It's difficult to tell a good ficus from a bad one. The city has determined the specimen on the right is potentially dangerous and must be removed, but the one on the left is fine. Some locals remain flummoxed. Photo by Annie Berman

On Monday evening, dozens of opinionated Mission locals attended a combined community meeting and walking tour of 24th Street’s beautiful yet troubled ficus trees — 51 of which have been slated for removal as early as June. According to city officials, the determination comes after years of local complaints about tripping hazards caused by roots breaking through sidewalks, and large branches breaking free on windy days. 

Chris Buck, a forester for San Francisco Public Works, led the tour, which grew heated when residents demanded an explanation for why their beloved trees have to go. The ficuses create an iconic and lush canopy over the neighborhood, and are nearly 50 years old. Buck explained that the species’ trunk design — “co-dominant, competing stems” is the reason so many ficus trees are struggling health-wise, difficult to maintain, and potentially destructive.

Usually, it’s possible to prune an unruly tree by cutting its main trunk stem, Buck explained. But ficus trees are tricky because they have more than one central stem competing for dominance. This means the tree is challenging to maintain, and also prone to splitting, rot, becoming infested by insects — and failing catastrophically.

And these potentially dangerous trees aren’t easy to spot.

“The trees that look the greenest to the public are, unfortunately, often the ones that are the least structurally sound,” Buck said as the group huddled close, with many gazing sadly at a ficus near the McDonald’s on Mission & 24th streets that’s slated for removal. He assured them that the city had heard the community’s distress in response to the potential loss of the trees, and added that the only trees they planned to cut down were the ones that were in the worst condition.

Still, many people who showed up expressed outrage and skepticism over the city’s proposal to remove the trees.

“The city just declared a climate emergency,” said one onlooker. “Has any thought been given to how removing so many of these old, giant trees might impact health?”  

Public Works forester Chris Buck found he had a tough crowd in explaining why 51 ficus trees along 24th Street must be razed. Photo by Annie Berman.

Buck countered that, as a result of public pushback, the city had in fact taken 20 trees off the chopping block. These trees would instead be aggressively pruned, in an experimental attempt to preserve them as long as possible. He added that he couldn’t promise that this technique would work; often, aggressive pruning of ficus trees leads to their demise. But he said he’s hopeful that the 20 trees in question would survive for at least another 10 years.

Buck laid out a plan to replace many of the ficus trees towering over 24th Street with red maples and ginkgoes, two species with less aggressive roots and a lighter canopy, to let more light in. He said the good news was that, very recently, the city had secured dedicated funding for regular tree maintenance — something that had been a problem in the past.

“We’re committed to planting and watering the trees in this corridor,” Buck pledged.

If the city has its way, this ficus adjacent to the McDonald’s at Mission and 24th, won’t be long for this world. Photo by Annie Berman.

After an hour of walking around and another hour or so of sitting and talking at Alley Cat Books on 24th Street, Buck’s thoroughness seemed to impress some initial skeptics — though it’s still clear that a number of residents remain dead-set against removing these trees, regardless of the city’s rationale.

The final fate of the ficus trees will be determined at a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, June 5  at 5:30 p.m. in room 416 of City Hall. Members of the public have until then to appeal the decision.

The date of the subsequent meeting was rescheduled from May to June following the publication of this article. 

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  1. TBH, communities aren’t built by masters degree folks, they’re built by the people who live there (and I say this as Someone who has a masters degree.) They are experts, but they are not the community. Experts brought us urban renewal as well. It’s critical to listen to the community because they know more about what matters to the neighborhood than any expert. An expert can only lend their advice and opinion—if a community disagrees, I don’t see how people like me could get off telling *them* they’re wrong.

  2. what is replacing the ficus trees?

    If people want a nice walk without being hit by a branch they can simply walk down south van ness and see how “nice” the walk is.

  3. Personally I think the ficus trees have not been maintained in recent years which is why there is now a problem. Why not prune them correctly before pulling them all out? Also, they are not being replaced ny Ginkos and maples as the article suggested, they are planting Magnolias. Which are the messiest trees in the city. Please stop planting magnolia trees!

  4. Typical San Francisco community engagement. Know nothings that have no education in the subject telling these city employees who have masters degrees in biology, horticulture, forestry , environmental science and certified arborists….that they don’t know what they’re talking about and chiding the city that they only want to “take their trees”.

  5. DPWs says the trees pose a safety risk without quantifying the risk and comparing the numbers against the health benefits. The worsest is the DPWs replacement plans show how little the agency understands local culture. The thick tree canopy is an essential characteristic of 24th street. And why don’t they start with Hayes valley ficus trees? The DPW behaves arrogant and poorly organized. These trees need to be replaced with an EQUIVALENT acceptable to the people of the Mission!

  6. In the Trumpian age, we are trained to deal only in “gut feelings” and ready outrage. I have lost hope for the science based society that our forefathers envisioned for us. I feel like we are overwhelmed by anti-science goofballs on all sides now (antivaxers anyone?).
    Why do people with no basis to comment cary any weight at all?

  7. SF, world capital of tree haters!
    the city has one of the smallest canopy of all major cities in the world. even Los Angeles (gasp!!!) has way more trees.
    the usual replacements cannot really be called trees, they are shrubs. sad…

  8. Please rise for the Anthem of the 24th Street Corridor:

    >> Still, many people who showed up expressed outrage

  9. Just leave the trees alone…not only do we NEED more green in this city to thrive, the smarter cities are figuring out how to plant plant life with skyscrapers.

    The smarter cities ADD more green.

    The dumber cities take them away.

    1. >The dumber cities take them away.

      Good thing that isn’t happening here, with the one for one replacement of these dangerous trees with new trees.

    2. San Francisco will replace these trees. Of course they will! These EDUCATED PROFESSIONALS have our best interests at heart. But more than that, our safety in mind.

    3. “Buck laid out a plan to replace many of the ficus trees towering over 24th Street with red maples and ginkgoes…”

      Pro-tip: Read more than the headline.

    4. I understand your passion, but its not logical whatsoever…. the SF Urban Forestry wants trees, loves trees, and would do anything they can to protect/plant trees… but they also are responsible for public safety…. the City of SF plants lots of trees each year; and the SF Urban Forest Plan spells out a growth plan…. how many have you planted this past year?

  10. If you know anything about trees and ficus in general you know this has to happen. People who disagree don’t understand the dangers involved. These trees are mature, have weak attachments and massive end weight. 24th street is my neighborhood and I’ve seen huge systems peel off and destroy houses and cars right on 24th. If you remember in recent history the limbs that fell on 24th st head start or by blind cat? Massive failures that crushed cars and dented buildings and created roof damage in the rainy season. Thank god no people got hurt! I’m a native Frisco homie AND an Arborist. I know we have to let those sentimental emotions go and think practically. Let’s get real.

    1. I am all for proper maintenance and for removal when necessary as ficus were removed from near my domicile on Oak St. BUT they must be replaced. We need all the green life we can get. Concrete and asphalt are NOT beautification nor air filters. Signed, Native San Francisco dottir

      1. “Buck laid out a plan to replace many of the ficus trees towering over 24th Street with red maples and ginkgoes…”

        Signed, Someone who can read entire articles before feigning outrage.

    2. Maybe we should cut down every car thats a danger to human beings on24th street. Oh waitaminnit! Does the author above own a car?

      1. You can control cars, you cant completely control trees… have you ever lost a friend from a large falling branch?… No I didn’t think so… The Urban Forestry Bureau loves trees and wants to keep and add trees… and they also want to ensure public safety. I grew up right around 24th St, and have always loved those trees, but as with everything else in life, there is a cycle and now its time to replace the declining and unsafe trees…