The city’s plan would double tree canopy over the next six years in the areas of highest need. (Outside Studios)

How Los Angeles Is Leading the Urban Tree-Planting Revolution

The City of Angels is bringing together tech, academia, government, nonprofits, and ordinary residents to make its greenery more equitable and mitigate the effects of both climate change and systemic racism

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When I moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago, a row of Mexican fan palms lined the street in front of my apartment complex. They were impossibly tall and perpetually arced in the breeze—a postcard view, I suppose, except for the frond missiles that constantly battered my car.

I’ve come to love the city’s less iconic (and belligerent) tree species so much more: The cluster of pines that scent my favorite picnic spot. A sprawling oak that dominates a friend’s front yard. The gnarled ficus along one of my regular running routes. And my new favorite: a spindly desert willow that a friend and I sunk into the sun-baked dirt across from an elementary school one morning last October.

This wasn’t some guerrilla gardening stunt; we had volunteered to make arboreal tributes for City Plants, an organization that partners with a slew of nonprofits and the City of Los Angeles to plunk roughly 20,000 trees in the ground each year. Most of these are gifted to residents, but the remainder are “street trees,” like our dear desert willow, installed in a public right-of-way to provide cooling shade, reduce greenhouse gases, capture stormwater, create habitat, and improve the quality of life for all Angelenos.

“There are so many great things that trees do for us. They’re really our superheroes,” says Rachel Malarich, L.A.’s inaugural city forestry officer. She was appointed in 2019 by Mayor Eric Garcetti to help achieve the leafier goals of his Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to supercharge the city’s climate resiliency over the next few decades. Last year was the hottest and second driest in California history. It’s predicted that if we do nothing at all to mitigate the effects of climate change, the number of days that rocket above 95 degrees Fahrenheit in Los Angeles County will triple in the decades to come.

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Malarich’s first (and most headline-grabbing) task was to coordinate a planting blitz of 90,000 trees by the end of 2021. The pandemic slowed things, so that target stretched to 2022; as of press time, more than 65,000 trees have been planted. But Malarich and her team have a much bigger charge: create a more equitable urban forest in L.A. Roughly 20 percent of the city’s total canopy is concentrated in just five census blocks, containing only 1 percent of the city’s population. Unsurprisingly, these areas tend to be more affluent and whiter than parts of the city with little tree cover. The city’s plan would double tree canopy over the next six years in the city’s areas of highest need—namely low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately affected by climate change.

L.A. isn’t the only city working to create a more equitable canopy. In 2017, the parks and recreation department in Portland, Oregon, committed to a five-year racial-equity plan that includes tree planting and expanding parkland. Root Nashville, in Tennessee, launched in 2018 as a public-private joint venture aiming to add 500,000 trees to Davidson County’s urban forest by 2050. And in 2020, groundwork began for the City of Philadelphia’s first-ever urban-forest strategic plan.

But it’s the sheer scope of L.A.’s effort—which includes cutting-edge technology, groundbreaking research, and remarkable coordination between city government, countless nonprofits, universities, data scientists, and everyday citizens—that makes it a vanguard. “The city of L.A. is almost 500 square miles and spans so many social, cultural, political, and economic backgrounds,” says City Plants executive director Rachel O’Leary. “I really do believe that if we can crack this nut in Los Angeles, we can do it anywhere.”

How do you begin to solve for these types of systemic issues, while considering the accelerating effects of climate change and the limitations of the built environment? You call all hands on deck.
Still from ’The Fight to Protect Los Angeles Forests‘ film
(Outside Studios)

Perched just northwest of downtown, the city’s Westlake neighborhood is a community of largely low-income, Mexican, Central American, and Filipino immigrants. It was once a mansion-strewn enclave for wealthy Angelenos before they vanished in a midcentury wave of white flight. Now nearly every inch of the neighborhood is built upon or paved, save for 35-acre MacArthur Park, where the bulk of its trees reside. It could be an oasis, except the greenspace has been a hub of gang activity since the 1980s.

This is where 24-year-old Cristina Velazquez grew up. “I used to play in that park as a kid, but really, I think it would have been a lot safer for me to just play in the concrete plaza of my apartment building,” she says. “The one space that should be communal is not an area that people feel is accessible.” After spending five years away at college, Velazquez returned home in March 2020. Nothing much had changed.

Frustrated, she joined a weekly neighborhood clean-up effort. During these outings, she noticed tiny trees popping up where there had been none—one of City Plants’ nonprofit partners, Koreatown Youth and Community Center, was planting in the area. Velazquez was intrigued by its work and learned that KYCC was looking for residents to join City Plants’ pilot Tree Ambassador Program, which pays locals to learn about trees, educate their neighbors, and conduct plantings and giveaways in low-canopy areas.

Velazquez began walking the green beat in her neighborhood last June, speaking with her neighbors about the benefits of trees and listening to their concerns. She’s encountered some resistance—people who worry about damage trees might cause (see: frond missiles) and wonder if the city will neglect them, as it has in the past. But mostly, folks are psyched. “I feel like the more that people see that the city’s doing something, the more likely they are to do something,” says Velazquez. “That in itself is already a self-healing loop.”

Westlake is just one of many communities that would benefit from a serious foliage injection.

Vivek Shandas, a professor in Portland State University’s urban studies and planning department, has been researching the correlation between extreme heat and historically redlined neighborhoods in L.A., such as Westlake. These are primarily communities of color that have experienced long-term disinvestment as a result of racist housing policies that tanked property values and created cheap locations for large infrastructure projects like highways and big-box stores. The result is a bleak—and hot—landscape of asphalt and concrete. Shandas found that surface temperatures in formerly redlined areas were more than four degrees warmer than areas that weren’t redlined.

Shandas says that South and South Central L.A. residents shared with him another possible reason for the lack of canopy: they felt that police simply haven’t wanted trees in certain neighborhoods. While this is, of course, just residents’ theory, the Los Angeles Police Department has, for at least two decades, promoted aspects of a 50-year-old urban-design approach known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, one tenet of which suggests that less foliage around buildings and in public spaces allows for better surveillance and thus a reduction in crime. “We’re enabling some communities to really benefit from greenspace while we’re deciding, whether directly or indirectly, that some communities aren’t worth having green spaces in their neighborhood,” says Shandas of his findings.

So how do you begin to solve for these types of systemic issues, while considering the accelerating effects of climate change and the limitations of the built environment? You call all hands on deck.

This was a surprisingly easy task in L.A., where it turns out that a whole lot of people really, really love trees. In addition to the appointment of Malarich as city forest officer to oversee the effort, Shandas came on in 2020 as L.A.’s first-ever Urban Forest Equity Visiting Scholar, to help the city and its partners figure out ways to right the canopy imbalance. Also that year, StreetsLA, the city’s street-services division, completed a detailed inventory of an estimated 700,000 trees, the first such survey to be conducted in over 20 years. Now an interactive map allows anyone—curious residents, city workers conducting maintenance—to see not just what species grow outside their front door but also quantify metrics like energy savings and greenhouse-gas reduction from that single tree’s existence.

L.A. was also the pilot city for Google’s Tree Canopy Lab, which is expanding this year to cover 100 locations worldwide. The program is designed to help cities figure out where they can plant more trees to mitigate the effects of climate change. To do this, it combines satellite imagery of canopy coverage with climate and sociological data, such as surface temperature and average household income. The tool calculates that the average canopy coverage for L.A. neighborhoods is 14.37 percent—much lower than the leafy, high-income enclave of Los Feliz (with 27 percent coverage) but still far above neighborhoods like East Hollywood and Boyle Heights, two places where the city is now prioritizing efforts to sink trees, which only have about 6 percent coverage.

These types of visual technologies are incredibly helpful when looking at the big picture, but an open space on the map doesn’t mean that you can just plop down any old tree there. “Right tree, right place” was a phrase I heard over and over. It means ensuring that plantings will fit around existing infrastructure like power lines, have room to grow in narrow parkways, can survive a changing climate, and will make their human neighbors happy.

Assisting on this front is the University of Southern California’s Urban Trees Initiative, a multidisciplinary venture that determines what sizes and which species will offer the most benefits in any given place before meeting with residents, leaders of local organizations, and city-council members to learn their concerns and expectations as well as help instill a sense of stewardship. “Trees are living things, and they really need people to adopt them and take care of them,” says Esther Margulies, assistant director of the school’s landscape architecture and urbanism graduate program. “It’s not always successful to helicopter in with a big tree-planting program, put those trees in the ground, and wish everybody well.”

Armed with all of this data, a tapestry of different city, nonprofit, and community efforts has come together to actually put the 90,000 trees in the ground. City Plants is the largest organization involved, facilitating a giveaway program and deploying Tree Ambassadors to educate new tree parents about proper planting and nurturing of their leafy charges so they live long enough and grow large enough to provide their myriad benefits. Other nonprofits, such as TreePeople and North East Trees, also hold community planting events that both educate the public and help grow canopy coverage. And then there is the extensive network of groups—including KYCC, the Los Angeles Beautification Team, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC)—who haul gallons of water to street-planting sites, an impressive feat considering L.A.’s notorious sprawl. “Watering is the biggest hurdle here to getting more trees in the ground,” says Amy Schulenberg, project coordinator with L.A.’s sanitation and environment department.

Schulenberg says that while cost varies, the price tag for establishing a single tree—from seed to the magic three-year mark when it will take root and adapt to the city’s climactic whims—can reach several thousand dollars. The city ponies up for a large chunk of the costs (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power funds the City Plants program, for instance), but it can’t cover everything. To that end, between 2015 and 2020, Schulenberg wrote grants that totaled more than $8.5 million. This accounts for 10,000 new trees, plus the removal of 2.1 acres of concrete to create new tree wells.

The act of greening L.A. is an exceptional—and exceptionally expensive—amount of work. But not a single person I spoke with seemed daunted by the task, least of all Malarich. “​​The story of urban forestry is not as easy as digging a hole and putting a tree in the ground. There are so many different layers to it,” she says. “We’re really in the trenches of working out those details to hopefully provide for a sustainable future. And that’s a really cool thing.”

The scientists, researchers, nonprofit leaders, city workers, and everyday folks who show up to dig, plant, and care for trees show that sometimes we just need to get down in the dirt and sow a seed.
Still from ’The Fight to Protect Los Angeles Forests‘ film
(Outside Studios)

A few days after the City Plants event, I meet City Plants’ Rachel O’Leary at Commonwealth Nursery, an 11-acre complex of steep terraces and historic greenhouses tucked away in a quiet section of the city’s massive Griffith Park. I’m so enamored of its neat rows of tiny coast live oaks, hollyleaf cherries, and desert willows that I blurt out a desire to renounce the writer’s life and become an arborist. O’Leary chuckles. She gets it.

The city-owned operation opened in 1928 and at its peak grew roughly two million plants a year for the city’s various parks. It was shuttered in the seventies after funding dried up. Fate intervened last summer when City Plants received a donation of 8,000 saplings from the University of Redlands and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, a batch originally earmarked for planting events that were nixed as the COVID-19 pandemic raged to life.

Since most trees given away by City Plants are purchased from regional nurseries, O’Leary had to puzzle out where to house the surprise influx. With the blessing of the Department of Recreation and Parks and sweat equity from a series of nonprofit partners, including the LACC, the neglected nursery sprang back to life.

It’s a scrappy, grassroots labor of love. O’Leary hired a nursery manager, Amanda Bashir, who oversees a team of fellow LACC workers. Her job isn’t just to care for existing seedlings but also, in tandem with city arborists, to evaluate which species are best to grow and collect seeds from in area parks to begin the process. “The coolest part to think about,” says Bashir, “is that I’m able to participate in growing the next generation of trees for our city.”

It’s going to take a while for all of these new trees to begin exercising their superpowers, but their champions will keep plugging along. The first round of Tree Ambassadors will wrap up their work early this spring, and the next cohort will start in the fall. Shandas and his team are focused on developing recommendations for long-term, community-based stewardship of L.A.’s expanding greenspace that would include nontraditional partners—say, community cycling groups or organizations working on homelessness. The University of Southern California’s Urban Trees Initiative has expanded to other parts of the city, and its data has already been used by community partners to site and plant 200 street trees around the Ramona Gardens housing complex, which lies in the project’s initial study area.

It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of all the terrifying news about the climate, but the scientists, researchers, nonprofit leaders, city workers, and everyday folks who show up to dig, plant, and care for trees show that sometimes we just need to get down in the dirt and sow a seed. “I’m excited and I’m hopeful, and those feelings aren’t really something that’s very common here, where it’s all just survival mode, really,” Velazquez told me when I asked how she felt about being a Tree Ambassador. “It’s nice to see people taking the time to live in the moment and consider the future.”

Lead Photo: Jayme Burrows/Stocksy