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Trees! A ‘Miracle Cure’ for What Ails Los Angeles


PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In recent CityWatch columns I debunked several widely touted planning “miracle cures,” including re:code LA, updating community plans, and deregulating zoning to address LA’s shortage of affordable housing.  

But, now it is time to shift gears and present a minor, relatively low cost fix that could mitigate and adapt Los Angeles to climate change, camouflage the visual pollution of billboards and overhead utility lines, raise property values, enhance pedestrian activity, create Great Streets, conserve water, reduce air conditioning costs, sequester carbon, and treat asthma and other lung diseases. 

So, what is this miracle cure? It is the urban forest. It means planting many more trees in Los Angeles, up to 1.3 million more trees in the public right-of-way alone. Actually, it is not quite that simple because a proper urban forest requires the City to plant the right trees in the right places, and then take care of them until the trees are established. After that, the City must undertake regular pruning to keep streets, sidewalks, overhead wires, and streetlights protected from damaged and overgrown trees. 

LA’s approach to tree planting and care, especially when compared to other Southern California cities, such as Beverly Hills, is second-rate. Los Angeles only has a few neighborhoods like Hancock Park and Holmby Hills that have a proper urban forest.  In those cases, the utility lines are in backyards, not in the front. The trees are the correct species, and they have been systematically planted and well maintained over many decades. 

But, much of Los Angeles’s urban forest gets a flunking grade. Many corridors have no trees at all, while others have a hodge-podge of poor tree choices and/or long gaps in the tree canopy.  Considering the extraordinary benefits of trees, and considering the obvious, positive examples of adjacent cities, LA’s urban forest failures are strictly self-imposed.

Small, piecemeal efforts are City Hall’s answer to fill this vacuum. City Planning will often require developers to plant street trees, but these trees are located at the site of approved projects, leaving the rest of the street under-planted. Recreation and Parks has its own Urban Forestry Division, but, as expected, it only addresses city parks, and does not present links to other municipal tree-related functions at City Hall. 

Other departments play a role, too, but not in any coordinated way. The LADWP hires contractors to prune trees that interfere with above ground utility lines, but their primary skill appears to be submitting low bids. In practice this results in quick buzz cuts – not careful pruning -- to keep branches away from electric lines. The LADWP also has periodic tree give-away programs, but without a systematic effort to track these trees, there is no way to know how many complement existing street trees or how many actually survive. 

Meanwhile, under Mayors Bradley, Villaraigosa, and Garcetti, Los Angeles has hosted different versions of the Million Tree LA program, now a small, non-profit organization recently renamed City Plants.   Unfortunately, with only three staffers and a tiny budget, it is not able to coordinate among the many City departments responsible for planting and maintaining trees. As you comb through its website, it is obvious that this non-profit is really a clearinghouse for LA residents interested in planting trees.  

Finally, in what appears to be nearly a parallel universe, the City agency that comes closest to being the City’s hub for tree-related programs and policies, the Bureau of Public Work’s Urban Forestry Division, sadly notes this on its home page: 

“Due to the City's fiscal crisis, the Division's staffing levels have been severely reduced. Therefore, to ensure the Division fulfills its public safety mission, the Division currently performs emergency tree work only. This includes removal of tree and limb failures, pruning of trees to alleviate obstruction of stop signs and traffic signals, and removal of trees determined by inspection to be an immediate hazard. No proactive or planned tree pruning is occurring.” 

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As one examines the dispersed roles to care for LA’s urban forest, it is remarkable how disconnected they are and how much simply falls through the cracks. At City Plants, Recreation and Parks, and the two Urban Forestry Divisions one searches in vain for links to other City agencies responsible for other urban forest responsibilities.  

Cleary, given the importance of a proper urban forest to so many separate municipal goals and programs, this lack of resources and coordination is, to be charitable, a disappointment. 

What, then, could be done? 

1) The Mayor’s Office has announced a promising initiative, a $3.3 million grant - from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to City Plant’s community partners. In combination with a $4.3 million LADWP grant, “… this agreement will cover the cost of planting 40,000 trees, including care, concrete cuts, labor, permits, public outreach, and innovative water saving programs.” 

But, surely, this grant needs to be followed up with many concerted actions, bearing in mind that the real players at City Hall, real estate developers and their lobbyists, are not clamoring for more trees.  This means that the rest of us must be far more assertive. 

2)  Grants are nice, such as the modest one from CAL FIRE, but dedicated resources from the City’s General Fund for planning, planting, and maintaining Los Angeles’s urban forest would be a substantive, rather than symbolic step, like City Plants.  Years of furloughs and budget cutbacks have decimated the Urban Forestry Division, and it needs to be brought up to its former staffing levels.  Then it needs to be expanded to take on the full responsibility of comprehensively caring for the city’s urban forest, as well as coordinating among the disparate city agencies and non-profits that hold a small part of the solution, unaware of the full picture.  

3)  It should also be obvious that Los Angeles needs a City Arborist, a “Tree Czar” who can tie together the scattershot activities of many different City Departments, and the fill the gaps.  We are not talking about volunteers or employees of non-profits. We are talking about someone with the authority of a Deputy Mayor, who fully understands his or her role, and who has the power of municipal ordinances and the City’s budget to address the many needs of LA’s urban forest. 

To get a sense of how much work the Tree Czar must undertake, a recent Urban Forestry Division report notes that the Los Angeles has as many as 10 million trees, but the City only plants 300 new ones per year in the public right-of-way. At the same time, it removes two thousand trees per year because of disease and accidents. Instead of planting the tens of thousands of new street trees each year to meet the million tree goal and begin to address climate change, beautification, pedestrianization, and public health, the City’s actual deficit is minus 1300 trees per year.  

4)  To make it through the drought, cities need to not only educate all of the City departments that have some responsibility for tree planting and care, but also to educate our residents. An excellent model of how this can be done is the City of Santa Monica’s How to Help Urban Trees Survive a Drought.  It could easily and quickly be adapted to Los Angeles. 

Money?  Is money a barrier to these ambitious programs? Yes, but let us not forget how much money is devoted and often squandered to other, less deserving public projects. In LA’s downtown alone the City Council has awarded over $500 million in tax breaks and fee waivers for commercial projects, like LA Live. 

The new Bradley Terminal at LAX cost $2 billion to construct. The widening of the I-405 between West LA and Encino/Sherman Oaks cost $1.2 billion to add a lane on each side. At the State level, widely discussed reforms of Prop. 13 (to equitably tax commercial property) would generate $9 billion per year. Once collected, most of these funds would flow back to local government for urban infrastructure projects, such as tree planting and care.  

Finally, at the Federal level, many budget busters could cover pro-active tree planting in the entire country. For example, the Pentagon expects to spend $270 billion to “modernize” its inventory of nuclear bombs. This estimate is small potatoes, though, when compared to the ultimate $6 trillion (not billion) cost of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. 

If public policy were a rational instead of a murky political process, then this rant about trees would not even be necessary. Local government would have the financial means to pick the low hanging fruit called the urban forest -- and then move on to pricier projects, such as mass transit and affordable public housing.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who writes on planning issues for CityWatch. He welcomes questions and comments at [email protected].)






Vol 13 Issue 70

Pub: Aug 28, 2015

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