TreePeople’s Urban Forest Principles Guide Retrofit of Los Angeles & Similar Cities Across the Globe

The street swale works as part of a system to capture and filter water before sending it down to the aquifer--away from the street.

Andy Lipkis, the founder and president of TreePeople, was recently appointed an Ashoka Fellow for his pioneering work integrating natural systems into the infrastructure of the built environment. In the following exclusive VerdeX interview, Andy details one of his projects, the Elmer Avenue Project in Los Angeles, which blueprints TreePeople’s 40-year history of proving the feasibility of new types of infrastructure development that simultaneously mimic natural processes and benefit the environment.

VerdeX: How do you engage the public and our governments to utilize the best, proven sustainable practice and green technologies in responding to climate change?

Lipkis: People are willing. There’s a mythology that prevents government from thinking people will do it—the mythology that people won’t change. But people will change. TreePeople has helped bring about rapid lifestyle change in Southern California through its education and community engagement programs. For one thing, people respond more positively to incentives rather than mandates. For another, government needs to be organized differently. The things that aren’t happening—because of the disintegration of a true cost-benefit approach and because agencies are not working together—make sustainable approaches look fiscally infeasible. But with a systemic, multi-purpose approach, they are very feasible. There are great technologies available that need both financing to help them come online and government to help facilitate—help facilitate and get out of the way at the same time.

VerdeX: You are presently one of handful of  Ashoka Fellows—people with big ideas to change their society. Your Ashoka profile reads: “Cities, like forests, are complex organisms with systems that can provide, capture, and reuse life-nourishing resources. By applying lessons found in nature, Andy Lipkis is enabling citizens to manage urban ecosystems effectively and sustainably.” How so?

Lipkis: I have spent 40 years building the capacity to move people to take effective action using trees and forest-mimicking technologies. I’ve worked to prove that these technologies work, are more effective, are cheaper, and produce more sustainable jobs, and have shown that governments can partner in unusual ways with each other and the private sector to make this happen. My body of work up until now has been about proving feasibility where there have been significant barriers in the way of policy and funds. TreePeople has decided that it’s time to step it up and catalyze a plan to retrofit all of Southern California on those principles—to make our region a functioning community forest.

VerdeX: The Ashoka website adds, “Andy now sees forests as synonymous with watershed management and ecosystem-based water infrastructure as the gateway to changing whole urban ecosystems.” Can you elaborate?

Lipkis: TreePeople and partner agencies have been involved in seven urban forestry/watershed management demonstration projects over the last fifteen years that have shown how strategically planting trees and using other nature-based solutions in cities, such as mulching, appropriate landscaping, rain gardens, and cisterns, can dramatically reduce the need for imported water, solve flooding and pollution problems, increase habitat, and address skyrocketing costs from dealing with waste, energy use, and public health. Our demonstrations range from school campuses to parks, a private residence, and a residential street. We are scaling now to demonstrate these principles in larger neighborhoods, and we are hoping to catalyze a regional response, where we’re no longer demonstrating but where we’re assisting agencies and neighborhoods in a large, coordinated partnership.

VerdeX: Is the Elmer Avenue Project in Sun Valley one of your demonstration projects?

Lipkis: Absolutely. The Elmer Avenue Project is an example of prototyping and demonstrating feasibility. Elmer Avenue offers a general blueprint that can be applied throughout the region very quickly to meet our urgent water supply, flood control, water quality, and climate adaptation needs, much more quickly than building dams and desalination plants. I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t some mix needed to get through our major, long-term water emergency, but this approach, as demonstrated on Elmer Avenue, generates more sustainable jobs, at less expense, and produces more resiliency—all the things that we know that people want. The bottom line coming out of Elmer Avenue is that people chose to allow their private homes to be retrofitted as part of a public infrastructure project.

VerdeX: What problems does the Elmer Avenue Project address? Who are your collaborators?

Lipkis: This effort was led by the L.A. and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, which brought together TreePeople, the city of Los Angeles, and other agencies and NGOs, including local, federal, and state funding partners. Together, we solved a severe local flooding problem on Elmer Avenue, the source of which is runoff from 40 acres of upstream neighborhood streets that were built without storm drains. We did two things: one, we fixed the overall flood problem by capturing the water Drain
The infiltration gallery under Elmer Avenue sends water into permeable
soil and then straight to the aquifer.
and putting it back underground by creating an infiltration gallery underneath the street; basically it’s like a huge French drain in an area with soil that is very permeable, all straight to the aquifer. It can handle large volumes quickly, getting all the water down to the aquifer. And two, most importantly, we retrofitted 55 percent of the homes on the street—people volunteered to change their landscape to capture the flood water, clean it, and recharge it in the groundwater or store it. In so doing, they created a profoundly water-efficient landscape that in every case made the homes much safer, more attractive, and more valuable than before. Part of the breakthrough was that, through great outreach and education, people volunteered their homes. That’s a huge breakthrough, because infrastructure is usually thought of as an invisible service. The thinking has always been that we can’t expect people to make major changes to the look and function of their property for the sake of improving public infrastructure. But these folks on Elmer Avenue, when they learned about it, were happy to volunteer to make changes to their landscapes and street. And the residents are all very happy with the result; it’s working.

VerdeX: The Elmer Avenue Project includes an initiative to inspire and equip residents so nature can heal their neighborhoods with innovative engineering technologies. Let’s focus on the latter. What engineering technologies are being employed here?

Lipkis: It’s a system approach, scaling up bits and pieces into a whole system that packs multiple outcomes. So it includes rain barrels—a rainwater-harvesting technology that can capture rain from roofs for irrigation water for the landscape. There are what we call rain gardens, which are gardens that capture a large volume of rainwater without it flowing to the street. That water is held for a very brief time—generally hours or minutes—until it can infiltrate into the ground. The components of the rain garden include water-efficient plants and swales (a swale is a creek-shaped structure; they can be designed to be beautiful so that when water flows it is slowed, cleaned, and infiltrated by bio-remediating plants). You have a palate of native plants, mulch, and, possibly, filter fabrics that can take hydrocarbons, like oils, out of the water. You can create a whole biological and bio-mimicking treatment chain that includes plants, mulch, roots, and critters (i.e., inoculated fungi or other biology), which as water flows through, it gets treated just as it would in nature. You help design it so that happens by directing water through and placing the right plants and habitat.

The street swale works as part of a system to capture and filter water
before sending it down to the aquifer--away from the street.
You connect that to a somewhat larger receiving swale along the parkway.  In this case, those receiving swales run down both parkways along the length of the street. They collect water from the street itself and any overflow from the property. The homes that didn’t want to change their landscape received a drain across the front of their driveway that picks up  the home’s runoff and directs it into the parkway swale. Water from the street flows into the swale through a cut in the curb. That swale has the capacity to treat, slow, infiltrate, and direct anything that overflows it back onto the street, around the driveway, and into the next curb cut as it goes on down the street.

The thing that’s so impressive about the performance of this street is that the project cost about $5 million, but most of the cost came from grabbing and treating the water from the 40 acres of neighborhood upstream. Had all those upstream homes in the neighborhood done the home retrofits and the street swales the way that we did on Elmer Avenue, there would be no need for the very expensive flood-control measure under the street. In other words, the more you can support the distributed, relatively low-tech system on a block-by-block basis, the more you remove the cash burden on government down the line. That frees government resources to help give people the incentive to choose to work with their neighborhoods and coordinate to make their neighborhoods safe, which is what we did on Elmer.

VerdeX: What specific sustainable practices and technologies have you incorporated into the Elmer Avenue Project?

Lipkis: Most of our contributions rely on other people’s innovations from other areas that were pulled together by us to do what’s appropriate for Southern California. The street swale, for example, has been executed well in Seattle and Portland. In Seattle, it’s called the SEA Streets (Street Edge Alternatives) Project. What’s neat about this is that there’s an ongoing, cross-pollination collaboration, because Seattle was forced to take this approach to restore salmon habitat throughout the city. Seattle is under an enforcement action by the federal government because their urbanization wiped out habitat for several species of salmon on the endangered list. Seattle got into trouble because they were trying to do the right thing with polluted stormwater—they took all their stormwater and sent it to the sewage treatment plant—and in doing so they inadvertently wiped out their watershed.

When they saw that we in Los Angeles had taken an approach to bring the functioning forest back, they were inspired by the charrette design process and the programming and intelligence of a systems-based approach. They hired the same person that TreePeople had hired to run a charrette that we had held to redesign L.A. according to watershed principles, Patrick Condon, who’s from the University of British Columbia. In that process, we created the synergy that got over 100 designers from the Seattle area and from around the country to work together to design the retrofit of Seattle, just like we had done here. Because they have a regulatory gun at their head—they’ve got a real deadline in which to bring back functioning salmon habitat, as opposed to just conserving water, but they also need to conserve water—they’ve begun implementing much faster than Los Angeles. The government’s really picked it up and driven it. They’ve been retrofitting neighborhoods to really get that salmon habitat back up and running.

VerdeX: Internationally, who is doing similar work and where?

Lipkis: Regarding cisterns, definitely Australia. It’s very exciting how they’ve succeeded. Australia inspired me early on because it’s common for people to have cisterns and for that to change their behaviors and meet their water supply needs in a similar or even drier climate than ours in Southern California. Australia is recognized around the world as a place where severe drought created by climate change hit much faster and sooner than here. They’re about 12 years ahead of us into the long-term water shortages. Drought is the wrong word. Their climate has changed. They know they’re out of water. Twenty percent of the homes in Queensland now have government-installed rainwater cisterns. Instead of building desalination plants, the quick thing they did was to give people cisterns. The impact was profound, in terms of human behavior change, adaptation, and survival. They moved per capita, per day consumption of water from 140 gallons to 30 gallons during the peak of their drought. According to government officials, the reason for this is that by giving them the cisterns—people got to own and directly manage their “water account”—like their bank account. It was a hugely successful methodology for waking people up, making people water co-managers, and succeeding. At the same time, they are starting to build desalination plants and things like that. But those take billions and much more time. In the mean time, the people have permanently adopted very high levels of water conservation.

I have invented a cistern that we hope to deploy here. I am working with Ashoka resources to bring it to scale. The vision is that over a million homes in Southern California can have a high-volume rainwater system that fits neatly and elegantly in the residential yard and landscape and can instantly help meet water needs.

VerdeX: You’ve commented, in response to President Obama’s announced plan to spend $50 billion on infrastructure, that what the country most needs is 21st century infrastructure. Is the Elmer Avenue Project a way of proving that? Are there other demonstration projects that are an alternative to spending billions on de-sal and other public works projects?

Lipkis: Elmer Avenue is exactly that. Our economy is hemorrhaging jobs based on the old infrastructure, and that’s not sustainable. When you ask, “How do we recreate the basis of the economy as we rebuild the infrastructure for sustainability, so we’re both creating sustainable water, energy, and employment?” you should also ask “How do we create perpetual jobs, instead of just a few short-term construction jobs?” Elmer is an example of that, and if the project is taken to scale in the region it will take green collar workers to maintain the distributed infrastructure and the functioning of the landscapes. In the field of low-impact development, called LID, we see examples all around the country of people starting to do this. You can Google “LID” or “low-impact development” and there are websites collecting stories from all over the country where this is happening. Philadelphia’s water agency is deploying some of this in a major initiative as an alternative to traditional stormwater treatment systems.

I just got back from a climate conference in Hong Kong sponsored in part by the Chinese government. We’re seeing some of the new best practices being practiced in stormwater mitigation in new developments in cities there.

VerdeX: The Metropolitan Water District held a water summit this month which addressed the need for “new systems to manage systems.” Not mentioned was your Elmer Avenue project in Sun Valley. Has it been difficult for most public agencies to incorporate, despite all of our regional visioning processes, the kind of integrated public works that TreePeople pioneers?

Lipkis: We keep coming up against this. There are conceptual blocks. One is the belief that people won’t change. Tim Brick, the outgoing head of MWD, worked very hard in his last couple of years. He brought in the Australians; he brought in stories of success. I don’t understand why, even when the president of the board champions this approach, it hasn’t stuck at the agencies. I can tell you my guess as to why: they’re stuck in a command-and-control mode, where they might not appreciate that they can still have the same quality assurance and supply assurance through a distributed smart system.

Second, there are very well-vested and well-funded special interests for the large, centralized approaches that include de-sal and dams. Those same forces have been the ones not so subtly holding up passage of the state budget every year of this current governor’s term. You always hear that there will be no budget unless there’s an agreement to build dams. Part of our challenge moving forward is that new, better technologies are being blocked by well-funded special interests who are very much engaged, at the table, and driving the conversation.

VerdeX: The intention is for Ashoka Fellows around the world to take three to five years and implement a society-changing idea. How is TreePeople’s work affecting what Los Angeles is now doing with respect to implementing and investing in 21st century infrastructure?

Lipkis: We are seeing the benefits of the partnerships we have built with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. That department is moving. The city of Los Angeles Department of Public Works and Bureau of Engineering are moving. To their credit they are working to change, despite a very complicated regulatory and political environment. Their bottom line is that they’re responsible to make sure there’s water and safety. They work with known quantities. They’re very reluctant to do something that’s going to drop the ball and potentially break it. That prevents many institutions from ever changing. Given that reluctance, we are excited and delighted that even though change is slow, the wheels of change are moving. In the DWP, in the city of L.A., and even in L.A. County, they are embracing watershed management. Given that engineering schools have hardly begun to teach this stuff yet, they are responding, partnering, and innovating.

That allows us to move towards, in the Ashoka spirit, bringing it to full scale in Los Angeles, where our vulnerability to droughts and to extreme weather is unprecedented. This is not climate change 30 to 50 years out. These are impacts that are hurting people now, impacting our communities today, and the agencies are feeling it. They’re seeing the impacts in their budget, in their infrastructure, and in their bottom line. They’re working to build and learn from demonstration projects so we can go to scale quickly. And that’s what works. We’re hoping to build the partnership so L.A. can undertake a bold acceleration of mitigation and adaptation. •••