It’s Not Easy Being Green 

Some brilliant — and bungled — attempts to save the urban forest

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
Photo by Debra DiPaolo"GET IN THE CAR. GET IN THE CAR."

On a summer afternoon so hot and dry that the oxygen seems sucked from the air, Sharyn Romano and Sylva Blackstone are rushing from Hollywood to the only place that's even hotter -- the Valley -- to stage an intervention. They've gotten wind of some city-contracted tree trimming and are on the way to the scene, part of their ongoing personal mission to save L.A.'s trees.

Romano sits in her air-conditioned van, impatiently tapping the steering wheel as a flustered Blackstone, who's leaving her own car behind, fishes quarters from her bag to feed the meter. The contrast between them borders on the comic -- Romano, lean and tight-lipped, is as sharp and to-the-point as Blackstone, who wears her silver hair in a girlish ponytail, is soft and dreamy. But after meeting several years ago at a gathering of L.A. tree activists, they quickly saw the value of working together. "Sharyn helps me stay focused," Blackstone says. "She's a real spark plug." Romano relies on Blackstone's depth of knowledge of all things arboreal. "She knows a tremendous amount about trees," Romano says admiringly. "That in itself is a huge asset."

With any luck, Blackstone's car will escape the hyperefficient meter maids. "If they were half as good about trimming trees as they are about giving tickets, we'd be in fine shape," she says. "What do they use all that ticket money for anyway?" Her voice rises to a squeak. "Why don't they spend some of it on the trees?"

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As Blackstone launches into one of her frequent declamations, Romano merely nods. If you devote your life to a cause, it goes without saying that everything, including parking meters, comes back around to it.

Blackstone and Romano believe -- and there are plenty of scientific data to back them up -- that they have discovered one of the biggest open secrets to improving modern urban living: trees. "Of course there are a lot of issues, like crime, that are much scarier than a badly pruned tree," Romano says. "But we are destroying the planet. We are destroying our home, and we aren't even looking at it. It's our environment, our health, our quality of life. We are able to breathe because of the greenery on our planet. If we don't take care of it, it will eventually kill us."

To demonstrate an obvious consequence of this negligence, Romano and Blackstone need only to open a window. Over the past 50 years, as the amount of concrete and asphalt has increased, peak summer-afternoon temperatures in L.A. have risen five degrees, and are now climbing by one degree each year. Southern California Edison has estimated that up to 10 percent of the urban demand for electricity is spent cooling buildings to compensate for the effects of this "urban heat island." And heat makes smog, which has been linked to a range of respiratory illnesses, including asthma and lung cancer. Cities, in particular L.A., have long recognized the urgency of the problems of smog and rising temperatures, and have tried to address them through vehicle-emisson standards, industrial regulations and other forms of legislation. But they've ignored one of the biggest potential solutions. According to a study by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, an additional 10 million trees in L.A. could cool city temperatures by five degrees. Trees also filter noxious exhaust, and they can reduce particulates (the deadliest form of air pollution) by as much as 75 percent.

But we Angelenos despise our trees. Or at least we're indifferent. We deprive them of water, scrape them with our cars, scratch them with graffiti and staple them with lost-dog fliers. We cut them back to enhance our views or stop leaf litter. We hack their roots to make our sidewalks smooth. We cage their trunks and compress their roots. We stake them to make them grow straight, then leave the stakes to pierce them.

In perpetuating these abuses, L.A. is probably no worse than anywhere else, although it seems other cities are more invested in stopping them. American cities spend an average of $18 per capita on their urban forests (as city trees are known in arboricultural parlance), and L.A. spends just $3, according to the city's trees superintendant. New York City requires training courses for residents who want to plant or prune trees, and levies fines against scofflaws. In Chicago, Mayor Daley has taken to calling himself a "tree hugger" and is personally overseeing the planting of a rooftop garden at City Hall. Even Mexico City, one of the most polluted spots on the planet, is reforesting the city's perimeter, planting 175 million trees to improve the air quality and discourage further expansion.

There is no evidence of such arboricultural enthusiasm in L.A. Since 1981 (the first year the city counted), the estimated number of trees lining L.A.'s streets has remained constant at some 700,000, even as the population has grown by 20 percent, to more than 3.5 million. (An additional 800,000 trees populate the city's parks, and an untallied million or more grow on private property.) We ignore our trees because they've deceived us into thinking we can. We are blessed with a freakishly forgiving climate, a 365-day growing season in which more than 1,000 mostly imported species have taken root.

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