How Los Angeles Is Leading the Urban Tree-Planting Revolution
The City of Angels is bringing together tech, academia, government, nonprofits, and ordinary residents to make its greenery more equitable and mitigate the effects of both climate change and systemic racism
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When I moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago, a row of Mexican fan palms lined the street in front of my apartment complex. They were impossibly tall and perpetually arced in the breeze—a postcard view, I suppose, except for the frond missiles that constantly battered my car.
I’ve come to love the city’s less iconic (and belligerent) tree species so much more: The cluster of pines that scent my favorite picnic spot. A sprawling oak that dominates a friend’s front yard. The gnarled ficus along one of my regular running routes. And my new favorite: a spindly desert willow that a friend and I sunk into the sun-baked dirt across from an elementary school one morning last October.
This wasn’t some guerrilla gardening stunt; we had volunteered to make arboreal tributes for City Plants, an organization that partners with a slew of nonprofits and the City of Los Angeles to plunk roughly 20,000 trees in the ground each year. Most of these are gifted to residents, but the remainder are “street trees,” like our dear desert willow, installed in a public right-of-way to provide cooling shade, reduce greenhouse gases, capture stormwater, create habitat, and improve the quality of life for all Angelenos.
“There are so many great things that trees do for us. They’re really our superheroes,” says Rachel Malarich, L.A.’s inaugural city forestry officer. She was appointed in 2019 by Mayor Eric Garcetti to help achieve the leafier goals of his Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to supercharge the city’s climate resiliency over the next few decades. Last year was the hottest and second driest in California history. It’s predicted that if we do nothing at all to mitigate the effects of climate change, the number of days that rocket above 95 degrees Fahrenheit in Los Angeles County will triple in the decades to come.
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Malarich’s first (and most headline-grabbing) task was to coordinate a planting blitz of 90,000 trees by the end of 2021. The pandemic slowed things, so that target stretched to 2022; as of press time, more than 65,000 trees have been planted. But Malarich and her team have a much bigger charge: create a more equitable urban forest in L.A. Roughly 20 percent of the city’s total canopy is concentrated in just five census blocks, containing only 1 percent of the city’s population. Unsurprisingly, these areas tend to be more affluent and whiter than parts of the city with little tree cover. The city’s plan would double tree canopy over the next six years in the city’s areas of highest need—namely low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately affected by climate change.
L.A. isn’t the only city working to create a more equitable canopy. In 2017, the parks and recreation department in Portland, Oregon, committed to a five-year racial-equity plan that includes tree planting and expanding parkland. Root Nashville, in Tennessee, launched in 2018 as a public-private joint venture aiming to add 500,000 trees to Davidson County’s urban forest by 2050. And in 2020, groundwork began for the City of Philadelphia’s first-ever urban-forest strategic plan.
But it’s the sheer scope of L.A.’s effort—which includes cutting-edge technology, groundbreaking research, and remarkable coordination between city government, countless nonprofits, universities, data scientists, and everyday citizens—that makes it a vanguard. “The city of L.A. is almost 500 square miles and spans so many social, cultural, political, and economic backgrounds,” says City Plants executive director Rachel O’Leary. “I really do believe that if we can crack this nut in Los Angeles, we can do it anywhere.”