By Rachel Parsons
The City of Los Angeles has never had a forest executive, though it has the largest urban forest of any city in the country. Last summer, Mayor Eric Garcetti created the position of City Forest Officer to help LA achieve its urban greening goals under the Green New Deal.
Rachel Malarich is the first to hold the post. The Hub sat down with her recently and talked about LA’s urban forest, environmental justice, why trees can look sad, and how to make them happy.
Q: What is the tree mandate under the city’s Green New Deal?
A: So within the Green New Deal, we have two really fantastic goals. There’s more than two, but I’ll stick with the first two, one of which is this equity goal, increasing canopy cover in our highest need areas by 50% by 2028. When I heard that goal I was like this is so exciting to me cause it’s what I’m passionate about. The second goal is planting 90,000 trees by 2021, and part of that is hoping to plant a significant number of those in these areas of high need as part of that buildup.
Q: Let’s talk about the social environmental justice aspect of greening and urban forests. There is literature that examines why shade is an index of socioeconomic inequality and how low-income neighborhoods are hit harder by extreme heat events than wealthier ones. What does that mean?
A: That’s how I got into working with trees in the first place. There was a canopy assessment done [in LA] in 2006 looking at canopy cover, and the communities that have the lowest canopies were not accessing tree programs at the same rate as those who already had trees. And that’s really been the core of my work is how do we make sure that this piece of city infrastructure is equitably distributed across the City of Los Angeles? How do we make sure that every community member has access to a shady place to walk? And all the other benefits trees provide, whether it be those measurable health benefits in terms of lowered obesity rates, instances of asthma to, you know, protections from the urban heat island effect, all of those things.
For me, the other component which people have heard me talk about before is that social connectivity. There was a study done that looked at socioeconomic status, education level, and tree canopy cover, and it found that they were equal indicators for feelings of social cohesion, which we know is how people feel connected within their communities, which allows us to be more resilient in the light of disasters or other emergencies. Tree canopy is a lot easier to change than the community’s socioeconomic status or education level, in my opinion. So that’s a huge factor for me, that trees help us feel more connected to each other and in our communities.
Q: Los Angeles relies on water supplies from hundreds of miles away and getting it to the city uses such huge amounts of energy, and that energy generation in turn creates large amounts of greenhouse gases. Given that trees need water, should we be looking at things like xeriscaping with native plants, which uses very little water and more reflective surfaces to combat urban heat, and putting in artificial shade where needed?
A: Trees are just one tool in the toolbox for dealing with the issues that we have. And obviously water is a huge component and being more water independent is really, really important for Los Angeles. And we have a number of goals around that. Thankfully voters approved [county] Measure W which is going to be looking a lot at how we deal with stormwater and other pieces of that infrastructure. I don’t think that that means we stop planting trees, and absolutely, I’m having those conversations with people now as we look at what species, where we plant them in the future, what are the trees that are going to be doing well in 2050, how do we plan for the changing climate? We’re not saying trees are the answer and that’s all we’re going to do. We’re looking at how do we use all these different new technologies and existing best practices to mitigate heat, to use less water, to build a smarter city.
Q: The city is giving away these 90,000 trees to the public for free. What do people need to think about if they decide to get a tree?
A: You want to make sure that it’s put in the right location. You want to make sure that it meets your goals, whether that be having a flowering tree or one shading your property for that energy efficiency component. And it can be frustrating for people. They’ll request a tree through the City Plants program and maybe have the nonprofit partner that goes out to inspect your location says sorry, you can’t have a tree here. They call back and say wait a minute, there’s tons of space in my front yard, but they don’t understand the lens through which we’re looking at the space: Where is the gas meter? Where’s the water line? Where’s the streetlight, which we don’t want to have blocked 10 years from now. You’re going to call and say, I need this tree trimmed, it’s blocking the street. We don’t want to have that happen.
I see people that will plant their tree really close to their driveway, which eventually causes a problem where the space isn’t big enough to have the tree, or it lifts the sidewalk. So the city guidelines are there for a reason. And part of my role is making sure that the guidelines we have in place are all lining up to the same vision of the urban forest. Trees are interacting with the public, and how can we make sure that we have this piece of infrastructure that’s providing a benefit and beauty to our communities while still maintaining that good relationship with the other functions of that public space, which is challenging.
Then, you should make a date with your tree. Maybe it’s the day that you take the trash cans out to the curb. You go and you check on your tree. If you get down a couple inches below the soil and the soil is dry, go ahead and give it 15 gallons of water. If it’s moist, have a good weekend tree. It’s really, really important to make that a routine. If you’re not watering on a regular basis, that tree will get stressed and not grow as quickly. And you may be calling [us] and saying it looks sad. What did I do wrong? Usually it’s over- or under-watering. So checking your tree and then watering if needed is one of the most important things. It’s something that I can’t do. So your commitment to water a tree on your private property or commit to water a street tree is one of the best ways that you can help grow the canopy in Los Angeles.
City Plants is a public-private partnership. Trees can be ordered through the website. The organization also holds tree adoption events throughout the city.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.