Sunset Trees Mess with the Neighborhood's Feng Shui

In an urban environment of concrete, asphalt, traffic, and telephone wires, it would seem that a lush tree sprouting from the sidewalk could only enrich the atmosphere and promote vitality and life.

But since 2005, when the mayor's office launched its Trees for Tomorrow tree-planting campaign, officials say a chorus of objections has emanated from the western side of the city — especially the Outer Sunset. One of the primary reasons, they say, is feng shui, the popular belief system of traditional Chinese culture that asserts strict guidelines for interior and exterior decorating — and for sidewalk tree placement.

Trees for Tomorrow has vowed to plant at least 5,000 trees every year for approximately five years. The incoming saplings are forecast to run the lengths of Judah and Irving streets. Doug Wildman, program director with Friends of the Urban Forest, says that many Sunset and Richmond District feng shui-ists are none too pleased about the prospect. In fact, many local followers think that preserving a barren neighborhood in its virgin state is the surest way to maintain a healthy flow of chi, or life energy, through the streets.

But Steven Post, founder of the Geomancy/Feng Shui Education Organization in the Outer Sunset, says those objections reflect a lack of understanding of the philosophy's principles. While he agrees that a tree directly in front of a doorway can block the circulation of chi through a building, he says that simply planting the tree several feet either side will solve the problem.

"This is simply a misunderstanding of feng shui to think that trees on your block will disrupt the flow of energy," he says. "That's just not the case. Planted properly, a tree only adds vibrancy and life to a community."

To help quell and to understand residents' concerns about the city's trees overrunning their stark neighborhoods and annihilating all chi, Suzanne Whelan, community outreach coordinator at Friends of the Urban Forest, arranged a public meeting two years ago at Jefferson Elementary School at 19th Avenue and Irving. The gathering left her doubtful. "What I suspect," she says, "is that a lot of people are just using feng shui as an excuse because they don't want to have to deal with caring for a tree on their property."

San Francisco bears just 12 percent tree cover, according to the Department of the Environment. That makes our progressive, eco-savvy, supergreen city among the most barren in America — but apparently for many feng shui followers, it's a jungle out there.

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