By Rachel Parsons
For The Hub
The City of Los Angeles’ Green New Deal really means green—as in leaves.
Officials want to see 90,000 new trees planted in the city’s sparsest and hottest neighborhoods by 2021 by giving them to residents for free.
“This is so exciting to me because it’s what I’m passionate about,” said City Forest Officer Rachel Malarich. She is the first to hold the position created by Mayor Eric Garcetti.
The plan to plant so many trees in the next year is the first stage of what Malarich called the deal’s “equity goal” of increasing tree canopy cover in the city’s highest-need neighborhoods by 2028.
Research published this year by a team from Portland State University found that low-income neighborhoods tend to suffer the effects of extreme heat events more than wealthier ones in part because they have fewer trees and less vegetation, generally.
Vivek Shandas, lead researcher on the paper, which focused on data from Portland, has worked with Los Angeles stakeholders on the same issue. He said there is significant temperature variation from one neighborhood to the next in LA. This may not come as a surprise to longtime Angelenos, but the urban heat island effect—that a city is hotter than its rural surroundings—combined with a steadily warming overall climate means within an already blistering set of neighborhoods, such as in central and eastern Los Angeles, there could be up to a 20-degree variation because of several factors including a lack of trees.
“And that, for particularly communities that don’t have a lot of access to cooling resources, that could be a difference between life and death,” Shandas said. “Especially for those living in second, third, fourth story buildings without air conditioning. We’ve seen that being a major [potential for] fatality.”
Critics of the push to plant this many trees point to the potential increase in water usage in a region that is already water insecure.
“It is important to consider the water footprint that trees (and grass) have and that Los Angeles is an arid region,” said Jeremy Pal, an environmental engineer at Loyola Marymount University. “Getting water to LA uses massive amounts of energy [which creates] greenhouse gases. I know this is not as popular, but I prefer reflective surfaces and xeriscaping as a solution to heat islands over planting trees because of the water-energy footprint.”
The city and county intend to address that increase in water demand partly through revenues from Measure W, a county parcel tax passed in 2018, that will be used to capture stormwater that currently empties into the ocean.
Michele Romolini, managing director of the Center for Urban Resilience pointed out that, although it might seem counterintuitive, in the long run, trees save water.
“We lose so much of our water to runoff,” she said. “leaves actually slow down water as it falls from the sky and then it kind of trickle[s] down the trunk and is absorbed into the roots and the root systems … So we’re not losing some of the water that’s coming into the system, even though they do take water to grow, obviously.”
Romolini added that people feel connected to trees in their communities in ways that they do not with reflective surfaces.
According to Rachel Malarich, the trees that the city is giving away are not native species but are drought resistant and require less water than some native trees once they are established. She also pointed to the social benefits of having more trees like lower obesity and asthma rates in high-canopy neighborhoods.
“A huge factor for me is that trees help us feel more connected to each other and in our communities,” Malarich said. “What has always driven my work is making sure that this resource is part of our public infrastructure and it plays such a huge role in making our communities livable, fun, safe. That’s something that should be equally accessed by all Angelenos.”
Los Angeles distributes young trees at regular events through City Plants, a public-private partnership. City Plants partners advise homeowners on tree selection and deliver saplings free of charge.