LA's First City Forest Officer Rachel Malarich Tasked with Treating Trees as Living Infrastructure

Rachel Malarich

At the 2019 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, Mayor Eric Garcetti—a strong proponent of Trees as Infrastructure—was elected Chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, succeeding the Mayor of Paris in the role. VXNews, in keeping with the Mayor’s city and global agenda, interviewed the City of LA’s first City Forest Officer, Rachel Malarich, who is tasked with overseeing the city’s urban forest management and guiding the city to goal on its plan for planting 90,000 trees by 2021. Malarich opines on her role in facilitating cooperation between the City’s departments to achieve a more equitable urban canopy that benefits the communities that "need it most."

Rachel, you’ve recently been appointed City Forest Officerfor the City of LA by Mayor Garcetti, a new post created to oversee the growth of Los Angeles’ urban forest and ensure city policies and practices, as they relate to trees, are aligned across departments. Elaborate on why this new position needed to be created and your responsibilities. 

Rachel Malarich: Right now, trees in the City of LA are managed by many different departments across the city because their mandate each touch trees in a different way. There’s the fire department that does brush clearance. There’s Streets LA that takes care of our street trees. Recs and Parks takes care of park trees. But, as Mayor Garcetti says, trees are living infrastructure and, from my perspective, need to be maintained in a more coordinated way.

That's why this system was created, so that we could look at all the ways that we're touching trees and determining whether we’re utilizing the same best practices that are aligned towards the same goal and vision for the urban forest. Are we making sure that the urban forest as our living infrastructure provides the most benefit to Angelenos by being healthy and well maintained?  My charge is to provide that vision—through a stakeholder process obviously, it’s not me in a vacuum—but setting that clear vision and then really looking through our policies and procedures to make sure that the ways we make decisions are aligned with that vision of an urban forest that is a protective tool for Angelenos.

VXNews recently published an interview with Adel Hagekhalil, the general manager of Streets LA, in which he noted his department’s shifting approach towards how it manages sidewalks and tree maintenance that includes its numerous operating entities. What are the challenges of being the symphony conductor across the many city departmental silos?

Well, I have to start off by saying that part of the reason I felt comfortable taking the job is because Adel Hagekhalil is the head of Streets LA and could not be a better ally for me as I begin to do this work. He comes from a background working with water, which we know is going to be hugely important to trees moving forward, and he is looking at things holistically. There's a renewed energy in the Urban Forestry Division, which is part of streets LA, and a real commitment to looking for comprehensive solutions. So, I'm just thrilled to be able to work with him.

Honestly, coming into the city and starting to meet with departments—which is what I was doing in my first month—getting time with the different general managers and their teams, I was overwhelmed. I wasn't expecting hostility, by any means. But the level of reception that I received from the different departments who were excited to talk about opportunities to improve how we manage the forest and to have a central place that brings it all together was really encouraging.

Any kind of change is going to take time. And I obviously have new relationships to develop because that's really what it's about: making sure that I'm in communication with the right people on those teams, for each of the topics that we're going to be addressing when we develop the Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) and updating different processes for the city. But the initial vibe is definitely very welcoming, very open and a real readiness. I was joking with some folks that I feel like I'm coming in with real fertile soil to grow some really good stuff because both the public and department heads have been very welcoming.

Identify for our readers the complexity of the organizational  chart—the public agencies and players—that must be aligned for LA City’s Urban Forest Management Plan to achieve its goals. 

Trees are everywhere in our city, sometimes in more neighborhoods than others. But we have different roles and connections that each of the departments have toward trees. There’s the Department of City Planning and the Department of Building and Safety that look at how we are planning and developing private property within the city—That impacts trees when developing a lot or creating best practices or rules about landscape cover in those spaces, their enforcement, and any permitting that goes with that. You have the Bureau of Sanitation, who has an Environmental Affairs team that has been applying for and receiving Cal Fire grants for the city to plant trees, remove concrete, and water trees in some high need areas. They play a real essential role in some of the planting side of what we do.

Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, StreetsLA and their Urban Forestry Division, deals with protected trees, and planting, maintaining, and, sometimes, removing street trees. The Bureau of Engineering is responsible for the sidewalk repair program since the Willits settlement (Willits v. City of Los Angeles) in 2015, where the city is having to repair sidewalks that are not compliant with ADA. Within that, 80% of those conflicts, a tree is reason that the sidewalk is being lifted and not compliant with ADA. And so, they're heavily involved in the management of some of our trees because of that program.

Even the police department has a connection to trees. In certain communities, there's been pushback about maintaining visibility in line of sight for our police officers while they are trying to patrol communities. As I mentioned earlier, the fire department is doing brush clearing and Rec and Parks is managing over 300,000 park trees across the city. The Department of Water and Power maintains properties that have trees, do utility line clearance, and fund the City Plants program as part of their energy efficiency solutions. The Board of Public Works also does the permitting and contracts to the city.

You’ve got all these different folks, playing different functions, touching different land areas, and impacting trees. Some of them have that tree expertise—arborists or others—on their team and sometimes they don't, but they still have a mandate to do things that pertain to trees.

Elaborate on how the City’s Urban Forest Management Plan came about; your mandate; and the implementation process. 

Well, we're coming off of some really great momentum, with the First Step report that was prepared by the consulting firm, Dudek. City Plants received funding from the US Forest Service and Cal Fire to do a needs assessment. They couldn't fund the whole Urban Forest Management Plan, but they wanted to get us started. They provided funding for City Plants to hire consultants to begin assessing where the city is, and what we need to do to get to the point where we have an Urban Forest Management Plan.

That report was the result of a 10-month process. In 2018, a stakeholder group was convened once a month for those 10 months, and we covered topics from the existing status of certain trees, what the urban forest will look like, and different challenges we're facing and some solutions. We were really trying to unearth who all the players were, so that report gives me a lot to work with going forward. They had some priority recommendations, and I'm happy to say that—of the initial highest priority recommendations they provided—we've done something on all of them since November of last year, and one of them was hiring my position, so here I am.

That document, which is available on the City Plants website, provides a lot of insight into some of the next steps. I'm not going to be following that word for word, but there has been some work done in preparation for this, and I was part of that working group. It had representatives from the different departments— nonprofit partners that work with trees in Los Angeles and different stakeholders from the community that participated.

There's some technical work that needs to be done. One of the recommendations provided was to review certain policies, which were already on my radar since I've been involved in LA urban forestry for about 12 years now. I'm building those relationships with the different departments and starting to look at what a second stakeholder process will look like. And looking at what pieces of the UFMP we can do now, because part of the plan is reliant on the completion of an inventory.

It's so interesting that you're talking to me today because this morning, the Board of Public Works was hearing the recommendation from Urban Forestry Division and StreetsLA to award a contract to begin the inventory. I believe the last time the city was able to do a comprehensive inventory was in 1996, and industry best practice says you should update your inventory once every 10 years. The fact that we finally have funding through the last year's budget cycle to begin the inventory and that they've selected a contractor is huge.

But, there's certain parts of my job that I won't be able to do until we have that data. We need to understand the species diversity, the age diversity, the condition of our trees, etc., and looking at where certain trends are happening by having that data. Part of UFMP is having the goal for the urban forest and seeing what's it going to take for us to get there. I can't start doing that kind of analysis and management plan without knowing what we have first.

Rachel, what should the public expect an urban forest in LA to prioritize and include?

That's a great question. Right now, I'm trying to manage my own expectations about what's possible. But ultimately, we have an urban forest that is well maintained, appreciated by Angelenos, and it's providing benefits to all of our communities in a way that protects them as we experience the effects of climate change.

Obviously, that's not the only thing I'm worried about, but we have safe livable communities when we have trees in place to provide those protections and benefits. Part of my vision for the urban forests, I'm so excited to be working on some of the goals that the Mayor laid out in the Green New Deal. One of those is to specifically address the equity issue by increasing canopy by 50 percent in areas of high need by 2020. I'm not saying that's enough— we may need to do more and we may not be able to hit all of the areas of high need in that time period—but we're going to start by prioritizing the ones that are at greatest risk.

It definitely is moving in the right direction by being committed to hitting a certain target for those communities and making sure that we make a plan to get there. Within that, one of the challenges of working in those communities is a lack of space in the public right of way and/or the availability of public parks. For there to be canopies growing, trees need soil volume and space in the ground, and we don't always have access to that in some of these neighborhoods that have low tree canopy cover. There are very small parkways or no parkways at all.

As part of that goal, I'm going to be working with the planning department, StreetsLA, and sometimes maybe even the Department of Transportation to make it so that we can provide that benefit to everyone no matter what community they live in.

Regarding your experience with urban forestry, your tenure with the TreePeople and its commitment for almost four decades to plant canopy and trees in metropolitan Los Angeles, share the valuable lessons learned from your tenure, for example, at TreePeople; and, how you are applying them to your new City of LA responsibilities. 

Oh, I don't know how to answer that briefly. TreePeople believes in empowering communities to work to transform their own neighborhoods, and that definitely seeps a lot into the work that I've done. If our communities are not involved in creating and implementing the solutions, we aren't going to get very far.

Additionally, I was hired by TreePeople to address canopy and equity. There was a study—or canopy assessment—that came out in 2006, by Dr. Greg McPherson that talked about the canopy in Los Angeles; it wasn't an inventory, but it looked at the canopy cover in Los Angeles. TreePeople saw that their programs were not being accessed by the areas that needed them the most, and so they hired myself and another staff member to work in a specific geographic area to start to try and understand how we could better provide resources to those communities. That has been part of the reason I started in this work, and one of the reasons I'm really excited to be in this role; to continue addressing canopy inequity, and help communities that are vulnerable have access to the protection that trees can provide.

I would be remiss if I didn't also talk about my time at Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC). I was at TreePeople for 10 years—it really informed a lot of the ways that I view the urban forest, and I was able to work on a lot of really exciting projects. Some of those around behavior change particularly are informing a lot of the way I look at my work now. TreePeople uses an exclusively volunteer model where it's all about volunteer events, whereas KYCC has a blended model where they do really deep community engagement and volunteer events like cleanups, graffiti removal, or tree planting. But then, they also have crews that are going out day in and day out, and they're open 360 days a year planting and watering trees in communities; that felt really good for me because it accelerated the work.

I absolutely think that our communities need to be involved—and they do that—but they also need to have crews going behind. Let's say you have 30 trees in the community and 15 of them are kind of close together— that's great for a volunteer event where you can have people come together, but it's really hard to manage volunteers to do the other 15 trees. But we were able to come behind with crews and finish those planting events with staff planting those trees, supporting the community, and getting canopy more quickly. That was a tremendous experience for me.

At TreePeople, I was looking at the county scale, designing programs for public outreach, and looking at different forestry projects. While at KYCC, I was looking at Pico Union, Westlake, Koreatown, and South Los Angeles specifically, and how we change the game in these areas. There's an area in Westlake that is tied with two of our neighborhoods for having the lowest canopy across the city. How do we develop projects there that will very quickly start to provide benefits for these communities that are at risk?

Both of those organizations provided me a tremendous amount of experience in connecting with people and making sure I understood their concerns about trees in their community. But also, looking at planning and how we engage folks and build projects that really reflect the community values.

With the mayor’s appointment as chair of C40 this past month in Copenhagen, are you looking internationally for examples to emulate?  New Zealand, for example, has now made a commitment to a 'billion tree' program. What are realizable goals for Los Angeles? 

I'm very excited about our goal to plant 90,000 trees by the end of 2021, and I think it's doable. It is an opportunity to really re-engage Angelenos in contributing to canopy in Los Angeles. But, I always am going to care more about how we plant those trees; are those trees being selected thoughtfully? Are they being planted in places where they're going to provide the most benefit and minimize the risk to the people who are living around the tree? Are they going to be appropriate for our changing climate? And, do they have maintenance that's going to make sure that they grow really healthy over their lifespan?

That's what I've been talking about in a lot of my interviews lately, the importance of smart tree selection and tree placement. Each of those decisions about trees is really important to the long-term health of the urban forest. I think it's commendable that people set these really lofty goals, because we do have a lot of work to do in order to have canopy that is going to help us in the ways that we expect it to.

I know that one of the challenges that I'm going to be continuing to look at is how we involve everyone. We are going to need way more of our residents and committee members to be excited about this in order to achieve these lofty goals.   

Elaborate on what is your tree of choice for Los Angeles canopy?

I've been sharing with folks a couple tools that I find really helpful when picking a tree. One—Street Tree Seminar—is our local chapter of the California Urban Forest Council, and they have a guidebook of Street Trees Recommended for Southern California. They just came out with a new edition in the last two years, and that's a really good tool. It has a lot of information about trees that are specific to Southern California.

Matt Ritter, a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, wrote a book called The California Guide to the Trees Among Us,is also a great resource. His team manages the Urban Forestry Ecosystem Institute, which houses the SelecTree tool. You can put in different criteria—climate zone, soil type, space available, evergreen or deciduous, etc.—and it'll give you some trees that that you can look at. It doesn't mean that they're the ones that you should plant, but it gives you a starting point so you can make an educated decision. Those are some tools I recommend community members use.

For me, I'm in the process of actually working with some city departments to look at our tree list. For LA, it was a process started before I got here. They put it on pause until I was in the building—they wanted the new City Forest Officer to take a look at it. There's new science coming out about our future climate and what trees should be here.

The other challenge of my position and looking at trees is making sure that we align with the city's biodiversity and sustainability goals and make sure that the tree choices we make really align with all of the city's values and priorities.

I want to close with a quote from the founder of TreePeople, and ask about its applicability to not only the planting of trees but the benefits of the forestry program that LA City envisions: “Cities, like forests, are complex organisms with systems that can provide, capture, and reuse life-nourishing resources by applying lessons found in nature. By applying lessons learned from nature, citizens will be able to manage their urban ecosystems effectively and sustainably.” Does this quote have applicability to your challenges and to your partnership with Adel?

The truth is that some of the long term issues that I'm going to look at are around soil and water, because those are two key elements to keeping trees really healthy. When we have another drought—or as we experienced other changes in our climate—having access to healthy soil and sufficient water is going to be key; not by just saying let's turn on the tap and provide more water for trees. How can we be looking at stormwater capture? How can we be looking at recycled water? How can we be looking at different ways to improve our soil health?

It's going to be essential for us to have a healthy urban forest, and those are the issues that I'm asking to take some time to figure out how—on a city-wide scale—how we might implement things that are going to support that. We're not looking at my backyard and my decisions there, we're talking about a city that's almost 500 square miles, has over 700,000 street trees, and 300,000 park trees. It's a tremendous size and we have so many different microclimates that we're looking at, all with different challenges and opportunities for their urban forest.

Looking at nature and thinking about natural cycles is absolutely helpful, but we have to remember that urban forest is man made. There were not trees in certain parts of Los Angeles—it was chaparral. We’ve brought in this resource, but how can we use the way that nature functions to improve the health of that resource and make it sustainable? And part of that is engaging the people—that's the challenge. The natural cycle happens and we don't interfere with it, then it can work perfectly. People are the added element in urban forests that are crucial to its success.

"[The city] is a tremendous size and we have so many different microclimates that we're looking at, all with different challenges and opportunities for their urban forest."—Rachel Malarich