The shady politics of urban greening

Posted on | August 13, 2019 | 7 Comments

Cartoon: Emily Green

Glare alone creates the long shadows of Los Angeles. So squinting was inevitable when the city announced the appointment of arborist Rachel Malarich as its “first-ever” forest officer. According to the announcement by Mayor Eric Garcetti, as part of the administration’s Green New Deal, the new forest officer will plant 90,000 new trees in two years. These in turn are expected to provide 61 million square feet of shade in underserved areas.

Glare defines Los Angeles. So squinting was inevitable when the city announced the appointment of arborist Rachel Malarich as its “first-ever” forest officer. Her job, part of the city’s Green New Deal, is to plant 90,000 trees in the next two years. Creation of an estimated 61.3 million square feet of new shade in tree-poor communities is to be done just as the city weans itself from half of its imported water, with a lion’s share of savings expected from landscape irrigation budgets.

Those of us rooting for Malarich may still wince at the numbers. While not as implausible as the Villaraigosa million tree goal, promising 90,000 new trees is little more than a pledge and a number. What’s not visible is a long-term plan, which is needed because trees are the very definition of a long-term investment. The better the advance planning, the greater the reward. If the Garcetti administration is serious, then it needs to look hard at what might be the most climate-ready tree species. It’s going to be a crap shoot as LA experiences drought-flood whiplash and pathologists puzzle novel strains of fusarium and xylella. A UC field trial of future street trees doesn’t look particularly helpful. Its candidates include patio shrub-trees that are lovely but offer poor shade (palo verdes), trees that conform poorly to street spaces (desert willows), shrubs that drop messy fruit (Catalina cherries), trees that drive Benadryl sales across the region (acacias), and shrubs with thorns (palo verdes again, even “thornless” cultivars revert to their natural armored states). Missing are the workhorses of LA street trees including live oaks, magnolias, jacarandas, crape myrtles, camphors and a gorgeous native tolerant of increasingly typical monsoonal moisture, Engelmann oaks. Strangest of all, the trees are being tested in non-street settings. It’s heartening to note that Malarich herself is an urban arborist and comes to the job with real-world trees-in-heat-islands experience.

Whatever Malarich’s team comes to plant, the trees will need adequate planting wells, irrigation, and curb-cuts to augment irrigation with stormwater infiltration. Wherever possible, tree planting should be part of street work that buries power lines and banks stormwater. In short, planting in underserved communities should be done right.

It would be unfair to confuse Malarich’s new job with the long-standing post of urban forester, who will presumably assume care for her 90,000 trees provided they become established. This division is so notoriously under-resourced that, in 2015, the city’s own State of the Street Trees Report gave its tree maintenance a score of F, overall tree health a D, and age diversification a D. This was before appreciation sharpened at how badly drought, neglect, scorch and fusarium were beginning to ravage the canopy.

Both the urban forester and Malarich face a funding gap. A December 2018 report for City Plants showed that Los Angeles’ annual per-tree budget was less than half of New York City’s. This for the nation’s beacon of climate stewardship in the time of Trump and the home to the “first ever” tree officer. Malarich and her team deserve better. So do the generations to come who will live with what they put in the ground.


Posted on | May 27, 2019 | No Comments

The day after posting this photo series, I spotted the cover story of Southern Living magazine, Small Space Gardens – Making Every Inch Count, at a local supermarket. It was certainly pretty, this open air living room, what lifestyle editors like to call “aspirational.” But was it a garden? There was so much furniture. The implicit message: we should make the outside like the inside.

As for size, “small” must be bigger in the south than it is in the backstreets of Baltimore, where I now live, and where the rear yards of most ten- to twelve-foot-wide row homes are rarely big enough to get shouting distance from roaring HVAC compressors. If there is access from a driveable alley, many back yards are converted to “parking pads.”

Read more

Make yourself at home

Posted on | June 6, 2018 | 2 Comments

This site is intended mainly as an online clipping service for the reporter Emily Green. Click here to be taken to the journalism archives. Occasional posts below vary between brain-on-fire moments and links to work published elsewhere. Sidebar links to various environmental sites are random acts of enthusiasm.

Image: Kitchen, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 24″, 2018, EG

Why science, not money, should matter on June 5th

Posted on | May 29, 2018 | No Comments

California’s June 5 gubernatorial primary stands to be a crucial turning point in the more than two-decade-old bid by by Cadiz, Inc to mine Mojave Desert groundwater for sale to coastal Southern California cities. This is less an endorsement of people who appear to be adequate candidates – Delaine Eastin, John Chiang or Gavin Newsom – than a warning.  To this water-watcher’s eyes, a Villaraigosa win would be a staggering setback for unbiased government science in setting a course for California water policy.  Read more

In praise of Altadena Hiker and Karin Bugge

Posted on | March 29, 2018 | 21 Comments

Karin Bugge

Granted, it was odd that Jeanne Moreau would be in front of my house in northern Altadena that afternoon in 2011, but there she was, standing in the street not ten feet away, regarding me with a slow, crooked smile unfolding beneath her sunglasses. Barely visible between parked cars, there was a black Labrador retriever by her side. Who knew that the star of Jules et Jim was a dog person?

“Sit, Albert.”

Or that Jeanne Moreau’s dog was called Albert? Pronounced the American way?

Pushing hair from my eyes and pocketing the reading glasses needed in the garden to differentiate rye seedlings from blue-eyed grass, I clambered to my feet to realize, no, it wasn’t Jeanne Moreau. Some other wild beauty had stopped to make sure that the lady prostrate next to her iris bed was weeding, not dying. My rescuer, whose fine hair was escaping in wisps from what remained of a loosely knotted bun was, it turned out, Karin Bugge, a noted local blogger. The creator of Altadena Hiker was doing what she did on so many afternoons: dodging cars with Albert on the steep and sidewalk-less last blocks of Fair Oaks Avenue before the road disappeared into the winding mountain paths of the Angeles National Forest.

That first meeting with Karin won’t stop replaying in my mind this week as friends struggle to absorb news of her death at what her close friend, reporter Kelly Russell, guesses was only age 58.* Having known Karin in person a little, and having read her a lot over the last seven years, she stands unique in my experience of friends and fellow writers. In my imagination, she somehow never lost that first meeting’s sense of mystery and allure. Rather, it increased. Read more

keep looking »