I awoke last week to news that a new resident is moving to the City of Angels: Retired Space Shuttle Endeavor. How do you like that New York? We have a space shuttle!
This was exciting news until it was revealed in order to transfer Endeavor from LAX to the California Science Center in South LA the removal of nearly 400 street trees will be required along the route. Initially I was surprised by the City’s willingness to remove such a large number of mature, healthy street trees in Los Angeles. Then I realized this is Los Angeles! We have a long history of instant gratification solutions to planning and design. Besides, we’re GETTING A SPACE SHUTTLE! Four hundred trees is a small price to pay for those bragging rights, isn’t it?
And I found the route even more interesting, if not as surprising. The streets being cleared are in “urban” neighborhoods. “Urban” is code for communities having limited aesthetic appeal, and…oh yeah… are primarily made up of low-income residents with limited financial investment (home equity, tax revenue, etc.) in the neighborhood and are commonly under appreciated during the city decision making process. If the route included West LA or Beverly Hills would the removal of 400 trees be as easily executed?
The reaction to the tree removal plan appears to be two fold: the first being anger at the physical removal of existing trees, the second is the ever-present perception, and often real, lack of public process within “urban” communities. The community deserves a participatory process regardless of socio-economic conditions. And that includes educating the community on the decision making process.
The Landscape Architect and design instructor in me couldn’t help but see this as a teaching moment on Healthy Living alternatives in LA’s public landscape.
The removal of mature trees along our congested roadways is never a great starting point, but keeping trees regardless of size or quality for the sake of hugging them is not in my nature, either. It is imperative as a landscape architect to balance the desire for keeping existing trees with the overall benefits a project offers the community. And there are benefits
to the Department of Public Works’s efforts. Really, there are.
Many of the trees scheduled for removal are Ficus trees that have outlived their purpose. Additionally, their invasive roots, water demands and perpetual limb removal and maintenance are three long-term fiscal challenges for the City, as well as those concerned with sustainability. So this should be seen as an opportunity to improve Healthy Living conditions along the Endeavor route, but the public process must be transparent, and the plan must be designed and presented with purpose.
Healthy Living design solutions are especially important in this case as low income urban communities have higher rates of asthma and respiratory diseases linked to poor air quality (closer to high traffic zones, dusty asphalt streets / sidewalks, etc) which can be reduced with solutions as basic as planting more street trees, which has been promised by the City.
An increase in the quantity of street trees in turn increases evapotranspiration, reduces heat gain/reflection from surrounding pavement, off-sets pollution, and beautifies the community, which in turn increases property value and community pride. Often a street tree master plan is the first step to future improvements within a community, so this can be a first step to improved community standards along the route.
A sophisticated approach to this master plan would go beyond the number of trees and dedicate a portion of the budget for large specimen trees. The standard 24″ box street tree offers few benefits compared to a larger specimen. Providing a percentage of larger tree canopies will go a long way in providing immediate benefits, as well as, indicating the City’s commitment to its community.
Tree selections should offer different growth habits, colors, textures and identifying characteristics throughout the route. This variety provides diverse experiences and presents opportunities for discovery and learning about the natural environment.
In most public landscape projects the key to success is balancing the needs of the public with the desires, responsibilities and budgets of the decision makers – in this case the City, the California Science Center and Endeavor. Unfortunately this process was not as transparent as it should have been.
But there is still the opportunity to use the Endeavor’s arrival as a community building exercise, rather than reinforcing the perception of exclusion.
But please, no Palm trees!