September 1, 2002 - From the September, 2002 issue

Tree People's Innovative Urban Forest Water Managment Project

Why plant a tree? For almost 30 years, Andy Lipkis has been addressing this simple, yet powerful, question. Through his organization, TreePeople, Lipkis has researched and demonstrated that trees can be efficient and effective in solving eco-system problems. Recently, TreePeople began their most ambitious project yet-planting an urban forest in Sun Valley to address the single greatest flood risk area in the County. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Andy Lipkis, in which he discusses the true power of trees and their economic value to urban environments.


Andy Lipkis

It's been a couple of years since we've had a chance to catch up with you and the agenda of TreePeople. While most people still consider TreePeople the Johnny Appleseed of Southern California, obviously your agenda is much broader and more complex. Bring us up to date.

In one sense nothing has changed. And, then again, everything has. We are simply planting trees, but some people think that is all we do. We've always done more than that. Why do you plant a tree? We plant trees to cool the air, provide shade, and prevent flooding--to solve problems. We discovered that trees help the ecosystem and it's not a random process. Using good science and economics, we discovered that it's more like acupuncture. If you plant a tree strategically, and the right tree in the right place, you can actually turn this into a healthy and sustainable city.

That sounds like an outrageous statement, but when we last talked, I was just finishing a 10-year research project successfully showing just that. How we manage Los Angeles now costs us a tremendous amount of money and jobs, perpetuating a lower quality of life for everyone. It perpetuates environmental problems such as asthma and skin cancer, and a water shortage.

We succeeded in showing that if we could coordinate the work of agencies and manage the city as an ecosystem, we could save money and create jobs. We could've stopped there, a completed project on the shelf. However, throughout the process of doing the economic analyses, we involved agencies in doing the studies. Several people, including Carl Blum, the deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works in charge of flood control, realized that this could work and they actually began to make changes in their government institutions.

What was the challenge Carl Blum offered you? Describe the Sun Valley Pilot Project you and TreePeople are now engaged with.

Sun Valley was built without any storm drains and it has a huge flooding problem. In fact, this was the most persistent and largest flooding problem left in the county. It was going to require the construction of a $42 million storm drain. So Blum said, "Let's see if we can solve this flooding problem without throwing all that water away and without building a storm drain."

So the advantage was that we could install a forest system with real trees, real mulch, and some other technology to do what forests do, to not only solve the flooding problems, but solve some other big issues as well. It would develop recreation areas, create jobs, provide green space where there isn't any, and solve some health problems. So we worked with the County's Watershed Management Division and put together a whole team, including Supervisor Yaroslavsky, Department of Water and Power, the Regional Water Board, The Recreation and Parks Department, LA Unified Schools and Board member David Tokofsky, the Department of Sanitation, Engineering and Watershed Protection Divisions, Montgomery Watson Harza Engineers, City Councilman Padilla's office, Joel Wachs' office, and now Ruth Galanter and Wendy Greuel's offices are involved as well.

The County pulled all of these agencies together into a team that was called the Stakeholder's Group, and asked if it was possible to solve this water problem in a project that includes 8,000 homes and 2,700 acres. It took the engineers of the county and the city over two and a half years of feasibility studies to come to the conclusion that this can be done. Not only that, we ran cost-benefit analyses based on the research we had done before, showing that instead of spending $42 million on a storm drain that would only result in an absence ofwater and provide no benefit to the community, spending about $100 million could generate approximately $400-500 million in benefits back to community and various agencies.

For example, just in terms of the water, instead of polluting and throwing that storm and floodwater in to the river, we would capture it and put it back into the aquifer, reusing it. If we could capture the rainfall and reuse it, we would generate as much as $172 million worth of new water for DWP and MWD over 30 years. Already, that's paid for itself. But, it would also generate benefits in the form of less air pollution and more jobs. So, for $100 million investment we're looking at a $400-500 million benefit, plus the intangibles of greener, healthier, shadier communities, and greener schools.

The theory, then, is that instead of just one agency paying just for a single purpose project, we could bring multiple agencies together and they would be able to pay for the benefits they each get. And, sure enough, for a pilot project, AQMD has joined with DWP and put in $350,000 to green five schools in Sun Valley. A wonderful testimony to the validity of the theory is the California Federal Bay Delta program kicking in $700,000 to support this effort in Sun Valley. They recognize the effect it can have in saving fish in the Bay and reducing our water importation needs. The county has committed its $42 million dollars. The hope is that it will bring in substantial funding from MWD, DWP, the City's Department of Sanitation, the city's Watershed Protection Division and others, to help implement this whole thing.

Andy, give us the status of this incredibly significant and promising demonstration project. Where are you on the timeline?

We're about seven months into the 22-month first phase. The first phase is developing the Environmental Impact Reports and designing the entire watershed management plan. So we'll be finding all the places where water will be stored and put back into the ground, how many homes will be retrofitted, schools, commercial properties-where various facilities will be located.

This is a significant pilot project that obviously has considerable ramifications if it's successful. But please elaborate on the other projects that you and Tree People have been working on, and their significance.

As we were communicating to people about the simple changes that could be made, we found that most people's literacy about what trees do pretty much stops at decoration. You plant trees to decorate the land. People didn't see it or understand it as a problem solving or healing tool. But we've always known it was and that's why we were doing it. Along the way, over 30 years, we've learned that it was a precise science that requires a really good skill from engineering, landscape architecture, and horticulture, which all fall under the heading of urban forestry.

So part of it has been a perception that we just plant trees. We also say that we re-knit the fabric of communities. We don't plant trees for communities, we work with the communities and neighborhoods to find leaders or find people who want to see something different. We support them in creating a neighborhood vision and a neighborhood dream so they own the project. They know what they need and we guide them.

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We put this all together and say that if you get a bunch of trees, you will have a forest that, if designed right, can produce incredible solutions. So TreePeople has matured, but we've been on the exact same path of bringing trees and people together to solve the city's problems and make this a livable city. That's still what we do, but people have to look a lot deeper. You can't dismiss TreePeople for planting things that are worth 50 cents or a dollar. The end results of our design work-economic research, environmental research-influenced LA Unified to adopt the policy of using 30% of their budget previously allocated to paving to plant trees and green campuses, protecting student health, cooling down the campuses, getting water in the ground, etc.

Exactly how many trees has TreePeople planted?

We've planted close to two million now in the greater LA area and have helped people all around the world plant trees. But Los Angeles needs two million more trees. We need an urban forest. If we were simply to plant those trees, we wouldn't get the job done. This is because we have three million people who are unwittingly damaging the environment day in and day out, spending their life energy and billions of dollars that damage the environment- without knowing it. I'm getting tired! We could actually get the job done by having those same people see and understand that they actually make a difference no matter what they do.

They are either not informed or they are overwhelmed with information and they tend to get cynical. Our job is to make it really easy and possible for people to take the right actions, and not only that, have government support them and validate this mission; show that it's working.

How is the new TreePeople community center going to help you further your stated goal of creating a sustainable Los Angeles?

The Center for Community Forestry puts it all together. We've already built one of the largest environmental educational programs in the United States. This center will allow us to raise the bar on literacy, transforming people from seeing trees as decorations seeing them as functional pieces of equipment. Second, the facility really is a whole support center and factory for the greening of Los Angeles-making it a city that's sustainable, that reduces its water use, and substantially reduces air pollution and its contribution to global warming.

By having an urban watershed garden that teaches people about how to live and manage an urban forest watershed, by having buildings that require hardly any energy to run, we will have a facility that teaches not just kids, but business people and government people, that this is simple, attractive, powerful, and effective. It's not like eating granola and tofu, which I happen to like. It's something that can have an impact without lowering their lifestyle and quality of life.

By their design, the buildings teach. But then, specifically, we have a learning center and a conference center, where we can gather professionals in the community both locally and beyond. Part of the conference center is a very special facility to bring multiple agencies together to connect the dots to be able to manage LA's whole living ecosystem. Nobody is doing that. There is no facility anywhere in government that actually brings the various managers of the separate pieces of infrastructure together to coordinate the resources necessary to manage this as a whole ecosystem.

When you consider asthma, and skin cancer cases are increasing, particularly among teenagers, when you consider other impacts we have on the planet, we actually do have an ongoing disaster and we do have to manage it seriously. We're building a facility that will allow the agencies like DWP, Metropolitan Water District, Flood Control, (the people who bring the water, and the people who get rid of rain water) to work together with each other and with community groups to coordinate their efforts.

Andy, where is TreePeople re breaking ground and securing the funds necessary to realize this dream?

The challenge is, we've been working on this project for almost ten years, and each time we started the project there's been a recession. So this time when we started and there wasn't a recession in Los Angeles. We've raised $6 million so far and we need to raise $10 million. We plan to break ground by mid September at least for the first phase. Then depending on whether or not we raise enough money to build the whole center at one time, we hope to compete construction in a little over a year.

Are there Center naming opportunities to incentivize bridging the funding gap an complete the project?

We have a tremendous amount of naming opportunities. Our whole operation center, which is this incredibly wonderful but sustainable building that will use hardly any energy, the library, the volunteer center, the support center, the parking grove, the nursery, the historic fire tower and a host of indoor and outdoor educational displays. We also have a vision that this center can be built as a community project just like the old time community barn raising.

We've gotten some wonderful support from foundations like the S. Mark Taper Foundation, the Keck Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, the Parsons Foundation and a generous challenge matching grant from the Boeing Company. The city of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation is going to do $250,000 worth of grading (they're bringing in the tractors) at no cost. We're hoping that kids will recycle $100 worth of trash in order to get their name on a plaque or a piece of the center for their contributions. But, we won't get this done until everyone participates. The last two years of fundraising have been the quiet phase. We've gotten 60-70% of the way there and now it's time to get everyone involved.

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