L.A. Has a ‘Canopy Equity’ Problem. A New Program Is Setting Out to Fix It

L.A.’s uneven distribution of trees has been a ”chronic issue,” but an army of locals are becoming Tree Ambassadors to help the city’s most sun-scorched neighborhoods
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Tree canopies are essential for urban environments. The coverage that ample leaves and branches provide can help cool neighborhoods and reduce air pollution. But, as anyone who has traveled through Los Angeles knows, tree canopies are only scattered across the city. Some neighborhoods enjoy lush, tree-lined streets. Others are virtually barren.

“It’s been a chronic issue here,” says Rachel Malarich, city forest officer for the City of Los Angeles, noting that, when looking at old maps, the correlation between redlining and historic under-investment in L.A. neighborhoods is evident. One new tactic to address this environmental justice issue is the new Tree Ambassador pilot program. A collaboration between the city, non-profit City Plants and other partner organizations, the program is training Angelenos in urban forest issues and practices so that they can help bring more trees into their communities.

It’s all part of a greater effort to green L.A., particularly areas that have been underserved. Malarich notes that, as part of Los Angeles’ Green New Deal, Mayor Eric Garcetti set a goal for a 50 percent tree canopy increase in the areas that most need it by 2028. “We may need to do more than a 50 percent increase in these communities,” says Malarich, “but it’s the first time that we’ve had a real benchmark to push departments to really look at the issue and look at solutions for it.”

That goal, though, has also made it possible to bring together multiple city departments  with partner organizations to take on the challenge. “In the urban forestry world, we’ve been aware of the issue and have been working on bringing trees to the neighborhoods that need it the most for a long time,” says Malarich, “but this leadership is bringing more actors to the table, as well as attracting investment from groups like Google, University of Southern California, Accelerate Resilience Los Angeles, and others who are helping us.”

There have been a lot of efforts to plant more trees in Los Angeles over the years. Currently, City of L.A. residents are eligible up to seven free trees for their yards. However, creating these necessary canopies is more complicated than simply planting saplings and watching them grow. Sometimes, there are logistical issues, like narrow streets and sidewalks or overhead wires. “When we have this issue of canopy equity—the next question is space. Where are we going to put new trees if we want to increase that tree canopy? Where is the space for new trees?” says Malarich.

Other times, though, the issues boil down to a matter of community outreach. Sometimes, Malarich explains, people might be reticent to plant trees if they assume the water cost will be too high or have concerns that large root systems will cause sidewalks to buckle. So, what’s the best way to reach people in their communities, to hear their concerns and to address them? It might be via neighbors and that’s where Tree Ambassadors could prove to be an asset.

“We knew that we really wanted to target low-canopy, heat-vulnerable communities,” says Rachel O’Leary, executive director of City Plants, of finding Tree Ambassadors. The pilot program brings together participants from Boyle Heights, San Fernando, Shadow Hills, Canoga Park, Sun Valley, North Hollywood, Pico Union, Westlake, and South Los Angeles. The Tree Ambassadors meet for ten training sessions over the course of nine months. So far, they’ve already learned about subjects like community organizing and finding the right tree for the right space. When they finish the program next April, they won’t just be able to help out in their own neighborhoods. The education and mentorship that this opportunity provides is also intended to help prepare those who are interested for careers in urban forestry.

Meanwhile, City Plants has made the educational toolkits for the program available in English and Spanish on their website, so anyone can follow along with what the Tree Ambassadors are learning. “This is a pilot program and we’re really hoping that it’s as impactful as we believe it to be,” says O’Leary. “I’m hoping that we can continue to offer this program and make it available to more and more Angelenos.”

Ideally, a program like this could help bring more people into a growing network of people tackling urban forest issues, one that O’Leary describes as similar to the mycorrhizal fungal networks that help trees communicate and thrive. “I like to think that’s how urban forestry works in Los Angeles between city departments and non-profits, community organizations, residents and state and federal partners,” she says. “I envision us as all sending resources and supporting each other to build climate resilience in Los Angeles.”


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