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.


7 Responses to “The shady politics of urban greening”

  1. EmilyGreen
    August 14th, 2019 @ 11:43 am

    These remarks came by casual, personal communication from landscape designer Wynne Wilson of Terra Design in Altadena. Her gardens are regularly featured on the Theodore Payne Foundation tours. I copy her comments here with permission:

    “… important that you noted the preplanning required to be successful, and the need to coordinate with the long term maintenance and care. I also wonder about the new “look” of the tree canopy and the future selections? Who thought trees with low growing canopies would be a good idea?

    As much as I love the Englemann, the last living specimens throughout Pasadena are in dire shape.
    It seems that their habitat in the lesser developed valleys (what was once here) can better support this tree. I have found that this tree does not do well with radiant heat and prefers a cooler treatment. Interestingly, the larger boxed trees that I bought from Mike down at Tree of Life are doing well, they are from parents in the San Diego area, not from the other native inland area here in San Bernadino. I have planted these trees in several different sites (made sure they had great starts) in L.A. These trees also are planted with a lot of space for their future root zones and away from radiant heat such as patios and streets.

    It is going to come down to water, water, water and we know the story here. Just imagine the amount
    of proper irrigation to keep the newly planted trees alive long enough to root in!

    The jacarandas are still doing well, in spite of lousy care and the huge figs that devour the sidewalks! I wonder if stately lobatas would fair well if given the proper irrigation. Sadly, street trees must be warriors to survive in this heat and it seems like a form of torture to plant them unless they are well cared for.

    I am curious how the budget for this work will be laid out.”

  2. Francesca Corra
    August 17th, 2019 @ 7:34 am

    Great article, Emily. One of the biggest problems is Los Angeles is all those darned wires. I recently heard Matt Ritter speak at a SoCal Hort meeting and he had photos of trees outrageously trimmed around power wires. It was a light moment, but underscored what we see all around LA – butchered trees. So now we are in a situation where we are looking for smaller trees, the Crape Myrtle being the leading choice, but these trees are not providing the canopy we need. Another great point you brought up is the curb cuts. I sincerely hope the city is seeing the benefits and rethinking their outdated opinion that they are trip hazards. If they are placed strategically, they are not trip hazards. They can water the trees in medians and along sidewalks. This would serve two purposes – alleviating some of the street flooding that happens as soon as we get a hundredth of an inch of rain – and the trees will get watered.
    I sincerely wish Rachel Malarich all the luck in the world.

  3. EmilyGreen
    August 17th, 2019 @ 8:00 am

    Thank you — I agree! The argument that burying power lines is too expensive sure gets old. You don’t hear the people who make it complain that it’s too expensive to restore power after storms, or routinely maim trees around power lines. It’s beyond high time that street work was integrated as part of a whole green street design. Malarach and LA deserve urban planning, not mission impossible.

  4. Erik Knutzen
    September 7th, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    Just rediscovered your blog again. As usual, our local politicians seem more interested in press conferences than actual work. I went out with a IR thermometer to measure street temperatures yesterday including on one of those bullshit gray slurry streets the city is trying. Temperatures were, no surprise here, much cooler on one of the few tree lined streets in my neighborhood. Keep up the good work!

  5. EmilyGreen
    September 7th, 2019 @ 2:12 pm

    Eric, very nice to catch up. Who among us doesn’t want Malarich to succeed? She sounds like a good choice. My problem, and it haunts me, is that the mayor may be handing her a poison chalice. Why not back up the quota with green street design and planning needed to also reach the stormwater goals? And, yes, arg, the white goop. This Guardian piece talks about it – the article is well done but for the water figures … nos. for LA City and LA County come in and out in confusing ways without understanding that the city counts Inyo Co water as local, and that the county is huge, and that a lot of the recharge is done with… imported water. It’s a common mistake about a deeply complicated topic …

  6. Cameron Miller
    October 4th, 2019 @ 12:29 pm

    Hi Emily, thanks for the questions and nuanced concerns regarding implementation which you raise here. I’ve been searching online for details regarding the 90,000 tree plan and only finding the glowing press releases announcing Ms Malarich’s appointment across the web. I understand it’s in the planning stage, but are you aware of any indications of the timelines/periods for public comment/species selection/maintenance goals and budgets? Or a contact number to Ms Malarich’s office so I can go direct?

  7. EmilyGreen
    October 4th, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

    Hi Cameron, There is very little by way of detail. The goal and timetable along with estimates of jobs to be created all appeared in various documents about the Green New Deal( before Malarich’s appointment was announced. The assumptions behind urban greening and landscape climate projects are so sweeping in various UCLA sustainability studies, on which the mayor and his staff have relied heavily, that they can seem like castles in the air. Her history with TreePeople, plus remarks in a Guardian ( piece suggest that the city intends to use the TreePeople model of working with community groups. These projects have a history of near complete failure of drive by greening to really stunningly successful green streets such as Elmer Avenue, a kind of Rolls Royce project. I know of no work by the city updating its street tree list ( and was unpleasantly surprised to see fan palms on it. The city council was attempting to remove these from approved use as street trees in the early aughts because of their negligible shade value. Other cities, such as Chicago, long ago revised their street tree lists in anticipation of climate change. I recommend contacting the Bureau of Street Services for more information. The best work I found was the BSS’s 2015 State of the Street Trees Report ( Maybe contact them ( and ask for the name and number of the Public Information Officer? To reach Malarich directly, perhaps go through the Mayor’s Office ( or social media? I hope this helps.

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