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?”
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.
But their continued health depends largely on the activists, like Blackstone and Romano, who have assigned themselves the Sisyphean task of compensating for our abject neglect. They are determined not only to replace all the trees that die or are cut down, but to improve the care of those already here and plant even more, doing away with those relentless, sun-scorched stretches from the Valley to Hollywood to Highland Park. Thus far they have found it a tough row to hoe, clashing with the city, the general public and each other. For the time being, they've narrowed their focus to one â thing: an end to bad tree trimming. Most days even that seems impossible.
I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
— Dr. Seuss
ROMANO HEADS TOWARD THE 101, POINTING out notable specimens along the way. There are hearty, dense Indian laurels, once hailed as miracle trees and widely planted for their ability to get big fast, but later spurned because they got too big. There are Southern magnolia saplings, with their glossy, leathery leaves and fragrant white flowers. There are pink crepe myrtles from China, lacy, lavender jacarandas from Argentina, gnarled, dusty-looking sycamores, and several kinds of eucalyptus (California is home to more eucalyptus than anywhere else in the world outside Australia). Across from the Hollywood Bowl stand a pair of sickly looking, red-flowered African coral trees, the official tree of L.A. (not, contrary to popular image, the palm, which is technically neither a tree — it's in the grass family — nor native to L.A.). On the west side of Highland rises a towering bunya bunya, an Australian conifer whose seeds can be an important source of food for aboriginals and wallabies. “It would be hard to find this range of trees anywhere else,” Romano says. “It's our blessing and our curse. Who knows how to take care of so many different types of trees? They all have different needs.”
Both Blackstone and Romano are certified arborists, and both lifelong L.A. residents who were drawn to trees relatively late in life. Romano, who founded the Hollywood Beautification Team, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sprucing up the neighborhood as well as surrounding schools, became a tree activist after she saw hundreds of stately elms she had watched grow since she was a child sawed down to stubs. “I just stood there,” she recalls, sniffing, as she often does when agitated. “I couldn't move. I couldn't imagine who would have done such a thing. I was stunned.” Years later, she keeps snapshots of those mutilated trees propped on the dresser in her bedroom, a constant reminder of her mission.
Blackstone, who was a housewife and then a single mom working a range of jobs from nursery-school teacher to public relations, eventually went back to school to study arboriculture. The name Sylva comes from the Latin and means “protector of the forest.” “My mom liked it,” Blackstone says. “She had no idea what a perfect name it would turn out to be.” Blackstone now runs her own tree-care business from her home in Highland Park. “I feel that the trees called me,” she says. “On days when I'm just nuts and saying I should retire to San Diego or Seattle, I stop and tell myself, 'Don't do it. This is where you're supposed to be. This is what you're supposed to be doing.'”
Blackstone bases much of her beliefs about proper tree care on the findings of Alex Shigo, a New Hampshirebased plant pathologist who made his name in the 1970s by dissecting an estimated 15,000 trees and debunking the myth of “topping” — hacking off the tops of
branches — which he believes is at the root of all bad tree care. In the early 1990s he helped persuade the city of L.A. to take topping off its list of accepted trimming practices. “He's my guru,” says Blackstone, who owns many well-worn copies of his books, including an autographed first edition of Tree Pruning: A Worldwide Photo Guide.
It is largely because of Shigo's findings that Blackstone has made topping her number-one concern. Whether shearing a tree like a poodle or sawing branches down to stumps, topping causes a tree to panic and overcompensate, quickly producing hundreds of spindly branches loosely bonded to the tree's main structure. These fragile limbs are far more vulnerable to disease-bearing interlopers such as fungi and insects. “Topping is the second worst thing that can happen to a tree, after chopping it down,” Shigo says in a phone interview. “But if you have to make a choice, I'd say cut the bottom and start over. At least you maintain the dignity of the tree.”
Romano pulls off the 101 and heads into Encino, both she and Blackstone on the lookout for the trimming crew. They turn onto Willow Street and know they're nearing their target — no trucks in sight, but a row of recent victims. Stripped of summer foliage, each tree looks exposed and scrawny, like a wet cat. The women park and begin their assessment with the seriousness of a pair
of medics examining bodies on a battlefield. Blackstone spots a silver maple and groans. “This is all topped,” she says. “These trees are small, sick, puny. They didn't need to trim them at all.”
“It's so mechanized,” says Romano. “I've seen them prune saplings, I've seen them prune dead trees, for no reason, except to get their 60 bucks, or whatever it is they get per tree.” She sniffs. “These are taxpayer dollars being squandered.”
Blackstone turns her attention to a 40-foot liquidambar, and her shoulders slump. “This tree is covered with bad cuts,” she says, her voice rising. “It's yucky, ghastly, awful. They've tipped every single branch.”
“We need to get down to the guy with the chain saw,” Romano says, repeating, for the hundredth time, what she and Blackstone already know. “They need to be educated about this. They're destroying the trees, but they don't even know what they're doing, and it's not their fault.”
Blackstone and Romano climb back into the van and resume their search. A few blocks away they follow a faint buzz of chain saws to the trimming crew. Two cherry pickers emblazoned with the logo for West Coast Arborists, a city-approved contractor based in Anaheim, hoist trimmers into a row of tall, lush liquidambars. The grassy smell of fresh-cut greenery — of summer itself — rises from the massive branches as they crash to the street. Blackstone and Romano immediately decide they don't like what they see. They find the supervisor, Jim Goss, a large, fair-skinned man in a hard hat.
They tell him he's trimming too much, that he shouldn't be trimming in the summer, which stimulates more bad growth, and that his workers should be climbing through the interior of the trees so they can see the tree structure and cut precisely, rather than chainsawing blindly from buckets. They ask him if he's following the standards set by the International Society of Arboriculture and adopted by the city.
Goss, a certified arborist, shrugs. “You've got your guidelines, but you have to use common sense with your guidelines,” he says evenly. “That's why they're called guidelines. These trees are huge. If I don't reduce them they're going to be a problem. Sure, you're gonna load 'em down and cover 'em with sucker growth, but if you reduce the size of the tree it catches less wind, so it's less liable to break.” He stops for a moment. Then adds, “Most trees are not pruned often enough.”
As Goss turns to go back to work, Romano asks one final question. “Do you ever skip trees that don't need to be pruned?”
Goss exhales loudly. “Every tree needs something.”
As he climbs into his truck and drives off, Blackstone and Romano discuss what to do next. These aren't, after all, old-growth redwoods, and they aren't about to chain themselves to the trunks in protest. Still, both are visibly upset. “I just feel like crying,” Blackstone says. “You think you're making progress, and then you see something like this. Are things ever going to change?”
TWO YEARS AGO, ROMANO WROTE A LETTER TO COUNCILwoman Ruth Galanter outlining what she thought were outrageous examples of tree abuse at the hands of city crews and asking for a moratorium on trimming until the problems were addressed. It took her six months to work up the nerve to write the letter. Little did she know that that was the easy part. “I thought it was so clear that everybody would agree,” she says, shaking her head at her own naiveté. “At the very least I thought the city would see that all this bad tree care was opening them up to some serious liability, because poorly maintained trees are the ones that lose limbs and hurt people. But all it did was open a process.” Which meant, as Romano soon discovered, endless meetings and plenty of promises, but no meaningful action.
Since 1993, a small group of tree activists has gathered monthly as the Community Forestry Advisory Committee (CFAC) to plot the rescue of the urban forest. In recent years, Blackstone and Romano have been part of that effort, pressing for an audit of all tree work done by every city department, and for the creation of a Department of Urban Forestry headed by someone with an advanced forestry degree. They envision a city loaded with millions of gorgeous, leafy trees, all maintained by well-trained crews, with nary a bad cut in sight. “Our strategy is to start with the street trees, which are the most visible,
and which are the responsibility of the entire community,” Blackstone says. “People would see how great these trees look, which would have a ripple effect, and everyone would take better care of their own trees.”
Blackstone has spent a lot of time trying to figure out why people don't seem concerned about trees. The pervasiveness of air conditioning and vehicular travel have contributed to the devaluation of cooling shade, one of the most obvious benefits of trees. And L.A.'s unparalleled aboricultural diversity — the fact that no single type of tree makes up more than 5 percent of the overall street-tree population — may be furthering the disconnect. (How many types of trees can you point to by name?)
Economics also plays a role. In Southern California, cheap gardeners are a given — laborers with no formal training mow lawns, clean up dead leaves and take care of the trees, in most cases by topping them. Topping is fast and, in the short run, cheap. It costs about $60 to $100 to top a mature tree, and the job, performed entirely with a chain saw, can be completed in an hour. Proper pruning, which often requires a specially schooled trimmer to climb into the tree, can run $300 to $1,000 or more, and can take up to a day, though that tree will not have to be trimmed as frequently as a topped tree. In the long run the cost will more than even out, but to the uninformed consumer, the difference may not be worth the extra immediate cost.
The city has done next to nothing to shake the general malaise. Committees have been formed, reports have been made and hearings and meetings held, but tree boosters have made little progress. A full quarter of the spots designated for street trees stand empty. In a rare triumph, the CFAC several years ago argued that trees actually increase in value as they age, and won a long, hard battle to get trees included in the city's general plan as part of the urban infrastructure, along with light posts and telephone lines.
When it comes down to it, though, both Romano and Blackstone acknowledge that they and the rest of the tree activists have failed to convince the powers that be of the merit of their crusade. “They just don't get it,” Romano says. “They say, 'The trees will grow no matter what, so why should we care?'”
Then again, Blackstone believes, the CFAC is disorganized, unprofessional and in over its head — not surprising, since it's made up entirely of volunteers who squeeze the meetings into already busy lives. The committee is supposed to have 16 members, one from each council district and one at large. But in any given month, they're lucky if even eight show up. In the six years since the group came into existence, it has made just two recommendations to the City Council. “We don't have our shit together,” Blackstone admits. “I keep holding out hope. It's the only thing we have.”
At an Environmental Quality Subcommittee meeting in March, Romano, Blackstone and several other CFAC members made their case before Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. They showed Ridley-Thomas, who chairs the subcommittee, photos of severed trees. They cited examples of the value of trees in the urban environment. They urged him to push for the audit and the hiring of an urban forester. “We cannot let another year escape us,” Romano declared. “Every leaf counts,” Blackstone chirped.
Ridley-Thomas, who had assumed the subcommittee chairmanship last fall and had not been involved in the previous round of talks with the activists, was underwhelmed. “To what extent, frankly, is this a priority for the â mayor and the City Council?” he asked before adjourning the meeting. “That is an inescapable question.”
No shade tree? Blame not the sun, but yourself.
AMONG THE POSTED JOB QUALIFICATIONS for L.A. street-tree superintendent are knowledge of tree maintenance and landscape architecture, two years' experience as a tree surgeon supervisor, a valid California driver's license, good speaking and hearing ability, good eyesight and the strength to lift more than 15 pounds. Though George Gonzales easily met those requirements when he was promoted to the job in 1998, he knew they didn't come close to preparing him for his impossible task.
Gonzales, who has large green eyes, a gruff voice, and the solid build and mustache of a lumberjack, was the handpicked successor of Bob Kennedy, who held the post for the previous 17 years. A longtime L.A. resident, Gonzales ran his own landscaping business before hiring on as a tree surgeon with the city. As its name suggests, the Street Trees division of the Department of Public Works is responsible for the trees on city streets. Most have been damaged, if not by his own department — which routinely directed its trimmers to top as recently as 1991 — then by private contractors, business owners and residents. He has no budget for tree watering or planting.
In the early 1990s, when the city budget was in trouble, Street Trees was one of the first departments to fall under the axe. In the 1989-90 fiscal year, it trimmed almost 120,000 trees; three years later, it was trimming just 20,000. Even now, when trimming is back on track, there is little money to spend on proactive projects that could greatly improve the quality of tree care. The pay is so low for tree surgeons — between $800 and $1,200 a month for dirty, dangerous work — that the Street Trees division has a hard time keeping anyone for more than a year or two.
Few, if any, of the trimmers have been certified as arborists by the International Society of Arboriculture. The city does not pay for its tree surgeons to take classes to become certified, nor do those who are certified get paid more. “We've tried to talk about this with the City Council and the mayor,” Gonzales says. “But as soon as you start putting dollars to it, they don't want to hear about it anymore.”
Even as Gonzales tries to improve the care of the trees under his supervision, he has no control over what happens to those in city parks, which are cared for by the Department of Parks and Recreation, or to the 33,000 street trees trimmed by the Department of Water and Power, which historically has been more interested in keeping its powerlines clear than in maintaining the health of the trees.
Several other departments, such as Airports and Harbor, maintain city trees on their property. There's a long tradition of non-coordination among these departments. On a trip to the Valley to watch one of his trimming crews, Gonzales seems annoyed to find a DWP crew doing its own trimming just a few blocks away. “There hasn't been a whole lot of working together,” he says. “But we're working on it.”
The department Gonzales inherited was virtually created by his former boss, Kennedy, who increased the staff by more than a third, started trimming trees on a grid system, launched a (still not completed) program to inventory the trees, introduced green-waste recycling and worked to contain the approximately $2 million a year the city pays in claims, mostly for falling branches and pedestrians tripping over roots. Kennedy's proudest accomplishment, certainly the one he talks about the most, was the increase in Street Trees' staff and equipment. Now a consultant to the city, with an office at the ornate Board of Public Works building on Spring Street, he rattles off the numbers. “When I got there, they had nine aerial towers. When I left, we had 54.” He pauses to let the magnitude of the change sink in. “We had eight tractor gondolas. We had eight articulated loaders that would go down the street and pick up the brush. And you just look at all the tools that would make us look like we're a professional organization, not a ragtag organization.”
Such an approach may have been effective, even necessary, in its time. But today, tree activists consider Kennedy's methods passé, and in some cases detrimental. They scoff at terminology such as “tree surgeon,” which was long ago discredited by Alex Shigo and others. They point out that, until a few years ago, there were no native trees on Street Trees' recommended planting list, and that the department's grid schedule means that all trees in a given area are subjected to trimming whether they need it or not. They even complain that when they began pressuring the city to hire an urban forester separate from the Street Trees division, Kennedy and Gonzales adopted the title as their own, without the credentials to back it up; though Gonzales is officially the Street Trees superintendent, his business card reads “Chief Forester.”
Gonzales and Kennedy are just as frustrated with the activists. Kennedy says that when the CFAC was created, he thought it would act as a sort of public-relations arm of Street Trees, spreading the good word about what his department was doing. When they started criticizing, he lost interest. And Gonzales says he has spent hundreds of hours trying to work with the activists, with little to show for the effort. “We would ask them to help us with something and they'd be very enthusiastic, and then, 15 minutes later, they'd be enthusiastic about something else. They don't work together to make things happen,” he says.
It's a criticism that might apply to Go
nzales himself. A chief tenet of modern urban forestry is “the right tree in the right place.” If people plant the proper trees, many later problems, from bad pruning to sick trees, can be avoided. To that end, Gonzales has put together a list of 150 trees to help residents decide what to plant. But the list, full of abbreviations and codes, seems designed more for someone who already knows a lot about trees than for the average user. The first entry: “1. Acacia baileyana/Bailey acacia. T [Type]: E [Evergreen]; H [Height]: 20-40; CS [Crown Spread]: 20-40; S [Spacing]: 30-35 . . . ”
There are two street-tree guides for Southern California that are more accessible: Street Trees Recommended for Southern California, put out by an organization in Anaheim called Street Tree Seminar, is a 190-page spiral-bound book that devotes two pages per tree, including color photos and descriptions of size and site suitability. Smart Planting for the New Urban Forest, put together by the DWP and the nonprofit group TreePeople, categorizes trees by size and includes practical information such as how much water the tree needs. Neither of these books is mentioned to people seeking planting permits from Street Trees.
One morning, during an interview in his downtown office, Gonzales gets up from his desk and pulls a binder from a large polished wood cabinet behind him. He points to page after page of carefully laid out snapshots of trees. “These are all photographs that I took,” he says. “I did this all on Saturdays and Sundays. I used to drive my wife crazy.” The idea, he explains, was to turn this labor of love into a comprehensive tree guide available to all L.A. residents.
Problem is, Gonzales never finished the guide. This is the only copy, and here it sits, incomplete. Why not hand out one of the existing guides until his is finished? Gonzales straightens up, hesitates. It appears this thought has never occurred to him. At this moment, his struggle becomes clear. Gonzales loves the trees, but as a bureaucrat he spends much of his time defending them and justifying their needs to other city bureaucrats. “It's difficult for me to be the advocate, because everybody says, 'You're just looking out for yourself,'” he says, finally. “I'm out here trying to get the work done, and it's difficult for me to develop a plan.”
Even if I were certain the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree this very day.
–Martin Luther King Jr.
HIGH ABOVE THE CITY, ON 44 ACRES OF PRIME REDWOOD-shaded real estate at the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Coldwater Canyon, sits the home of Tree-
People, one of the country's premier tree-planting groups. Under the guidance of founder Andy Lipkis, a 45-year-old visionary with a graying goatee and a wall full of laudatory plaques, the group has prompted dozens of environmental and civic improvements, often taking the lead on projects no one else would touch.
It was TreePeople, in preparation for the 1984 Olympics and in the face of overwhelming skepticism, that led the biggest tree-planting drive in L.A. history, a massive three-year effort that involved a major corporate sponsor and thousands of volunteers planting 1 million trees. Their success made L.A. look good and cost the city nothing, endearing Lipkis forever to bureaucrats and politicians alike. “Andy is a genius,” Gonzales says. “He sees ways to fix problems, and he fixes them.”
The group helped design L.A.'s curbside recycling program, and created a “citizen forester” training program to teach people how to mobilize their own communities to plant and tend their trees. In 1990 Lipkis and his wife, Katie, wrote the book The Simple Act of Planting a Tree: A Citizen Forester's Guide to Healing Your Neighborhood. They also helped mastermind Cool Schools, a DWP-headed tree-planting program at L.A. public schools that is the largest landscaping effort in city history. If any one group can claim primary credit for what tree awareness exists in Los Angeles, TreePeople is it.
Yet after 30 years as a tree crusader, Lipkis surveys his past efforts with a cold eye. The million-tree planting, he says, was not all it was cracked up to be. “It was about getting as many trees in the ground as possible and solving the problem that way,” he says. “That didn't work, because there was no follow-up care, and young trees need a lot of attention in order to survive. So there was this incredible amount of energy and money and effort spent on getting the trees planted, and then it would all go to hell.”
The citizen-forester program, while near and dear to Lipkis' heart, is slow going. In 1999, citizen foresters planted just 320 large trees on L.A.'s streets, down from a high in 1993 of 1,057. This, of course, doesn't include the thousands of seedlings planted by TreePeople volunteers each year in the mountains around L.A., or the street trees planted by untrained volunteers. But it is the citizen-forester program that epitomizes TreePeople's mission: to put the long-term responsibility for maintaining trees on the individuals in each community. “The problem is how to pull together neighborhoods, pursue money, get them through the bureaucracy — this is what our training program does,” Lipkis says. “The downside, which is very hard for us — and we haven't cracked this yet — is that people have to work, and they don't want to.”
In the early 1990s, Lipkis found himself getting discouraged by the slow pace of change, and by the lack of coordination and the infighting he encountered working with the city and other activists. He needed something that would pull it all together. He retreated to his mountaintop park to figure out what.
The answer came with the Rodney King riots. Momentarily freed from the rules that reassure and confine, Lipkis saw his next step. He started looking at trees as nothing short of the linchpin in a complete makeover of the urban infrastructure, encompassing flood control, water, sanitation and energy. “I began to believe we could retrofit L.A. to be a working urban forest,” he says. “Everything is connected, and trees are the way in.”
Lipkis stands in his office, located in a trailer in the TreePeople parking lot, and faces a white vinyl drawing board, purple marker in hand. “History,” he writes in a large, loopy scrawl. Then, below it, “A. Why things don't work,” followed by “B. What's been done” and finally “C. Result — TREES.”
TREES, the project Lipkis has been working on for the past eight years, stands for Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability. The heart of it is a cost-benefit analysis, designed by an engineer from Computer Systems, that will allow anyone — city planners, â council members, developers — to punch in a specific geographic region, down to a census block, and find out dollar for dollar just what the economic impact would be of tearing out concrete and asphalt and replacing it with strategically placed trees, mulch, gravel, water filters and water-storage areas, seemingly simple steps that would go a long way in countering some of L.A.'s worst environmental problems.
It's well-known, he explains, that L.A. is environmentally under the gun. The city, and Southern California as a whole, lag woefully behind in meeting state and federal mandates for finding alternative sources of clean water, and for cleaning up smog and storm-water runoff. The statewide bill for runoff cleanup alone could reach $14 billion, and L.A. has done the least to control runoff of any urban area nationwide.
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.”
Though their methods may differ from Lipkis', Blackstone and Romano and even Gonzales agree with his assessment. They believe that one way or another, their cause is bound to come to the fore, if not through raised consciousness, then out of necessity. As Gonzales is fond of pointing out, before L.A. became L.A., the region was dominated by expanses of grassy savannas punctuated by very few trees. “We've created the need for the trees,” he says. “Now we have to meet that need.”
A Modest Proposal
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.
BEFORE THE TOPPING OF TREES CAN BE halted, before there can be plantings on every block and well-cared-for trees throughout the city, there must be a general shift in the way we think about trees. Such a shift, the kind that has to do with a lifestyle change for a large chunk of the population, is difficult but not impossible. In recent memory it's been done, after all, with smoking, seatbelts and infant car seats.
The case that seems most relevant here is littering. No one dies from littering, and no one dies when trees are maltreated, but the long-term effects of both are dramatic.
Until the 1970s, littering was an ugly but generally accepted reality. So much so that when New Yorker writer John McPhee rafted down the Colorado River with environmental icon David Brower in 1969, he casually tossed the tab of his beer can — remember those? — into the water. And he was surprised when his companions scolded him.
What, then, made us change our attitude about littering? There are many factors, but the biggest and most important, without which the change almost certainly would not have occurred, was a public-service advertising campaign that featured Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who came to be known as the Crying Indian. In a television spot that premiered on the first Earth Day in 1971, Cody, wrapped in a fringed leather jacket, with a feather in his braided hair, sheds a tear as he watches a bag of trash being tossed out a car window. The ad was named one of the 50 greatest TV commercials of all time by TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, and was commemorated on a postage stamp in 1982. Last year, nearly three decades after the original spot ran, it was voted one of the two best commercials of the century in an America Online millennium poll. Now anti-littering efforts, from Adopt-a-Highway to beach cleanups to Boy Scout projects, are an essential part of our environmental awareness.
The Crying Indian campaign, however, was not put together by environmentalists. It was the work of a small nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful, whose board was made up almost entirely of executives from the American Can Company, the Glass Container Manufacturing Institute, the U.S. Brewer's Association and the Fiber Box Association, among other companies motivated by a desire to avoid a proposed litter tax.
A similar campaign could be put together for the urban forest, with both backing and advertising from a traditional adversary: the billboard companies. Just as packaging is a source of litter, so are billboard companies responsible for a share of bad tree practices. When trees block billboards, the companies typically hire trimmers to clear the way, paying little attention to the effect on the trees.
Though billboard companies are not the only culprits when it comes to bad tree trimming, they almost certainly have the deepest pockets. In the past 10 years, outdoor-advertising revenue has grown between 5 percent and 10 percent per year, and because of its mild climate and large, diverse, mobile population, Los Angeles is considered the nation's top billboard market. Instead of battling it out over big trees blocking billboards, the city could create a monitoring system to ensure that trees in front of billboards are trimmed properly. In cases where trees have already been so damaged that they will never recover, or are too big to be trimmed and still afford a view of the billboards, the city could allow some tree removal, on the condition that the billboard companies plant and maintain a number of new, large street trees for every tree removed. Billboards throughout the city could feature public-service ads bearing the anti-topping “Don't take it off” message.
Scott Christensen has worked in the L.A. real estate division of Outdoor Infinity, one of the nation's largest billboard companies, for 14 years. He finds the notion of sponsoring the urban forest “intriguing” and says that his company is “interested.” But he is wary of championing the trees because of the intensely antagonistic relationship between his company and urban tree activists, an antagonism, he acknowledges, that is to some degree merited. “It's hard, when you have subcontractors who work for you, to know what they're doing,” he says. “We'll have a client, say Coke, call and say, 'There's a little tree growing up into our sign. Can you have it trimmed?' If we send somebody out to do the job, and then there's a complaint, all of a sudden there'd be a newspaper article criticizing us because on the one hand we're in the position of supporting the trees, but then we're doing something wrong to the trees. We're such a medium out there to be attacked.”
At Eller Media, L.A.'s largest and oldest billboard company and one of the biggest nationwide, spokeswoman Dash Stollarz says that she sees a natural synergy between billboards and trees. Several years ago, in fact, Eller made a small donation to the Community Forestry Advisory Committee. “We have something to offer, and they have something they could offer us,” Stollarz says. “If you're trying to create a national movement, we're a national corporation. We're a good place to start.” In Southern California alone, Eller gives away $2 million to $3 million a year in public-service advertising. “A lot of it is just whoever calls and asks,” Stollarz says. “It would thoroughly make sense for us to partner with the tree advocates.”
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