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After Woman's Critical Injury, Friends Of Washington Square To Take Charge Of Park's Trees

A month after a woman was paralyzed by a falling tree limb in North Beach's Washington Square Park, there are questions still left unanswered—including why the limb fell, and how future incidents can be prevented. 

With the city's parks department continuing to face budgetary challenges in evaluating local trees, the park's private support organization, the Friends of Washington Square (FOWS), has decided to take the lead on the issue. 

36-year-old Cui Ying Zhou was visiting Washington Square Park with her 9 and 5-year-old daughters on August 12th when a 100-pound Canary Island pine tree branch fell 50 feet onto her head. She was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull and broken spine, and while doctors were able to save her life, they say she will never walk again. (Family members are raising money to help support Zhou and her family via a GoFundMe page.) 

After the incident, SF Rec and Park sent crews to inspect the tree; they determined that it and the park's other Canary Island pines were still in good condition. The agency says it will continue to do further assessments, but no other actions will be taken at this time.  

But according to FOWS member Ken Maley, most of the trees in the Square were planted in 1957, and since then, more than half of them have failed. As a result, FOWS has decided to take matters into its own hands.

Beginning this month, the organization is planning a complete park-wide tree assessment, along with recommendations of actions to be taken, and a long-term tree management plan for the next several years. 

FOWS will team up with consulting firm HortScience to conduct the assessment. The two organizations have been working together since the '80s, when HortScience conducted the first-ever tree assessment of the park. 

HortScience's last assessment of Washington Square's trees, paid for by Rec and Park, was completed in 2008, with an update in 2010. In 2013, Atlas Tree Company performed maintenance on the park's trees, including pruning the Canary Island pines around the Washington Square playground, where the pine that failed is located. 

Though the trees are technically the city's responsibility, the maintenance was paid for by Friends of Washington Square—to the tune of $10,000, said Rec and Park spokesperson Joey Kahn.

According to Kahn, Rec and Park currently has 177,000 trees under its care. However, a lack of funding has delayed reassessment schedules for most of them. The agency's most recent mission statement budget assessment says it will face budgetary shortfalls of approximately $1.8 million in 2016-17, due to the city's growing population and the 2014 addition of three new parks to Rec and Park's purview. 

“We’ve completed 14 tree assessments [in Washington Square city parks] in the last 10 years,” Kahn said. “And [we] have committed to additional assessments each year moving forward"—at least two per year in parks throughout the city.

In the meantime, FOWS is planning to take action. At its next meeting, to be held on September 14th at 6pm on the second floor of the North Beach Library, the organization's members will plan its strategy. 

“Friends is planning to have the [tree] plan updated,” Maley said. “But [we're] not certain of the cost.”

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