July 30, 1997 - From the July, 1997 issue

TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis Wants to Use Urban Forestry to Save L.A.

During the last 25 years, TreePeople has cultivated a growing constituency for “Urban Forestry”—the thoughtful integration of natural components with the urban environment. TreePeople’s founder and President, Andy Lipkis, asserts that by boosting awareness of natural processes and rallying public agencies around common environmental objectives, we can enjoy cleaner air, better water and superior flood control in the region. But the level of cooperation and common regional vision needed to achieve these goals has few precedents in Southern California. Undaunted, TreePeople has launched the T.R.E.E.S. program, aiming to do just that.

Last month public agencies, designers, engineers, economists, and environmentalists convened at the T.R.E.E.S. design charrette in Culver City to propose options for retooling our environmental thinking and improving interagency cooperation. The Planning Report is pleased to present this follow-up interview with Andy Lipkis regarding T.R.E.E.S.


Andy Lipkis: “The enormous potential benefits of [an integrated] approach—dollar savings, government efficiency, jobs & solutions for environmental problems, are the incentive…”

Why don't you describe for our readers both your goals and expectations for the TreePeople's T.R.E.E.S. program and your recent and promising design charrette.

We want to bring an integrated approach to managing urban infrastructure and facilitate coordinated efforts between infrastructure agencies that, right now, don't normally talk to each other. Our government systems don't recognize that we are in a living ecosystem—a watershed. And it costs us tremendously. 

T.R.E.E.S. stands for Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability. Our goal is to re­design L.A.'s infrastructure so the City can work as a functioning watershed. It is possible to reduce L.A.'s water importation by at least 50%, alleviate and prevent major flooding, help clean up our polluted bays and beaches, substantially reduce the waste stream, and create thousands of new jobs—all while having government work more efficiently. 

The purpose of the T.R.E.E.S. project is to demonstrate how this could be done, and then devise a plan for utilizing already-anticipated infrastructure investments in related areas to cover the cost of adapting and maintaining our landscape for sustainability. 

The four components of the project are design, building a demonstration project, creating a benefit-cost computer model as a decision-making tool, and finally, putting together an implementation plan. The design charrette is the first key component. 

In the briefing book for the design charrette, you were quoted as follows: "When we built this City we didn't understand how nature worked so we conquered it, removing almost all traces of nature, yielding a host of environmental problems that we are now inheriting." Explain your point for our readers' benefit. 

Many of this City's environmental problems stem from fact that we are often in drought and have to spend close to a billion dollars to bring water into the region. At the same time, too much rainfall poses a tremendous flood threat. We don't capture and make use our rainfall—it rushes off to the ocean and is wasted. It picks up and carries ground pollutants out to the Bay, contaminating the water and the fish. This threatens the health and livelihood of all those who depend on the bay to eat, who recreate in the bay or who depend on the tourism trade generated by our beaches. And this fundamental environmental mismanagement has profound implications on the economy and people's lives throughout the basin.

Another very important issue is the landfill crisis—too much trash.

Thirty percent of L.A.’s waste stream is green waste or yard waste. If L.A. were a forest, that stuff would belong—it's mulch, and it belongs on forest floor to help trap, conserve and purify water, and to hold the soil. But instead of getting these environmental benefits from our green waste, we spend a lot of money taking it to our landfills. 

When people think of Tree People, they think of your pledge to plant a million trees in Los Angeles. You are now into a concept you call Urban Forestry. Why have you moved into this larger conceptual arena and why is it important for the rest of us to follow along?

Trees help make the City a better place by, among other things, cleaning the air and helping to prevent erosion. The challenge, though, is that trees don't do it on their own. The wrong tree in the wrong place can actually worsen environmental problems. It's only when we design a planting as part of a natural system—like a forest—that we get prescriptions in which trees actually improve the environment. Where you plant and how you care for them makes a huge difference as to whether or not you get the great benefits that caused you to plant the trees in the first place. 

We planted over a million trees for the L.A. Olympics. Now people are asking if we need to plant three, five or ten million more trees to combat global warming. But blindly planting those trees could wreak tremendous problems. By taking an integrated approach, however—an Urban Forestry approach—those trees could really provide some important answers. 

And the answers go well beyond mitigating carbon dioxide. They go to saving water and creating jobs. It's important that we address as many of L.A.'s problems in one integrated whole if possible. We've learned the lesson that single-purpose solutions usually only create whole new sets of problems. But too often we don't practice it in the way we manage infrastructure. 

You have mentioned flood control, air quality improvement, green waste reduction and water conservation—rather broad-based environmental goals. Each requires the cooperation of different government agencies and must appeal to many different constituencies. How do you cross disciplines and constituencies to weave together a larger coalition?

We start with a compelling vision of the City as an urban forest—a beautiful, thriving and healthy ecosystem. And we all have the same goals to meet—flood control, clean water, etc. But by looking at each objective as part of a whole, the agencies involved in the process begin to discover that they're not alone, and that there may be other resources available to help them meet their goals. 

All the agencies we are working with are interested because increasingly limited resources have made it harder to meet their mandates. But the new field of demand-side management has opened up a lot of partnership opportunities for these agencies—both with each other and with the public. We're bringing them together to facilitate integrated work and cooperation. Agencies that aren't used to partnering with each other are beginning to form some important alliances. 

Which organizations are we talking about? 

The U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Metropolitan Water District, the L.A. Department of Water & Power, L.A. Storm Water Division, L.A. Sanitation, L.A. County Public Works, the Southern California Association of Governments and the City of Santa Monica.

Most agencies have only a single defined purpose. But we are helping them begin to see that one agency's problem is frequently another's resource.

For example, Sanitation's job is to get rid of trash, a big chunk which is green waste. They have a State mandate to reduce the overall waste stream by 50%, and the City faces tremendous fines if these goals aren't met. The City now spends tens of millions of dollars to pick up, haul and landfill green waste. At the same time, L.A. has a tremendous stormwater pollution problem costing tens of millions of dollars each year. 

Each of these problems falls under a completely independent agency and management structure. But if they are viewed through the integrating lens of Urban Forestry, the green waste becomes mulch that is strategically placed on the ground to trap and help the soil better absorb stormwater. Clean water and waste reduction objectives are then met at the same time.

There is no historic relationship between most of the agencies involved in the T.R.E.E.S. process. But through the Urban Forestry perspective, it's clear that they are completely linked. 

What incentivizes a comprehensive approach over single-shot, narrowly defined jurisdictional squabbles? 

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The enormous potential benefits of this combined approach—dollar savings, government efficiency, jobs, and solutions for environmental problems—is the incentive. What the best vehicle is for implementing this comprehensive approach, though, is a good question. Several things have stood in the way, historically; foremost is the nature of bureaucracy. 

So a lot comes down to charter issues. For example, DWP is responsible only for bringing water into L.A. They've done a small amount of conservation work, but it's not their job to deal rain water. During the charrette, though, we found that more than half of L.A.'s water needs could be met with local rainfall. And DWP doesn't ever touch it. The only people who do, have the job of getting rid of it.

We 're throwing away a half-billion dollars’ worth of water a year! So how do we create a meta-agency that would allow the kind of collaboration that could address this? The DWP doesn't have structural permission to deal with storm water. Again, that is a charter issue. 

Please address the tension between nurturing nature and the demands of city life. How do we strike a balance between the two in urban metropolitan L.A.? 

Clearly it is essential that we strike that balance. Humans have to recognize that we have influenced all natural systems on this planet, even what we've defined as wilderness. We've affected the weather and the atmosphere globally. 

Thus, we have to work with great wisdom and respect for nature and its systems and cycles. They have a lot to teach us. We now have the computer technology to model natural cycles to help us come up with new solutions. This is the basis of the T.R.E.E.S. project. 

In striking a balance, we have to remember that things have changed over time. We cannot recreate Los Angeles' native habitat and vegetation unless we take away Los Angeles. 

The native soil, lighting and air conditions don't exist anymore. Thus the people who only want to see native vegetation planted in L.A. will find that many of those things won't grow here anymore. Native plants often die here.

So you need to find what roles in the ecosystem particular trees or plants played, and determine how to replace them, when you need to. We find trees and plants from similar climate zones—dry Mediterranean climates, generally—that can still thrive in an environment of 24 hour-a-day light, and so on.

The recent passage both of County and City park bond issues showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that voters are willing to pay for park, recreational facilities, beaches and natural lands. But Esther Feldman, the outgoing Director of the Trust for Public Land's L.A. Field Office said in the May Planning Report ''now is the time for L.A. County's corporations, small businesses, private foundations, sports and philanthropic leaders to step up to the plate and match these public dollars." What else has to be done? Where do you expect the resources to come from?

We need to educate and encourage people to begin to participate much more consciously in helping Los Angeles work. When these efforts reach a critical mass, great things can happen. As you know, we are the founders of the Citizen Forestry movement. We have been organizing L.A. neighborhoods for 24 years, helping more and more people come together to take back their streets. We've helped bring neighbors together to plant, to reshape their neighborhoods and get a sense of control. Esther Feldman was talking about a need for people to become more a part of the process. People need to come together and help maintain the system.

Traditionally, our public works mentality has been to spend all our money on hardware and technology that doesn't need much human involvement after it's in place. As a result, our bond initiatives support purchasing and planting, but they don't support maintenance.

A number of the engineering firms involved in the T.R.E.E.S. design charrette (Woodward, Clyde, Psomas, Simmons-Lee, among others) had actually helped L.A. County develop the River wall project. At first, they were a bit resentful even of what we were talking about. But during the process, their questions and concerns profoundly strengthened the resulting designs. And they came out the firmest believers of us all.

They agreed that the T.R.E.E.S. approach, which involves investing in people and lower technology, is much more viable than the way we have traditionally done things. We are seeing an end to the day when we just create city systems as if people weren't a part of them. The costs of excluding people are growing all the time. Now more or us are embracing building technologies that work in part because people are participating in the process.

How will the readers of The Planning Report know when TreePeople and your T.R.E.E.S. program are successful?

All the designs coming out of the charrette achieved more than a 50% reduction in water importation requirements. Our next step is to build a demonstration project and test it.

We're retrofitting a home in South Central Los Angeles that we and several government agencies will be monitoring. Can we reduce its water use and water importation? Does the actual model work? That will be the evaluation point. All of your readers will be invited to tour and inspect it when it is complete.

The following phase will involve planning departments and the contributing agencies in creating the benefit-cost model, a computer system that will do the integrating we're talking about. No one has ever done this before. Instead or a simple one-time benefit-cost analysis, our model will allow the user to plug in a whole array of variables—from water supply to green waste management. The model will continuously test different configurations and project how many jobs would be created or lost when we employ one strategy versus another. We will be able to run different scenarios constantly, and that will be an important tool throughout the process.

Fourth is the implementation plan. The strategy is to bring together L.A.'s business, government and community leaders to evaluate the results of the T.R.E.E.S. project. And if we perform as expected, we hope they will commit themselves to seeing these ideas implemented Countywide.

After that comes the plan, itself. As currently proposed, the $20 billion in planned expenditures on water and flood and control programs over the next 10 years will likely perpetuate or worsen environmental and economic problems. We need to redirect that money—to use it instead to fund the sort of integrated watershed approach we are now demonstrating. We can have a more secure water supply and better flood control. We can strengthen our local economy and make our City environment a safer and healthier place to live.

Will the major business and community agency leaders endorse a plan to move to Countywide implementation? That will be the final test. And, hopefully, we'll have an answer a year from now.

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