ‘dark episode in Sheffield,’ and went on to say, “Sheffield city council twice misled the high court during the fierce row, during which elderly residents were arrested when trying to protect trees from the chainsaws.” The report was from Persephone Books, with the quote from the March 6 Guardian. Is this universal? Are they cutting down trees in China? A hatred for trees worldwide is a mysterious event.


Deb Porter March 16, 2023 at 9:52 am

I believe that the city is particularly eager to cut down palm trees because they need to be trimmed fairly often and it is more costly than maintenance for other types of tree.


Frank Gormlie March 16, 2023 at 12:52 pm

Deb, you’re on to something.


Geoff Page March 16, 2023 at 12:53 pm

The city just removed a whole row of tall, beautiful shade trees along the west side Dixieline Lumber. I contacted the city’s forester to ask why and his response was to submit a Public Records Request to find out why. That property will be part of the Sports Arena redevelopment project. If the trees ever needed removing, it would not have been for some years and the developer would have had to spend that money, not we San Diegans. This is what our city thinks of trees.


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