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Originally published Friday, March 7, 2014 at 11:02 AM

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Seattle’s arborist wants more trees and better care for them

By the way, Nolan Rundquist is emphatic that we call the slice of lawn/dirt between sidewalk and street a planting strip, not a parking strip. “I don’t want people to park on them, I want people to plant out there,” he says.

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SEATTLE CITY Arborist Nolan Rundquist has been in charge of Seattle’s street trees for 15 years. He started out pruning trees in Lincoln, Neb., and still has the Midwesterner’s love for spreading shade trees.

Rundquist’s goals include planting a greater diversity of city trees, as well as elevating how our trees are cared for. “We work with local nurseries,” he says. “If they have something cool, we’ll try it. We have lots of experiments going on.”

And he’s passionate about making sure Seattle trees aren’t disfigured or turned into hazard trees by shoddy pruning.

To this end, he spearheaded the first tree-related ordinance to be passed in Seattle’s Department of Transportation in 50 years. Now, all tree pruning on city planting strips must be done by, or supervised by, a certified arborist. (It’s all explained in the new city Street Tree Manual, available to download at

Speaking of planting strips, Rundquist is emphatic that we call the slice of lawn/dirt between sidewalk and street a planting strip, not a parking strip. “I don’t want people to park on them, I want people to plant out there,” he explains.

So how is Seattle doing with its trees compared to other cities? “Better than average,” says Rundquist, who notes that we have a fairly young canopy here because most street trees weren’t planted until the 1970s.

“Our goal is to achieve a 30 percent canopy, and now we’re in the mid-20s. Some folks look at 40 percent as desirable, but I’m not sure that’s possible,” he says. Seattle has view issues, for one thing. And, ironically, as we push for more density in the city, we appreciate trees more but have less space for them.

Recognizing the problem, Rundquist is pioneering a new technology that makes more room for tree roots underground. Silva-cell is a brace system that creates rooting area and air space between the sidewalk and tree roots. “We can’t go back and retrofit” where trees already are in place, he says, “but we can encourage developers and others to use the new technology.”

One of the most frequent questions he gets is from homeowners asking who owns the planting strip in front of their house. It’s confusing. While trees, or any plants growing out there, are regulated by the city arborist’s office, the homeowner is expected to maintain them. Can we prune street trees in front of our house? Can we take them out so there’s enough sun to plant vegetables?

The city is happy for you to raise vegetables on the parking strip, but not to remove a tree to do so. Trees have priority. “But no 6-foot-high sweet corn that’ll block sightlines,” says Rundquist. “We have to take public safety into consideration.”

As for the trees, you can’t prune without a permit (well, you can cut a few little branches, but nothing major). And you need a permit for tree removal, which will only be given for good reason, such as disease.

Nearly 200,000 trees are growing along city streets, 150,000 of them cared for by homeowners. Rundquist’s office cares for the rest, yet he’s determined to plant more, particularly in the underserved South End. “There were hardly any street trees there before 2006,” he says. So the city has planted oak and crabapple, pear and maple trees in the area of Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Way.

Which trees would Rundquist like to see more of? “I love copper beeches in wider planting strips,” he says. And, true to his Nebraska roots, he admires the elms shading the streets in Washington Park.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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