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So, You Wannabe . . .A Municipal Grounds Superintendent?

by Stephen Kelly, regional editor

The formal garden at Col. Bill Barber Park in Irvine, Calif. The park has two regulation softball fields, a baseball stadium, two soccer fields, six tennis courts, a large, colorful and modern playground, expansive turf areas, shelters and picnic areas and thickets of shrubbery. This is just one of 18 community parks and 35 neighborhood parks under the management of the city landscape superintendent Stephen Bourke.

Our story takes place in Orange County--a county with money to spend. It had a $4.97 billion revenue budget in FY 2005-06, a reflection of a healthy tax base of homeowners. At this writing in the final week of Sept. 2006, the median price for re-sale single-family homes in the county just fell by two percent ... to the bargain price of $685,000.

OC, as some call it, is home to Walt Disney's original family entertainment vision, Disneyland in Anaheim, such upscale seaside communities as Newport Beach, Corona Del Mar, Laguna Beach, the more down-to-earth Surf City (Huntington Beach); the burgeoning planned community of Laguna Niguel in south county; Little Saigon in Westminster; the large Hispanic population of Santa Ana; the defunct El Toro Marine Base being transformed into the Great Park; and ... Irvine (pop. 180,803), one of the nation's largest planned urban communities, a 55 square mile layout of well-healed immaculateness and order, which has been rated the safest city in the U.S. The median priced home here is higher than the county average, about $710,000. Irvine incorporated in Dec. 1971 and quickly developed a yuppie heritage. A BMW, Mercedes, or at least a Lexus, is required in every driveway.

I do some biking along the 40.5 miles of Irvine trails and can vouch that wherever you look are groomed and manicured grounds, pristine parks and well-maintained community amenities. For years, I've admired these accomplishments. Surely there is not a city in this country with better-maintained parks, greenbelts and sports fields.

The city cares for 6,000 heritage eucalyptus windrow trees and 56,500 trees overall, all on a pruning schedule. The eucalyptus windrows are on a two-year schedule; residential parkway trees on a four-year schedule; park and street landscape trees on a six-year schedule.
Photo by city of Irvine, Calif.

Now, as a regional editor for Landscape Superintendent and Maintenance Professional, I wanted to meet the person responsible for maintaining all this beauty. His name is Stephen Bourke and he has 23 years of experience as the public works, street and landscape maintenance superintendent, with an additional two years as a landscape supervisor. His domain includes:

  • 18 community parks
  • 35 neighborhood parks
  • 41 softball and baseball infields
  • 125 acres of sports fields
  • 700 greenbelt streetscape acres
  • 56,500 trees
  • 6,000 heritage eucalyptus windrow trees
  • 500 plus irrigation systems

The Landscape Manager

To be a city landscape supervisor requires a combination of education and experience. David Hensley, author of Professional Landscape Management, writes: "The true landscape manager must appreciate landscape design, know plants and turfgrass, identify and control pests of all sizes and forms, understand chemicals, soils, and plant nutrition, work with equipment and know how to grow an ever expanding list of plants. Additionally, the landscape manager faces every day challenges in directing and supervising employees, managing a budget ... dealing with owners, managers, sales representatives, customers and clients. The landscape professional must also wade through the ever-deepening mire of taxes, regulations and government mandates. It is a tough job."

Stephen Bourke superintends over the landscape maintenance division within the city of Irvine, Calif.'s public works department. His landscape budget is $12.5 million.
Photo by city of Irvine, Calif.

Career Path

To support his family, Bourke went to work for the city of Fullerton, Calif. as a gardener, then head gardener, then running grounds maintenance crews. He wanted to study park administration, however, there was no such evening course work, so he began in the public administration program at Cal State Fullerton. He worked seven years for the city of Fullerton before coming to Irvine in 1981. By then, he had earned his A.A. in landscape management and was pursuing his B.S. in public administration at Fullerton, which he earned in 1985. He started in parks management at Irvine and after six months was also managing the streetscapes and athletic fields. In his tenure with Irvine, he has two years as a landscape supervisor, three years as streets superintendent and 20 years as a landscape superintendent.

Two floss silk trees (Chorisia speciosa) decorate the outside walls of a rose garden at the Lakeview Senior Center. A nearby seating area of benches is officially designated "Geezer Gulch."
Photo by Stephen Kelly


Stephen Bourke oversees the these landscape departments: park maintenance, under the supervision of Bruce Carleton and Dennis Chiotti; athletic fields, supervised by Alan Luken; tree care, supervised by Henry Canales; and landscape rehabilitation by Bourke himself. The landscape rehab program renews older parks, greenbelts and street landscapes, part of the city's strategic goals of "enhancing the physical environment and preventing signs of deterioration" by returning "tired looking" landscapes to their original condition, or to compatible conditions with adjacent homeowner association landscapes." A typical landscape rehab may involve replacing irrigation heads or other components with more water-efficient units, renovation of turf, new plantings for shrub beds, removing trees that are causing damage or are poor growers and replacing them when appropriate. All pruning is under direct supervision of a certified International Society of Arboriculture arborist.

Pruning of park and street trees is on six-year cycles; residential parkway street trees on a four-year cycle; and eucalyptus windrow trees on a two-year cycle. Some trees within these grouping get pruned more frequently, depending on location or tree type.

Scope of Work

On paper, Bourke describes himself as a "seasoned professional infrastructure maintenance manager with extensive public sector experience." His typical day begins at 6:30 and ends around 5:00 except for some evening meetings. He puts in longer hours during the budgeting period, which starts in Feb. and ends in May. The majority of his time is spent in strategic planning, plan reviews and best ways to provide services.

Open communications with Irvine residents is important and a good deal of time is spent answering questions and addressing needs of residents. On Sundays, he looks over new emails to prepare for the week ahead.

This live oak was transplanted with no ill effects from the wilderness area of Laguna Canyon. The irrigation system incorporates plenty of Rainbird heads (1800 series) for the shrubs and small turf areas, with 700 series rotors for intermediate size turf area. Irvine is still using metal Griswold valves. Bourke says some are 30 years old and operating fine, as long as they are in boxes with gravel underneath. For central controllers he's using Rainbird Maxicoms and has just installed 300 ET-type controllers this late spring and into the summer.
Photo by Stephen Kelly

He develops and manages an annual landscape budget of $12.5 million. He credits his success, in part, to developing and managing "service delivery strategies to meet growing inventories and changing service needs." He has also developed, implemented and managed the city's "first strategic business plan infrastructure rehabilitation budget and led the city's field service divisions in the incorporation of GIS technology."

Bourke has 64 people under his purview, 24 for grounds, 24 for the streetscapes and six fleet people. Because of the sheer volume of landscaping work and properties, he explains that contractor compliance management is a large and vital part of his work. The city landscape staff can handle only about 15 percent of the overall grounds maintenance. Consider mowing alone. The mowing schedule lists 57 properties, 44 parks plus various centers, trails and riparian corridors. Bourke places this work out to bid to area landscape contractors. He notes this arena is volatile and contractor compliance requires constant oversight.

Irvine is experimenting with synthetic turf on street medians and at this gathering place in Windrow Community Park situated between two baseball fields. The plaque reads: "To conserve water and prevent runoff pollution, Irvine, the Metro Water District of Southern Calif., the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Irvine Ranch Water District has replaced real turf with synthetic turf in this area. This synthetic turf conserves on average 65,000 gallons of water each year, reduces urban runoff caused by landscape watering. Runoff carries lawn fertilizers and pesticides into creeks, rivers and ultimately the Pacific Ocean." Landscape superintendent Stephen Bourke says he's experimented with three products. The synthetic has been on medians on the freeway overpass for over a year and he sees no downside to its use. Note the skate board deterrents on the concrete.
Photo by Stephen Kelly

The city is still growing. There is always some planning and building going on, which adds to his responsibilities. In a typical year, he takes on an additional 60-100 acres of grounds to manage. This, combined with budget and personnel, keeps a person busy. He notes very few personnel problems, though. The city public service staff is a stable group who enjoy their work and keeping the city spit-shined.

"You are sure and confident and consistent in what you do but recognize that there are different ideas and perspectives out there and know when to be consistent and when to be flexible."--Stephen Bourke, landscape superintendent, city of Irvine, Calif.

Advice for Municipal Superintendents

I asked Bourke what advice he has for perspective municipal superintendents?

"You have your body of knowledge and expertise to build on, but you need to stay open and flexible," he offers. "You are sure and confident and consistent in what you do but recognize that there are different ideas and perspectives out there and know when to be consistent and when to be flexible." He adds that supers must keep abreast of changes in environmental regulations and labor laws.

Sample Salaries of Municipal Landscape Superintendents (online search)

  • Irvine, Calif.
    $71,978 – $107,965
  • Rochester, N.Y.
    $59,050 – $76,222
  • West Hollywood, Calif.
    $61,365 – $74,253
  • Burlingame, Calif.
    $85,000 – $104,00

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June 26, 2019, 12:03 pm PDT

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