Shady Thoughts

The Mayor’s Volunteer Corps plants treesalong the city’s first Great Street, Cesar Chavez Avenue.
Courtesy City Plants

On the heels of several stifling Los Angeles heat waves it’s a good time to address one of my biggest issues with the city: the profound lack of street trees.

Why, I wonder, would a place known for sunny, cloudless skies and baking heat remain so poor at providing shade? The city is well below the national average in tree canopy cover, and its abundance of existing palm trees, which suck up too much water and provide little-to-no shade, does not do the trick. The tree-related problems are many, and they all need to be fixed.

The first is a similar refrain: the city’s bureaucracy, which often stifles coordination, innovation, and action. Right now the planting of trees is overseen by disconnected and hobbled departments. And the act of planting a tree in front of one’s property, or on a nearby median, involves enough rules, permits, and time that it dissuades many from attempting. For instance, various friends of mine have been either forced to cut down existing trees (because they exceeded spacing requirements, which still confuse me), have been unable to reach the city’s Urban Forestry Division about planting more trees, or have had no follow up on complaints of neighbors cutting down their trees.

The city’s aging infrastructure—such as decaying irrigation systems—makes things even more difficult, and there’s no fix in sight.

The second is also familiar: a lack of funding. The budget of the Urban Forestry Division under the Bureau of Street Services has been cut back so severely that the majority of their work now involves just emergency tree maintenance and planting oversight.

The third is a little more unusual. Because of the city’s car dominance, business owners are afraid of trees blocking their signs. Hence they practice techniques such as “topping,” in which they cut off the top of a tree to keep their sign visible, or just cutting down trees altogether.

There doesn’t yet seem to be the legislative will, the money, or the ability to change these situations. If LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is truly committed to making great streets in the city, and to making the city more pedestrian friendly, he needs to further embrace trees, which not only provide shade, but clean and cool the air, stabilize and purify the water supply, and beautify and transform neighborhoods.

There are some encouraging signs. While the city’s Urban Forestry Division is largely down and out, City Plants, the successor to the city’s Million Trees LA initiative (a program of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that fell well short of its goal of planting a million trees), is a non profit focused on planting trees in “low canopy” areas, but it also branches into commercial corridors and other important zones. Largely funded by the Department of Water and Power and by private donations, the organization has become the city’s de facto tree agency.

It’s not ideal to have a non-profit running a city’s tree efforts, and City Plants won’t release its budget. Nonetheless the agency has done an effective job, partnering with other non-profits and upping the total number of trees planted since Million Trees was founded to about 500,000, mostly drought tolerant trees. (Still the organization insists that its goal is not the number of trees planted, preferring to focus on key need areas). Each tree costs about $500 to plant, including concrete removal, so this is no small task.

Tree planting is also a major part of Garcetti’s “Great Streets” initiative, an effort to make the city’s streets more walkable and livable. The goal is admirable, but funding for tree planting as part of the program has not yet been accounted for. As of now tree planting would have to be sponsored by local businesses and community groups like business improvement districts. If the program gets more funding in the city’s next budget that could change, say sources in City Hall.

Meanwhile the Department of Public Works and other agencies have proposed updated guidelines for planting trees and landscaping near houses, businesses, and in parkways—streamlining and making sense of a difficult process—but so far the city has yet to pass such measures.

So the city is far from where it should be. It needs to dedicate its own resources to this effort, not depend on non-profits, it needs to widen the scope of tree planting to more neighborhoods, and it needs to simplify and improve its oversight. With global warming the days are only going to get hotter, and there’s no excuse for a concrete jungle lacking trees in a place like this. If you’ve ever walked down an LA street and wondered why you felt so uncomfortable you need to do your part to make sure this happens.

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