Los Angeles Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter 4-Los Angeles: Land of Dreams
Trees Can Save LA‚??But Only If We Let Them
Andy Lipkis has been thinking about the plight of trees‚??and the humans who depend upon them‚??for more than thirty-five years. When he was only fifteen years old and attending a summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains outside LA, a naturalist told the group of kids that the pine trees in the local forest were dying a slow death because of smog. In twenty-five years the forest would be entirely gone, the naturalist predicted. Andy and the other kids were horrified. Andy asked if anything could be done to save the forest. The naturalist noted that smog-tolerant trees could be planted in place of the dying trees, but that would take a super-human effort. Thousands of these special trees would have to be planted by hand to offset the dying ones. Who could do such a thing?
Well, Andy. His efforts are a study in the power of persistence. At first he tried to interest local companies and banks in helping him to no avail. He almost gave up, but a few years later, when he was in college, he hit upon the idea of getting other summer camp kids to help. The camps he approached were willing to help, but when Andy phoned the California Division of Forestry to order some baby trees he discovered that he had to pay for them. The amount wasn‚??t much, only $600 for 20,000 seedlings, but every business he approached for a donation said no. To make matters worse, the State Forestry Division had a policy of plowing under and killing each crop of unsold seedlings at the end of the season to make room for a new batch. (They weren‚??t set up to take care of older trees.)
The situation infuriated young Andy. Here he was, volunteering to reforest entire swaths of the California forest system, and the state wouldn‚??t give him the trees to do it! They wanted him to pay for them, and if he or no one else bought them by a certain date, they would basically discard all these trees.
Andy hit the phones. He called the offices of local newspapers, politicians, and famous actors who taken a stand on the environment. The newspapers and one politician offered to look into the situation. No sooner did they phone the State Forestry Division to ask why they wouldn‚??t give the trees to the kid who wanted to plant them, than the state changed its policy. Suddenly, they were willing to donate the trees to Andy, provided he could plant them. Andy knew he had the manpower‚??all those kids‚??but he would need more than $600 to pull off such a huge project. Each of those seedlings would need to be transplanted into milk cartons and kept alive until they were transported to the proper site and planted. He‚??d need dirt, shovels, trucks‚??where would he get the money to do all that?
One of the local newspapers wrote an article about Andy‚??s encounters with the State Forestry Division. Andy had told the reporter that all he needed to plant one tree was fifty cents from a willing donor. This tiny, quite reasonable amount of money caught on with readers everywhere. After that, letters starting pouring in. Grade school kids, teenagers, and senior citizens all sent him a few bucks out of their pockets. As the cash started flowing in, the publicity about the adventures of California‚??s Tree Boy grew. When donations reached $10,000‚??more than enough money to get those trees in the ground‚??the executives of all those companies Andy had first approached now saw that he was a legitimate organizer and activist. They started writing checks themselves. Andy didn‚??t know it then, but he was well on his way to a life of activism. His organization, Tree People, was born, and before 1980 they had planted more than 50,000 trees.
Andy‚??s story is told in the pages of a children‚??s book called Tree Boy, published in 1978 when Andy was only twenty-four years old. Today he‚??s an energetic fifty, with elfish good looks and boundless enthusiasm. Tree People still plants trees but its mission has matured greatly, along with the vision of its founder. Andy is one of the foremost environmental thinkers on the topic of trees in the urban landscape. We said earlier that it‚??s not just about the trees. It‚??s about helping humans live better lives by altering our cities ever so slightly to allow nature in, and letting nature do the job it was intended to do.
‚??For some people, urban forestry is about managing trees,‚?Ě Andy says. ‚??To me, it‚??s both a real thing and a metaphor. A city like Los Angeles is two-thirds paved. That paving, the concrete, covers a living, functioning ecosystem. Because we paved over that ecosystem, we now have to pay a lot to recreate the benefits that would be free if the ground weren‚??t encased in concrete. I‚??m talking about free things like water, like natural cooling, like oxygen.‚?Ě
LA could meet half of its water needs if it could somehow capture and retain its rainfall each year. Instead, eighty-five percent of that water slips out of the city‚??s grasp, washed out to sea and never seen again. ‚??Because we don‚??t save that water,‚?Ě Andy says, ‚??we have to buy water that falls in Salt Lake City. It‚??s the height of absurdity.‚?Ě
It‚??s not just about the trees. It‚??s about wasted money. It‚??s about the health of millions. It‚??s about using that money to give human lives a boost.
‚??California is the sixth largest economy on the planet,‚?Ě he says. ‚??So the implications are enormous. We‚??ve got 1.2 cars for every person, which means this one state is one of the largest sources of global warming in the world. Unwittingly, it seems that good people who want to do good are having a huge effect on the environment. Did you know, for instance, that half the water used in LA is for irrigation‚?Ě‚??watering plants, lawns, etc.‚??‚??not drinking or cleaning or showering? And forty percent of our waste stream, the trash we throw out and pay to haul to landfills, is green waste‚??grass clippings, tree branches, leaves‚??that would do us all more good being mulched and spread on our plants instead.‚?Ě
Green waste has the potential to control flood conditions. In the forest, green waste acts as a giant sponge lying at the floor of the woods, absorbing water. But if you remove from your property everything you cut, rainwater rushes off your property. If citizens mulched all that waste instead, their city would save all that money driving big trucks around neighborhood picking up clippings and hauling it back to a landfill.
Sometime in the 1980s, Andy took a good hard look at the work he had accomplished in the first ten years of Tree People. He‚??d helped plant ten of thousands of trees. But were the trees living? Yes and no. Trees survived best when they had humans to look after them during their most vulnerable period, the first couple of years in the ground. Some trees, it seemed, lucked out. They had managed to attract human ‚??owners.‚?Ě Ones that didn‚??t, died.
Andy realized Tree People had to revamp its strategy. In the past, a community would approach the organization and say, ‚??We want trees.‚?Ě Great, Tree People would say, and they‚??d rush out to plant them. Andy now saw that it was smarter to bring the trees to those people instead, to show them how to plant them, but let them plant the trees themselves. ‚??When we did this, we found that they developed a sense of ownership over those trees and protected them,‚?Ě Andy says. So far, more than two hundred community leaders have been trained as part of Tree People‚??s ‚??Citizen Forester‚?Ě Program. These days, ninety-five percent of the planted trees are living after five years.
Tree People‚??s twentieth anniversary occurred close to a pivotal event in LA history, the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots. Those turbulent days brought Andy‚??s life of activism to a crisis. After all, the trees were supposed to lead to an improved quality of life for Los Angelinos. Nothing he saw around him indicated that his work had been worthwhile.
‚??What do we need to do?‚?Ě Andy asked himself. ‚??We had to change our mission again. We were out to make the city livable versus pretty. Our work was supposed to be about improving the health of LA‚??s citizens, the health of the city.‚?Ě
This crystallized an idea he had to regard trees as tools that could free up money in budgets for social issues. ‚??Do you know what it costs us to get rid of storm water in LA?‚?Ě he says. ‚??A half-billion dollars a year. A half-billion to make water go away so it doesn‚??t flood the city. What would happen if we could capture that water safely? After the LA riots, sociologists looked at the problems leading up to the riots and concluded that we need about 50,000 more jobs for urban youth. And that led to the question, what‚??s it going to cost to create those jobs? You know what they came up? A half-billion dollars! So from my perspective, we‚??re hurting people because we‚??re spending that money on water.‚?Ě
Tree People shifted its focus to employment, trying to bring its programs to the inner city, and hiring young people to plant trees out of town in the forestlands surrounding LA. He thought they were doing well. In one year they managed to employ as many as four hundred people. The young people rode buses out to the forest and worked their butts off. It was cool, Andy thought, but what happens when that funding runs out, and the jobs end?
Some of those kids later died in street violence. Andy despaired. He was exhausted, hurt, unsure how he could make his organization relevant.
In the papers he read how the Army Corps of Engineers were planning to raise the concrete walls of the LA River yet again to prevent flooding. Apparently the storm water issue was getting worse, not better. ‚??‚??This is insane,‚?? I thought. We should we lowering those walls. Eliminating those walls. I went to talk to them and they thought I was nuts.‚?Ě
Andy and others had tried for years to increase green space in the city itself. It was tough going. So much of LA was paved over that it was difficult to insert new green spaces into the urban matrix. It was frankly easier in a city like Philadelphia; there, vacant land could be assembled out of the remains of abandoned buildings. LA was still too young, too vibrant to lose sections of valuable real estate. And where the city had rundown areas, it lacked the political leadership willing to make vacant land an important issue.
Often when Andy mentioned his ideas to city or county officials, he got the same response: It‚??s too expensive. Expensive? He fumed. We‚??re spending a half billion a year getting rid of water, and another billion dollars a year buying water from other sources. We have too much green waste and too much polluted water. Why, trash from LA has been found in some of the remote areas of the Pacific ocean, washed there along with the toxic soup of antifreeze, fertilizers, motor oil, and other dangerous substance that trickle off roads and driveways each time it rains. On top of all this, the city needs jobs. Wasn‚??t there some way to address all of these issues with the same over-arching plan?
As we saw earlier, each time you try to solve a problem in LA, you are inevitably forced to grapple with another. Many had tried and given up. This Gordian knot seemed unbreakable, until Andy started to think about how elegantly nature solved many of these problems. There was never too much water in woods, because the water always had someplace to go. There was never any polluted water because plants and dirt filtered it before it reached underground reservoirs. Wasn‚??t there some way to mimic nature‚??s example, Andy wondered.
On a visit to Australia he saw how citizens used cisterns‚??underground tanks‚??to capture runoff on that parched continent. Cisterns are hardly a new concept. The ancient Greeks and Romans used them more than 2,000 years ago. They carved chambers into solid rock, and built their homes or gardens above them. Modern cisterns can be enormous, capable of holding enough rainwater to fill a swimming pool. Back on his home turf, Andy started playing around with his own designs for cisterns, large and small. He came up with a 1,700-gallon one constructed of recycled plastic. Slightly smaller than a small garden shed, it could easily fit in a homeowner‚??s backyard and not require expensive excavation.
When he heard that the county was planning to build a $50 million storm drain in the south Los Angeles neighborhood of Sun Valley, he knew he had to do something. Sun Valley was lower middle-class to middle class Latino area renowned for some of the worst flooding in the city. Every time there‚??s a huge storm in LA, news crews dash out to Sun Valley because they know they‚??ll get dramatic footage. Zev Waroslavsky, who works for the county‚??s department off public works, says the flooding issue is ‚??a vortex taking the community down.‚?Ě
‚??The water comes out of the mountains during rainstorms,‚?Ě he explains, ‚??not even heavy rainstorms and it gets into the sump which is in the urban core of the San Fernando Valley and it floods. Intersections flood, cars get into accidents, cars stall, they get damaged. Kids can‚??t go to school because they can‚??t cross the streets. As a result of kids not going to school, the school loses its income it gets from the state because they get it on the basis of attendance. If the kid doesn‚??t show up they lose money for that kid, the kid doesn‚??t get an education.‚?Ě
Andy started phoning Waroslavksy‚??s office and showing up at community meetings, pleading with them not to install a new storm drain. He was fighting an uphill battle here. For years residents had demanded relief form the city. Now they seemed on the cusp of getting it. And here was Andy‚??this dorky tree-loving guy‚??who wanted to try something new and exotic that had never been done before. Asked to explain his idea, Andy laid it all out: He dreamed of retrofitting many of the homes in Sun Valley with cisterns to capture rainwater. (Later, that same water could be pumped out to irrigate lawns, plants, etc.) He wanted to landscape their front and back yards in such a way that the ground itself would act like giant basins to catch water. He wanted to design driveways to strain out toxic gunk before it seeped into the soil.
The vision didn‚??t end there. Andy had grander plans for major public structures around town. We wanted giant cisterns under the athletic fields at the local schools. He wanted to rip out asphalt parking lots and replace them with porous pavement. Wherever here was concrete and blacktop, he wanted trees and grass to cool the school campuses down in warmer months and reduce the need for air conditioning. He wanted the schools to implement a policy of mulching all green waste on-site and using it to feed their landscaping beds.
People listened to Andy‚??s dream and asked him what it would cost. He told them and they nearly choked: $200 million, four times the price of the storm drain they wanted in the first place. Of course arguments and lawsuits ensued. In the end, Tree People demonstrated through research that the $200 million retrofit would be a less expensive option in the long run. The concrete storm drain would simply funnel that excess storm water out of the neighborhood. It would do nothing to produce or save water. It would do nothing to recharge groundwater. Weeks after a storm, residents would still end up having to buy water to water their yards, and the vicious, unsustainable cycle would continue again.
When the engineers and city planners plotted out Andy‚??s plan, they could see what a thing of beauty it was. Each component addressed every one of the major air and water quality problems facing LA. Instead of one problem leading to another, each solution led to another. Each link in the chain was integrated with the next, a perfect model of something called integrated resource management.
- The problem of green waste? Solved: Residents and schools would mulch their waste on site and feed their beds.
- The problem of too much or little water? Solved: Hundreds of thousands of gallons would be captured and stored during storms or else fed into the ground to recharge reservoirs or aquifers.
- The problem of polluted water? Solved: Driveways and parking lots would be designed to filter out toxins.
- The problem of high-energy demands? Solved: Trees and grass would shade homes and schools, reducing the demand for air conditioning.
- The problem of poor air quality? Solved: The new urban forest would filter out particulates and CO2.
Even the perennial problem of creating jobs in urban areas had been addressed. This was the truly masterful part of Andy‚??s plan. A retrofit of this size‚??2,700 acres encompassing 8,000 homes‚??would require the employment of tons of people of different skill levels, from trained engineers and technicians to competent landscapers and day laborers. In the years to come, trees would need to be tended, cisterns maintained, filtering systems installed or repaired, grass mown, green waste mulched. There was an endless supply of good, honest work awaiting hundreds of people in Sun Valley alone.
To demonstrate his point, Andy arranged for an army of workers to descend one day on the eighty-year-old home of Rozella Hall, who lives in Sun Valley. Her place is a cute California bungalow with a postage-stamp-sized front yard and an equally small back yard. The team installed what is called a ‚??drywell‚?Ě at the end of Ms. Hall‚??s driveway. Rainwater rolls down the driveway to a small grate and falls into a chamber to be filtered and cleaned, then released into the ground. Drain spouts, which normally expel rain into the street, were repositioned so they send water into Ms. Hall‚??s newly landscaped garden. The edges of her front and back yard have been raised to form the shape of a bowl. Water collects here and gently seeps into the earth. In her backyard, Tree People installed not one, but two 1,700-gallon cisterns. The two green rectangular boxes huddle against the side fence, collecting water through a drain spout that runs down from the roof. The yard looks pretty much the way it did before Tree People arrived, except that the flower and shrub beds have been more amply beefed up with mulch. The cost of all this was about $10,000, paid by the county and a bond initiative.
The first day Tree People tested the site, workers lugged what looked like fire hoses to the top of Ms. Hall‚??s roof. Officials in suits stood by, watching from the safety of their umbrellas. Someone gave the word, and the water gushed from the hoses, soaking the guys on the roof and spewing a gentle, simulated rainfall over the entire house. Two tons of water came down that day, and in the end, none of it ended up in the street. Mission accomplished.
Andy Lipkis, the grown-up Tree Boy who is neither a scientist nor an engineer and refers to himself as a college dropout, stood in the backyard. Thirty years ago, he got his start inspiring people to care enough to plant a single tree. The idea was so simple that it could not be ignored. His ideas are still just as powerful: Plant a tree. Take ownership of it. Be bold enough to remake the place where you live into a little piece of nature. A little watershed.
Now, outside the Hall residence in Sun Valley, the smile on his face grew wider and wider.
‚??All our cities were built without understanding nature,‚?Ě he said, ‚??this is about working in partnership with nature.‚?Ě
Seven thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine more houses to go.
Today, thanks to Andy‚??s urging, LA city and county water supply and flood control departments are doing a better job of talking to each other and integrating their policies. ‚??Watershed‚?Ě is one of their new buzzwords. Right now LA‚??s ‚??watershed‚?Ě extends as far as Utah and as north as Montana. Rain or snow that falls within that huge swath of land can and does end up in LA‚??s water system. But imagine if you scaled up Andy‚??s idea and brought it to the rest of the 9.5 million people living in Los Angeles County? Or shared the idea with the greater LA region, with Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside or Ventura counties, too? You could effectively address the massive green space problem that plagues Los Angeles. You could worry a little less about finding vacant land for parks because the city itself would become a vast garden, protecting and replenishing the watershed upon which it sat. And the current multi-state watershed could shrink to the size of LA‚??s own footprint.
Imagine what an example that would set for other cities that face similar issues of sprawl, such as Las Vegas, Denver, San Diego, and host of others.