September 29, 2005 - From the September, 2005 issue

LA Mayor Villaraigosa's Green Agenda Grows Out of TreePeople's Work

Though its name evokes shovels and saplings, TreePeople has developed from a tree-planing organization to a far-reaching environmental advocacy group that is aggressively working to promote green practices in the L.A. area. Through education, rigorous science, and programming, TreePeople has conducted programs ranging from tree-planing, to water reclamation, to schoolyard design. In this interview with TPR, TreePeople Founder and President Andy Lipkis explains why the Villaraigosa adminnistration may mark a watershed moment in the campaign to achieve sustainability in the region.

Andy Lipkis

Mayor Villaraigosa began his administration with the proclamation that he would like Los Angeles to be the greenest big city in America. What should we be thinking about here? What should we be doing? What should be on the agenda?

It is a very exciting and compelling goal. We've been working with him on this vision for five years, and what is really great is that he opened up his first day in office and declared we are going to do this and didn't forget his campaign promises. He has made it his goal to deliver a green agenda, and he has taken some amazing steps with the people he is appointing for commissions. Instead of the usual cronyism he has actually been building a lot of expertise that can make it happen. So, that is one point. The other point is that L.A. is one of the more unsustainable cities in this country, if not on the planet, in terms of its impact on global warming, its dependence on fuel, its dependence on water, its vulnerability to natural disasters. There is a very real need to address this issue, from both an environmental perspective, but also from the perspective of this city's own success in the future. We are so dependent on imported commodities that if they either dry up or get too expensive, the local businesses that make this a successful city will be pushed over the edge.

Before we go into specific programs and opportunities, why don't I pick up from the nation's worst natural disaster, Katrina, in terms of what role the environment ought to be playing to make this a more inhabitable region. What do you take from this experience?

First of all, wake up, folks! We have been so lulled by the naysayers. There has been plenty of good science saying that this is going to happen and pointing out various vulnerabilities, and unfortunately there are lots of naysayers declaring that the environmentalists are just trying to scare people. The fact is that those naysayers have done a tremendous disservice to our society. The threat is real; global warming is real. People need to understand the science. You have people like Dennis Miller all over the airwaves, a comedian, saying that scientists say there is "only" a degree or half a degree rise in temperature. What a travesty. Well, that half-degree is exactly calibrated with a huge increase in intensity of hurricanes, because if you heat the surface water, it adds more fuel, more energy into the hurricane. I don't mean to scare everyone, but Southern Californians are vulnerable too. There are absolutely things we can and should do to make L.A. safer and more resilient from natural disasters. The threats are real. We must prepare for disasters with short-term emergency response planning, and also take actions that will better protect us in the long term. We are obviously vulnerable to earthquakes, but because of how we've built Los Angeles, we are also vulnerable to flooding. Just as we've changed building codes to better protect us from quakes, we can take action to increase our protection from flooding, and more importantly, protect our local water supplies in the event of any disaster. The preparedness response is as relevant for earthquakes as it is for floods and terrorism.

Solving these problems involves policy and planning, but there is also education, community involvement, and critical neighborhood self-help responses. In fact, in some neighborhoods, it is the only part that is going to work. It is incumbent upon the city to build a system that works, but it is really only as good as the education outreach campaign that gets individuals, families and neighborhoods to take action. One of the upsides of a basic greening program, like the mayor's tree program, is the opportunity to link up neighborhoods to take care of each other, build the human-to-human trust and increase street-to-street communication. It is a support network, that, once in place, ensures that neighbors know which neighbors are transit-dependent, and who needs someone to check on them. We need this whole human-connected network, and think it should be an integral part of the greening effort.

Let's talk about some of the green policies and some of the programs that are appropriate on a regional scale in Southern California and gain added weight from the lessons learned from Katrina on the Gulf Coast. What are the green policies and programs appropriate to this region?

TreePeople prescribes reducing our water importation by half while building a water-safe city by harvesting rainfall. We have demonstrated that it is technically and economically feasible to retrofit L.A. to become a more sustainable city in terms of water supply, water quality, energy use, and air. We have over ten years of research and development and have worked with agencies to show that it is possible. Through TreePeople's recent strategic planning process, we have committed ourselves to retrofitting every neighborhood in Los Angeles to become functioning community forests. Current land management practices would be modified to better capture water and reuse it both for irrigation and to recharge the aquifer. This would also help prevent floods. We have been developing and we have demonstrated tree-and forest-inspired technologies, like cisterns, French drains, infiltrators, and bioswales. This strategy uses nature-mimicking technology along with natural solutions to help adapt the city to actually capture and store an independent water supply that is safe from quakes and safe from terrorism.

We need leadership at the top to do integrated planning; it's essential to begin to understand that Los Angeles is a system or ecosystem, and we can't fix all of the problems with single-purpose, uncoordinated approaches. The good news right from the top is that this is the first mayor to respond in our ten years of calling for an integrated approach. He has created a whole new deputy mayor position, head of environment and energy, and just appointed Nancy Sutley to fill that role. Our fingers are crossed that they will both approach this from an ecosystem perspective. Clearly the mayor wants to facilitate all of these people working in coordination, and it is going to take some reorientation. The other good news is that the city has been on the path through one huge effort, the Bureau of Sanitation's Integrated Resources Plan for the wastewater program, that included wastewater and storm water, and water supply. When you look at the water system as a whole , the wonderful thing that happens is you identify new water sources like rainwater that is high quality , and grey water that is not very contaminated and needs less treatment. All of this becomes a resource instead of a problem requiring more sewage treatment plants.

One of the things that we need to do for this city to create healthy safe neighborhoods, and safe kids – and this is on the mayor's green agenda–is to create parks within walking distance of every neighborhood. Over the past ten years, TreePeople has done demonstration projects in two underserved L.A. schools. They were classic urban schools in that they were primarily covered in asphalt, but through an integrated program, we worked with unusual partners for the school district: the Department of Water and Power and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project. So, one agency had a water supply goal, and another agency had a water quality goal, and both have invested in major greening of the schools. In each case, we were able to put under the schoolyard, a water catcher and re-use device. Water supply, flood control, and water quality investments paid for all this, but from the perspective of the neighborhoods, they got a park, a beautiful soccer field, outdoor classrooms, beautiful baseball fields, and a tree-shaded lovely campus. Through this ecosystem approach, this integration, instead of single-focus projects, we took that extra time for a cooperative, integrated approach, and received multiple benefits and multiple solutions.

Air quality has two links to this, and they are important. One of the major sources of air pollution in Los Angeles is our power plants. By shading and cooling buildings with trees, not only do you run air conditioners less and reduce energy use, you are also thereby producing less pollution. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Energy, ten million trees planted in Southern California, once they matured, would save $200 million a year in medical expenses just related to respiratory disease.

This is a great place to ask you about Mayor Villaraigosa's plans to plant one million new trees throughout the city. How challenging is this? How is different than it was thirty years ago?


We welcome and are very excited about the mayor's plans and see them as being very compatible with achieving our objective of a functioning community forest in every neighborhood. At the mayor's personal request, we've already been working with his staff and key leaders to begin planning. The new Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels is in charge of the effort. It is a huge undertaking and we think very worthwhile, but it's also risky. There are a lot of trees in L.A. but many more are needed to make a significant difference in actually improving our quality of life, and achieving air and water quality, energy and water conservation, and equity goals. The key is making sure appropriate trees are planted in the proper places, that they survive and thrive, and are properly cared for so they can perform special infrastructure services. And that is where this starts becoming a very different effort. It is imperative that a public-private partnership is formed to use the best new science and technology to plan and implement this effort.

The potential up-side is huge! We are offering to lead a strategically organized design process. This effort should ultimately help save the city money, water, and energy. The resulting trees should work as a forest system that will clean up water pollution and help clean up air pollution. It should also help create those green places that are so needed. We can create safe sidewalks with beautiful shade. By appropriately, strategically greening – shading the buildings, shading the paved areas around the city – you save energy and you save money. To do this right, people-neighbors, students, volunteers and city staff, need new tools, scientific guidance and feedback, all of which can be provided by a smart combination of face-to-face community outreach and education programs coupled with technology such as the world wide web.

But the risks are huge too A million wrong trees planted in the wrong locations could worsen air pollution, use more water, worsen runoff, trigger more allergies and asthma, profoundly lower the quality of life and add huge costs to an already overburdened city budget .

TreePeople has been running pilot programs in Brentwood and Sun Valley to assess those communities needs and opportunities for street trees. How are those projects going, and what are you learning from them?

We have been piloting use of new technologies mentioned above. We have been piloting how to get residents out on the street and collect data about their community forest, own it, understand their need and their opportunity, and do something with it. We already have had some good results in Brentwood. A critical piece is what happens when neighbors get out and talk to each other, and that is what we are driving as a key agenda for the mayor's tree effort. Aside from finding out where and how many trees are needed, there is an opportunity to do a lot of community-building that is critical to solve problems. Through the activity of tree-planting and keeping those trees alive, making sure they are protected and watered to connecting to care for each other. Our hope is to use a combination of the technologies we have tested-hand-held GPS Computers-- and actually move that over to a WEB-based system that would look a bit like the new Google Earth tool. ESRI kindly donated some of the GIS software that we're using in the pilot and has offered to help us scale up for a full campaign. Our hope is to be able to very soon produce the tools for individual neighborhoods across Los Angeles to get together to analyze their streets and count how many spaces for trees they have at their homes, streets and schools, and actually collect that data from all over town, get everybody together into a "treetop congress." We would like to do this all over town to see whether there is room for 500,000 or 2.5 million trees, in order to strategically green L.A. We are committed to leading that process, community-based and science-based to produce a credible number, so everyone knows that this wasn't just a number pulled out of a hat.

In an interview in TPR's sister publication, the Metro Investment Report, Rachel Dinno of the Trust for Public Land speaks to the planning of the upcoming state parks bond, which sets aside urban land for parks as a priority. Do you want to comment on the need for such a bond and what it might include?

The need is huge. The bonds themselves are needed to help trigger, stimulate, and move us to action, and they are a good way, if they require new coordination. They are a good way to get the city agencies to talk to each other. They also help cities find some of their own financial resources when they are there as a match. So the money is needed to help encourage LAUSD, for example, to work in a joint-use partnership with the Conservancies and Parks Departments It should not be the burden of the school district to have to pay for all of the greening and do all of the maintenance, because the side benefits are community recreation, clean water, and all of that. The funds can help bring together this integrated approach and feed a challenge grant for the school district to partner with other agencies, like DWP and others to also bring their money forth. The bonds are flat-out needed to help make this happen The only challenge is we must also find ways to provide equal amounts of funding for maintenance. Bonds don't do that, so we need to coordinate with other agencies.

We can't close the interview without mentioning the environmentally and architecturally significant headquarters building that TreePeople has been constructing. Can you tell us about that building and when it opens and what makes it so unique?

The first building is done. It is the conference center, and it is very, very green, and it is working. Most of the winter, it was heating itself just fine with solar heat. It was only after many days of rainfall and cold that it cooled down to the point where you needed to wear a jacket to be comfortable. Likewise, on hot summer days, it stays cool, just like in a cave – it mimics nature. It has very thick concrete walls, and a concrete roof and foundation made with 50 percent fly ash, a by-product of coal-electric power generation that is usually dumped in landfills. The architects, Marmol-Radziner and Associates, created a building that maintains a fairly even temperature, and the ventilation system passively pulls in cool air as it flushes out hot air, without using energy to do it. It also has other innovations, but the exciting thing about it is that we have already begun using it for why we built it. We need functioning, inspiring models for the future of green that say, "This can be done. This should be done." It is not about having to lower our expectations. It is about shifting to more elegant design in order to live leaner, more off the grid in terms of water and energy and pollution. Our next phase is the watershed education garden. That is under design now from Mia Lehrer Associates, and it is very exciting. Visitors will learn through fun how they are all managers of the city. Our city's water and our safety, our health, and our future water supply all rely on what they do to restore the land and help manage it on a day-to-day basis.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.