By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
As Lipkis sees it, this is partly because the problems are so massive, and partly because government employees are, almost by definition, myopic. "It's like the over-specialization of medicine," he says. "You've got a doctor treating a hand and another doctor treating a nose or a foot, and no one knows what anyone else is doing, which is crazy because they're all working on the same body."
Lipkis' approach will only work if (and it's a big "if") all the disparate city and state and regional agencies -- the Metropolitan Water District, the Air Quality Management District, the Bureau of Sanitation, Recreation and Parks, the Department of Water and Power, the Department of Public Works, the City Council -- along with activists and the U.S. Department of Forestry, agree to work together.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with trees? Think of the folk tale "Stone Soup." A peddler shows up in a poor village in the midst of a famine, pulls an ordinary stone from a velvet pouch and drops it into a cauldron of boiling water. He tastes his concoction and seems pleased, noting loudly that it would be even better with a bit of cabbage. A villager produces a cabbage and adds it to the pot. The peddler tastes the soup again and seems delighted, but remarks that a scrap of meat would add just the right touch. The village butcher scrounges up a bit of beef. And so it goes until the peddler has produced a delightful soup indeed, and enough to feed everyone.
When it comes to cleaning up the environment in L.A., Lipkis is the peddler and the trees his magic stone. For the past several years he has been methodically building his case. In 1997, TreePeople brought together 75 of the nation's top landscape and building architects, engineers, hydrologists, urban foresters, government officials and community leaders for four days of hands-on design workshops and debate to figure out whether it was indeed possible to environmentally retrofit L.A., one building at a time. The areas of concern: flood management, potable-water consumption, storm-drain pollution, air conditioning and air pollution, and green waste. They hashed out the exact dollar value of each environmental improvement, accepting only those upon which everyone agreed. By the end of the workshop, they had come up with retrofit designs and cost-benefit analyses for five different sites: a single-family home, an apartment building, a mini-mall, a school and an industrial site.
A little over a year later, one of those designs -- a single-family bungalow on West 50th Street in the Crenshaw District -- was a reality. A second project, though not part of the workshop, is almost completed at Open Charter Elementary School in Westchester. There, slabs of concrete were ripped out to make way for several green strips, mini-"ecosystems" of redwoods and oaks that students helped plant between rows of low-slung bungalow classrooms. Liquidambars and sycamores were planted throughout the concrete play area, and the parking lot was reconfigured with a filtered drain. TreePeople just got the funding to complete the last phase of the project, an 800,000-gallon underground cistern -- sufficient to trap and treat enough rainwater to keep all the trees happy year-round. A baseball diamond will be built on top.
TREEPEOPLE WASN'T THE FIRST TO THINK OF SUCH ALTERnatives (cisterns have been around since ancient times) and is not the only group in L.A. putting them into practice. (The city of L.A. retrofitted a parking lot in Venice, and the Department of Water and Power did a less ambitious retrofit at another elementary school.) But it is the only organization advocating a complete overhaul, and thus the only group pushing for a fully integrated approach.
It has a long way to go. The Air Quality Management District, for example, doesn't believe that trees can be planted in sufficient numbers to reduce smog by any significant amount. And city engineers who have been approached about installing conatiners to collect and filter rainwater along major roadways have rejected the idea, saying they would cause flooding during storms.
Lipkis' grandiose plans also don't sit well with some of the other activists, who feel that he's abandoned the fight in the trenches to dream impossible -- and perhaps objectionable -- dreams. "You plant a tree for the sheer joy of it, period," says Scott Wilson of North East Trees, a tree-planting group based in Eagle Rock. "Putting a dollar sign on it makes it a prostitute." Blackstone thinks that Lipkis should be showing up at city meetings, taking the city to task for its tree-care failings and adding credibility to the cause. "If we're there, everyone just nods and smiles," she says. "If Andy comes in, everyone sits up and takes notice. 'It's Andy. It must be important.'" But Lipkis has been down that road, and to him it's a dead end. "Our name is TreePeople," he says. "There is no space between the words. Ultimately the solutions lie with the trees and the people in the community, not with the politicians and the bureaucrats."
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