Do We Have to Choose Between Trees and Sidewalks?

URBAN FORREST POLITICS--Our trees are disappearing.  For a number of reasons our urban forest is declining, at the time we need it most.

  If we don't find a way to stop the decline, Los Angeles will be facing a major environmental crisis. 

Last week the City Council's Public Works & Gang Reduction Committee denied appeals for tree removals in three locations, including 18 mature ficus trees on the 1200 block of North Cherokee.   There was some good news, in that Bureau of Street Services Director Adel Hagekhalil and Councilmember David Ryu have said they will look at alternatives to removal for the trees on Cherokee, but this small victory won't have much impact on the big picture.  In order to comply with an agreement made to repair its sidewalks, the City will continue to remove trees all over Los Angeles, and this will speed the decline of our urban forest. 

The three appeals were filed by attorneys working with United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and the Eastside Nature Alliance (ENA).  I'm a member of UN4LA, and we are deeply concerned about the number of trees that are cut down in this city every year.  We feel it's very important to reduce the number removed under the City's Sidewalk Repair Program (SRP).  In 2010 a class action law suit was filed against the City to force it to repair its sidewalks and make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  As a result of the suit, the City signed an agreement to spend  $1.4 billion to fix its sidewalks over the next 30 years.     

By itself, this is a good thing.  No one can argue that we shouldn't have safe sidewalks that are accessible to everyone.  But the problem is that the City is recklessly charging ahead with this program without thoroughly considering the environmental impacts.  The strangest thing about this situation is that the City started doing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the SRP back in 2017.  The Bureau of Engineering understood that removing trees will damage our urban forest.  The EIR would analyze these impacts and lay out clear guidelines to determine: whether trees need to be removed; whether there are alternatives to removal; appropriate replacement trees when removal is necessary; a maintenance program to ensure that newly planted trees survive. 

UN4LA absolutely wants to see our sidewalks repaired so that they're safe and accessible to everyone.  But we also feel it's crucial to protect our urban forest.  While broken sidewalks are certainly a threat, there are also serious threats to our health and safety from the loss of our tree canopy.  Remember the punishing temperatures we suffered through over this last summer?  Extreme heat is now the leading cause of weather-related deaths in US cities.  Older adults are especially vulnerable.  And did you know that after years of progress, our air quality has begun to decline again?  This increases the risk of respiratory illness in both seniors and children. 

Trees are our first line of defense on both of these fronts.  A healthy urban forest will help keep temperatures down and at the same time improve our air quality.  And trees also help capture stormwater, which is crucial to replenishing groundwater supplies.  While UN4LA understands the frustration of seniors and those with disabilities who have difficulty navigating the city's sidewalks, we also believe that many citizens who fall into these categories understand the importance of preserving our trees.   

If you have mobility issues, and still believe that we need to save our trees at the same time as we fix our sidewalks, UN4LA would like to hear from you.  Send us an e-mail at: info@un4la.com. 

We need to fix our sidewalks, but we also need to maintain and expand our tree canopy.  Before we rush to cut down healthy trees, we need to complete the Environmental Impact Report to make sure we use best practices at all times.  We need to keep removals to an absolute minimum, and when they're necessary, we have to plant appropriate replacements and care for them to ensure that they thrive. 

We don't have to choose between trees and sidewalks.  We can have both.  We just need to make sure we do the job right.


(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA [www.un4la.com]), a grass roots group advocating for better planning and a CityWatch contributor.)