Part 1 of 2
“To exist as a nation, prosper as a state, we must have trees.” — Theodore Roosevelt Why Now is the Time to Act
In 2016, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to launch the first full update since 1970 of the city’s key strategic planning document, the General Plan.
Los Angeles had been hobbled by a General Plan dating from the Vietnam War era, seesawing from one administration to another, fueling a non-strategic approach to changing times that spawned neglect of L.A.’s sewer, water and road infrastructure and a downwardly-spiraling ranking in 2017 as 74th in the nation in providing parks to its 3.96 million residents. (We were ranked at 65th last year.)
With a full update to the General Plan underway, Angelenos have their first chance in nearly two generations to engage in a transparent, robust, public give-and-take — to set the vision and new goals for L.A. As Mayor Garcetti noted in his 2017 State of the City Address: “These Updates won’t be written by anonymous bureaucrats in backrooms, they will be written by and with the residents of Los Angeles.”
Whose vision drives this first effort in 47 years to choose our overarching dreams, policies, and best practices for Los Angeles? Is it the L.A. City Council’s vision? Is it the Mayor’s vision? Is it the City Planners’ vision?
Interestingly, the answer is none of the above. The State of California is clear in its 2003 and 2017 Guidelines, that the public drives and informs a city’s General Plan Update, right from the very start:
“A local General Plan should 1) start with a shared community vision that will 2) help set priorities throughout the planning process and 3) inform decision makers about community values.” (California General Plan Guidelines, Chapter 2: A Vision for Long-Range Planning, pg. 11-12)
Of key concern to L.A. residents are issues unknown to the City Fathers of 1970. Climate change, the urban heat-island effect, the importance of urban tree canopies to human and environmental health, the societal and environmental importance of open space, the locations of earthquake faults, the pressing need to capture storm runoff, the impending failure to add neighborhood parks to a growing city.
We now know, 47 years after the last comprehensive Los Angeles General Plan was written, that cities can fight climate change by nurturing an urban tree canopy — a forest of trees that mitigate the urban heat-island effect, consume greenhouse gas emissions, reduce use of carbon-based fuels to cool homes, businesses and cars, absorb storm runoff through their root systems, create habitat for important bird, animal and insect life, and even improve human mental and physical health.
Environmentally progressive cities such as Austin, Cleveland, Pasadena, Portland, Sacramento and Seattle have surged ahead to create extensive urban tree canopies. Pasadena, for example, protects 13 tree species; Los Angeles protects only four. Cleveland has a comprehensive Urban Forest Management Plan, Los Angeles has none.
In fact, in the nationwide push by cities to re-green their tree canopies, Los Angeles has been on pause. While L.A. has an admirable “Sustainable City pLAn,” its urban forest goals remain largely unformed and unfulfilled. Budgets for trees and parks have waxed and waned, major development is approved without requiring green belts, open space is rezoned for building, and the siting of parks in congested communities has suffered repeated failures. The Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering has yet to adopt the most fundamental practice in cities, of inventorying L.A. street trees — the first step in saving and expanding them through an Urban Forest Management Plan. Independently of the city, Caltech, in partnership with AEye Labs, is developing a GIS system to detect the species, tree count and location of every L.A. street tree using Google Maps and Google Street Views.
Los Angeles has an Open Space Element in its aging General Plan, an Element that will require robust public voices to shape it during this modern-day Update. But the dire health of L.A.’s tree canopy requires that it be granted its own Element status in the General Plan. To this end, we urge Los Angeles City Planner Vince Bertoni and Mayor Eric Garcetti to include an Urban Forest Element in the Los Angeles General Plan.
This topic must not be relegated to a mere chapter, as is currently being considered at City Hall, but given a full nod as a formal Element of the Plan.
L.A. is well behind dozens of cities, such as Washington D.C., Portland, Glendale, Austin and Sacramento, in rebuilding its urban forest. Researcher E. Gregory McPherson and others found in their 2008 Los Angeles 1-Million Tree Canopy Assessment, that just 21 percent of L.A. is protected by tree canopy. Nine years later, MIT’s Treepedia platform, working together with the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities, studied L.A.’s street trees in 2017, and found a 15.3 percent canopy. Treepedia is now backward-mapping L.A.’s street trees as they existed in 2008, using Google Street View — and expects the data to chronicle a steep tree canopy loss since then.
L.A.’s government is planting only about 15,000 trees annually, about the same as far smaller Charlotte, Sacramento, or Washington D.C.
It isn’t for lack of money. Los Angeles had a record $9.2 billion budget this year. Yet there is little money for the urban forest. About $5 million to $8 million per year flows in from city and state sources and is tapped by tree canopy efforts such as the LA Beautification Team, Los Angeles Conservation Corps and North East Trees. Some 10,000 of the 15,000 new trees are planted by residents, and the city has no reliable method for managing their survival. Recreation and Parks alone lost an estimated 14,000 trees by withholding water in L.A. parks during the drought, after Gov. Brown issued a short-sighted “no watering” policy that he rescinded too late. And neither the Urban Forestry Division nor the Department of Building and Safety has the budget to enforce the environmental law requiring developers to replace trees they destroy.
The environmental, health and equity implications of not investing in re-greening our urban tree canopy are serious for L.A., situated in an arid Mediterranean-like climate — not a desert — where trees can flourish and provide immeasurable human and environmental payoffs to rich and poor alike.
Sacramento, by example, has a city-owned water and power utility, SMUD, so committed to expanding Sacramento’s urban forest that it issued thermal readers so the public could compare the summertime surface heat of a sidewalk in full sun (115 degrees) to the same sidewalk five feet away, in the full shade of a tree (89 degrees).
L.A.’s vanishing urban tree canopy cries out for a commitment to systemic change. The ebb and flow of election cycles should not affect the future of L.A.’s tree canopy. Its estimated 700,000 street trees and 2 million privately owned trees are infrastructure on par with the water system and the roads. Fighting greenhouse gas emissions, the heat-island effect, polluted storm runoff, the loss of shade, and the destruction of urban habitat, are no longer a debate. They are a must.
Building an Urban Forest Element directly into the General Plan, alongside such increasingly important Elements as Public Safety, Open Space, and Infrastructure, will focus long-term thinking, public debate and citywide talents on the problem unlike any time in the past.
Part 2 will be in the January 2018 issue and include:
How is the City Addressing L.A.’s Tree Canopy Crisis?
and What Los Angeles Must Do in 2018