TreePeople Advocates for Practical and Holistic Solutions to Los Angeles’ Environmental Crisis

Andy Lipkis

Necessitated by one of the nation’s unhealthiest urban environments and growing public concern regarding climate change, Los Angeles has set an aggressive agenda to become the greenest city in the world. Andy Lipkis, president and founder of TreePeople, has been helping municipalities develop and implement green strategies for over three decades. VerdeXchange News was pleased to speak with Andy about Los Angeles’ ability, as a community, to overcome its ongoing environmental crisis.


One of our sister publications, The Planning Report, last spoke with you in September 2005. A lot has changed since then: the passage of AB 32, the Green L.A. plan, global awareness of climate change. What has TreePeople been working on in that time?

We have been working to support the overall city effort by providing more real examples of what’s possible with energy and water savings by building demonstration projects.

We have been playing a substantial facilitative role to bring together the Green L.A. Coalition, which is an unprecedented collaboration of 60 mainstream environmental organizations. We have worked to create a strategic framework around Million Trees so that it accomplishes significant environmental benefits, such as conserving, cleaning, and reusing rainwater while also saving energy and cleaning the air. We have continued to push for some of the great things that the city began to plan, like the Integrated Resources Plan. When we talked last, the IRP was underway; it has finished its process and its EIR and the plan itself have been approved and adopted by the L.A. City Council. So now the city can move ahead with this visionary process. Agencies have begun developing their plans.

The C40 cities recently came together in New York to talk about their green strategies. If you were crafting the ideal template for a city’s green agenda, what would it include?

I was just talking to the mayor’s office about their approach to that meeting. It’s important to distinguish the levels of influence of a mayor and city government from their level of control. The mayor and the city council can control only what the city owns. That’s a fairly small footprint compared to the combined footprint of the 4 million people in Los Angeles and the 10-plus million in L.A. County.

On the other end of the mayor’s direct-control spectrum, the mayor is a fantastic leader with great influence, and people in Southern California are progressive, creative, and much greener than many others. Because the world’s eyes are so often on Los Angeles, the mayor’s leadership, and the resulting work of this community, can have a monumental global impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

First, there is a lot we can do in the areas of personal energy use and conservation at home. We need to reduce the amount of waste we generate. We need to reuse and recycle, and we need to reconsider what and how much we eat, since cows and livestock are a major piece of the global warming picture.

We can work as a community to set some voluntary but aggressive goals—for instance, we could all agree to have one or two car-free days per week. During the energy crisis and water shortages of the past, we set targets and the community hit them. Los Angeles reduced its water usage by 30 percent and hasn’t returned since. As a community, we can feather out many actions that will have a radical impact without too much sacrifice and lifestyle upheaval. We can immediately choose—without having to wait for infrastructure change and without having to wait for Washington, D.C.—to decide to do things that will have an immediate, measurable effect on greenhouse gas emission instead of waiting for government to enact policies that will take 30 years to take effect. I’m sure that the L.A. community can take action that will result in a 20 percent or greater reduction in greenhouse gases in a very short amount of time.

In a recent document published by the UCLA Anderson School, “Solutions for Our City,” you wrote an essay that compares L.A.’s environmental crisis with an earthquake, and you called it our “daily disaster.” Elaborate on that analogy.

We have an ongoing crisis that we don’t notice because we’ve grown comfortable with the daily toll. With an earthquake or other natural disaster, because it happens in an instant, we get freaked out and don’t get a chance to get comfortable with it. The challenges we’re experiencing have significant impacts on human health, from asthma, to other respiratory diseases, to skin cancer, to other health issues that are damaging more people and doing more damage to the economy than most any earthquake has ever had in Los Angeles. The problem is that we’re not mobilizing to respond to this crisis like we would to an earthquake. But in a sign that change is underway, a month after the Economic Forecast, one of the attendees, the Southern California Association of Governments, issued an emergency request to Governor Schwarzenegger and President Bush asking them to declare a state of emergency for the 5,400 deaths each year caused by air pollution.

The other part of it is that in order to solve these problems when a disaster happens, we bring the city’s best and brightest people together. We bring together someone from each agency in the city together to figure out how to mobilize the city’s resources to solve the problem. But when it comes to the environment, we don’t do that. There is no single person or agency in charge of the ecosystem, and we’re not bringing all the people together to manage the crisis together. Many of the solutions that we need to address require multiple players and multiple budgets in order to implement them. Also, because a lot of these issues fall into the gaps between agencies, we need to bring them all together to figure out who has which pieces of it and who can share resources and responsibility.

David Matthews, president of the Kettering Foundation, has written, “When we define a problem in such a way as to make it manageable, we may unwittingly fragment it, breaking a complex set of problems apart to lead us to overlook vital interconnections.” Do environmental challenges give us opportunities to think holistically in ways that we haven’t done before?

Yes. That’s what we do. An ecosystem is a whole entity. Let’s use Sun Valley as an example, where we’ve made some fantastic process.
Sun Valley is part of the city of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley. Because the community was built in a hurry to house workers at Lockheed, the community was built without storm drains, so whenever it rains, it floods. The county was originally going to spend $42 million to put in an eight-mile storm drain to get rid of that problem – they defined the problem simply as “flood protection.” Our approach was that if there’s a lot of water creating a flood and Los Angeles needs water, it is better to recharge our water supply rather than just throw it away.

Sure enough, many people saw it as important to capture that water. DWP came to help plan this thing, but so did, from very far way away, the CalFed Bay-Delta program. This is a federal-state partnership that has come together to protect the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta, because L.A. takes so much of its water that we’ve been wiping out the Delta. That agency contributed over $750,000 to the planning of this small Sun Valley neighborhood watershed project because it saw how much water could be conserved, thereby lowering damage to the Delta. Also, the water in Sun Valley flowing through neighborhood streets is polluted because of auto dismantlers—it’s a classic environmental justice problem. So the Regional Water Quality Control Board tested the water and found it the worst in the region. They joined the process as a partner, and they brought together the city attorney and the DA and went out to find the sources of pollution and cleaned up their act.

One of the reasons the area floods is that we have sealed the land with homes, concrete, and buildings—nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles is paved. One of the solutions, when you look from a multipurpose view, is to let nature do its work. A tree is a great flood control/water supply/water cleaning device. Half the water we use is for landscapes. Most people view the leaves and grass produced by landscaping as trash, and it’s 40 percent of L.A.’s solid waste stream. When you look at it from an integrated, multipurpose approach, those leaves are actually part of a sponge and a water-quality treatment system. So, we looked at what would happen if the 8,000 homes in Sun Valley captured all those leaves and used them as mulch. It turns out that the Department of Sanitation would save nearly $30 million over 30 years if they didn’t have to take that green waste to the landfill.

What are the implications of this project for the city and county?

Everything we have done has been proven to work. We are getting multiple benefits, and we’re getting to build new parks that capture water and recharge the groundwater. We’re addressing multiple environmental justice issues, including making parks accessible and better. Right now, L.A. imports 85 percent of its water, and it needs to generate it locally because the largest single use of electricity in California is pumping water to Los Angeles. We’ve calculated that if we captured the rainfall and used it appropriately, we could replace half the water that we import. That has huge implications for climate change, energy, and cost, and also for creating sustainable “green collar” jobs.

A multipurpose approach shifts investment in infrastructure from single-purpose, end-of-the-pipe solutions that look like the most efficient thing, but that’s only because you’re looking at one aspect. It shifts the investment to natural capital and human capital, like trees, forests, ecosystems that can capture and clean water, plus technology that mimics nature.

A while ago the city built a $4 billion sewage plant, but the city’s new Integrated Resource Plan acknowledges that we’re throwing away a lot of water, some of which is greywater, which comes out of showers and sinks, as opposed to black water, which comes out of toilets. The black water needs to be treated, but grey water is legal and safe for irrigation. So if we were to create simple greywater systems, enhanced and mass produced to make them cheaper—and by the way, that’s where the private-sector business opportunities are—we can start investing in the human capital because we’ll need a lot of workers to install and maintain this system. They don’t have to be public workers; we’re talking about training gardeners to make them more like urban watershed managers to work on water-capture, cisterns, mulching, etc. We hope that there’s at least 50,000 new, sustainable jobs for chronically unemployed urban youth in that scenario. We’ve been thinking through the ways to make that happen, including training and certification courses at the community colleges.

TreePeople is 37 years old. It started with a tree-planting program in the forest around L.A., and now Mayor Villaraigosa would like to plant another million trees. What have you learned in the last 37 years, and what do you hope will be incorporated into this new major program?

We’ve learned that tree-planting can, when done right, produce profound environmental, social, and economic healing for a community. But it can’t be a random act; you have to plant the right trees in the right place and guide the plan with objectives. What are the community’s overall goals? If you design the tree-planting campaign to address those problems, amazing things can happen.

So what are the big issues in L.A.? The city needs to reduce its water importation. We also need parks, we also need to clean the air; we need to use trees to cool the city down, because one of our largest uses of electricity is for air conditioning. We have an urban heat island in which the blacktop adds sometimes as much as ten extra degrees in the city. Strategic tree-planting to shade parking lots and streets can help cut that down. We have respiratory health issues, and trees can help filter pollutants and produce oxygen.

On the social side we have alienation and fragmented communities. There’s a lot of excess energy in the population that could be helped if people realized that their energy was needed and welcome. People need to understand that they have a huge impact here, and nothing achieves that better than a neighborhood coming together to create a vision and put trees in and see that they can change their street overnight.

So are you finessing this answer about how the Million Trees program is going to work?

The opportunity is to challenge the whole community to come together for people to plant at home, to plant their streets, parks, and schools. TreePeople is working with the mayor’s office, Rec and Parks, the Street Tree Division, and a number of other outstanding organizations like Northeast Trees, Los Angeles Conservation Corps, Hollywood/LA Beautification and the Korean Youth Community Center—everyone did a lot of planning over the last 18 months and created a strategic plan. Now that plan has to be funded. It needs to be turned into an operating plan, and the city is beginning to work on it.

How can urban planning and the rebuilding of Los Angeles’ built environment make this metropolis more sustainable?

Whether we are building new or retrofitting/adapting/rebuilding, we have built so much of the city from a single-purpose perspective without understanding that in doing so, we were waging war against nature. In every instance we wound up wasting water and energy. In the frontier environment, we threw those things away because there didn’t appear to be any cost. And now the costs of creating floodwater, wasting water, creating air pollution, and the costs of direct cash to shore up an unsustainable system are too great. Through smart design—and, I would say, nature-inspired design—we can save energy and make the built environment more healthy. The system has so much capacity if we design with the intent of sustainability.