March 31, 2010 – Volume 13, Issue 4
I N · T H I S · I S S U E


Local Water Solutions

TreePeople has advanced the notion of urban forestry more than any other organization in the world. The non-profit organization founded by a 15-year old boy, has planted two million of trees in Los Angeles and the surrounding forests, over 90,000 fruit trees in low-income neighborhoods and schools, and on a single day marshaled thousands of volunteers as 29 neighborhoods planted 3,000 trees along a seven mile stretch of the median strip of Martin Luther King Boulevard. TreePeople’s rainwater retention scheme, once scoffed by Los Angeles County, today is embraced as an elegant solution of massive proportions.

Years ago, eleven to be precise, and when I was Director of Efficiency Solutions for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, I represented the Department at the ribbon-cutting of a novel storm-water retention project. Four thousand gallons of water were dumped on a South Los Angeles home in 10 minutes to simulate a 100-year flash flood, and no water ran off from the site.

This was Hall House, the first demonstration of its kind. Imagine if every home and business in L.A. could retain 100% of the water that rained upon it: The City wouldn’t need such massive storm drains. There would be no need for the massive concrete, lifeless channels that lash through LA, an insult to limnolonic decency and the ecology of rivers and arroyos.

Just checked the video clip of the 1998 event. There we are standing with umbrellas witnessing the spectacle! This was TreePeople and Andy Lipkis in full swing. Andy Lipkis’ vision of greening L.A. begins with urban forestry. And you can’t just plant trees, they need water. When it rains in L.A., it pours. But today this precious resource is largely channeled as waste to the ocean, full of oil and urban debris. Lipkis and TreePeople raise awareness: Rain water needs to be held on site, in cisterns and rain barrels, with excess then retained for hours to percolate into the ground water table, cleansed and able sustenance for thirsty trees.

To view the full Youtube clip, please click here

Some years later, shooting video in L.A. from a helicopter with a nose—mounted camera, a shocking statistic became vividly clear: More than 30% of the land area in Los Angeles, perhaps most cities throughout the world, is covered with impermeable roads, sidewalks, parking lots, etc. Cement and asphalt. Another 30 – 60% is rooftops. An aerial view made this barrier to the soil and groundwater so very clear. All completely impermeable and blocking nature’s ability to effective use and cleanse the water on site.

Fast forward ten years, and witness LEED certifications and green building designs. In Santa Monica, the LEED Silver main library retains 100% of the water that lands on site, captured in a massive cistern and able to provide 100% of landscape water for the entire year. At the Fraunhofer Institute in Freiburg, Germany, “bio-swales” are basic mounds of dirt that keep water on site. TreePeople’s recent demonstration is in the form of an 216,000 gallon cistern collects rainwater from its rooftops and parking lot, providing 100% of the watering needs of this intensive site where thousands and thousands of trees get their start before being replanted. Clearly, rainwater retention – perfected over the ages by societies dependent upon rainwater – holds enormous promise.

Water is a fundamental element of sustainability; it is at the root of healing the urban environment of the southwest. TreePeople has been advocating, and demonstrating, an approach well known for ages, and forgotten in the last century, just as our water shortages have become most severe and climate challenges need pragmatic solutions. This special issue of EcoMotion Network News highlights TreePeople and the logic that has so many benefits for our society and societies around the world.

"Trees are multi-purpose, problem-solving devices."
TreePeople Founder and President, Andy Lipkis

The Value of Trees

Some claim that when the trees fail and fall, so do great civilizations. Inversely, the best civilizations are rich in trees, realizing multiple attributes for all. Trees are important barometers of societal health. To the chagrin of dendrochronologists urban trees live only eight years on average. Compare that with 4,600 year-old Bristlecone pines.

Can forests urban forests be planted and maintained? What are trees worth? Why plant and care for a tree?

There are many reasons from aesthetic to functional. They are the Earth’s lungs. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, an acre of trees absorbs the CO2 of driving 8,700 miles, 2.6 tons annually. Each tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen each year. And they keep us cool, as much as 20 degrees cooler!

Welcome to TreePeople

Atop Mulholland Drive, where Coldwater Canyon reaches its zenith, is the Center for Community Forestry, or just plain TreePeople. I remember first hearing about TreePeople in the 1980s; Hunter Lovins had worked there before meeting Amory and forming Rocky Mountain Institute. What greater place to focus on trees than the land of “car-people,” aka Southern California? This land of conspicuous consumption certainly needs trees, and people who advocate for them, quite badly.

In 1970, a young boy by the name of Andy Lipkis was at summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. There, he learned that smog from the sprawling city below threatened to kill every tree in the forest. His alarm sparked action: When he got home he began planting smog-tolerant seedlings in a vacant parking lot. The trees would filter the air near the source. TreePeople was born in 1973; by 1977 it had moved into its current Coldwater Canyon home. Severe flooding in 1978 highlighted the need for effective storm water management.

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics provided a major stimulus for TreePeople. A challenge was established to plant a million trees in time for the games to help meet Clean Air Standards. A goal was set and took root; led by Andy Lipkis and TreePeople the cause marshaled the support of tens of thousands of Los Angelenos. In 1986, TreePeople sent 6,000 fruit-bearing trees to alleviate hunger in Africa. TreePeople also was integral in a major recycling campaign involving 250,000 young students that turned a critical mass of awareness into a remarkable 90% program participation rate.

Today TreePeople has planted over two million trees, including 90,000 fruit trees, a program that started n 1984 to get fresh fruit to lower income residents. Today, TreePeople is a leader in the movement to a safe and stable society. It has more than 10,000 members; more than two million “alum” of its school and community programs, a wealth of effective demonstrations, and a powerful staff and impressive Board to propel its mission. TreePeople advances the notion of a “functioning community forest.” At its deepest level, TreePeople is working to empower neighborhoods.

No doubt, its effect has been great. TreePeople is the epicenter of a movement to re-forest and rejuvenate the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. TreePeople today serves 18 million Californians with nature-based and forest-mimicking solutions. It’s full of slogan and replete with logic: TreePeople unites the power of trees, people, and technology to grow a sustainable future in Los Angeles. Its mission is to inspire, engage, and support people to plant and care for trees.

Fresh Water Harvesting

The Hall House in South Los Angeles demonstrated the challenge and opportunity: The physical challenge was the impermeable site, and the bigger challenge was changing its predominant engineering solution. TreePeople proved that using four “miniature watershed” solutions, typical homes can retain all water on site and provide for irrigation, lush vegetation, and gradual, filtered percolation to the water table below.

The Hall House is a modest Craftsman-style bungalow. The water retention strategy there includes 2, 1,600 gallon cisterns to retain water in recycled polypropylene tanks, retention grading, vegetable mulch swales, and a driveway grate and drywell made of a major hole in the front yard filled in with #2 coarse aggregate rock covered with silt loam. Through these strategies, this home and 1,500 square foot lot (60% of which is covered with house and garage) could not only be part of a regional problem, but can provide plenty of water to support vibrant trees on the property. TreePeople demonstrated that LA homes can fulfill half of their annual water requirements using rainwater harvested on site.

Imagine this, an old oak tree in its glory with a 100-foot in diameter canopy. The canopy alone can effectively absorb the first tenth of an inch of rainfall. Below the canopy, below the surface of the ground, it can store, re—use, and calm some 50,000 gallons of water. The massive cistern built at Hall House simulated the tree. A slightly sunken lawn soaks up the rainwater.

At the flash-flood event, a ranking official of LA County by the name of Carl Blum had an epiphany: The Deputy Director at the County’s Department of Public Works had always assumed that the only way to manage storm water in LA was through massive channels. The more pavement, the bigger the channels needed. Right, with that much run-off, you would need to protect the citizenry. At the Hall House demonstration, or perhaps late that night as his mind cleared and he could focus on its potential, he realized that if the TreePeople/urban forestry vision could be scaled up, there would be a fraction of the run-off!

The Sun Valley with 80,000 people and 9,000 homes has long been prone to chronic flooding. Blum’s new perspective immediately cancelled a massive water diversion project and a re-examination. A three—year study involving TreePeople was commissioned, and ultimately many water retention strategies were employed including a major cistern with sophisticated filtration. There, nine miles of channeling was planned, costing millions of dollars, and wasting Southern California’s most important hydrologic resource.

The County had planned to convert arroyos into concrete channels, blight. Thanks to the demonstration, Carl Blum saw that there is another way. By enhancing perk (percolation) and building catchment systems with sophisticated water purification, once threatening storms could indeed become assets at less cost. The entire project was redirected, retention principles have been engaged, and massive water catchments have been built.

Coldwater Canyon Park

TreePeople has been the caretaker of the 45-acre Coldwater Canyon Park since 1977. Headquartered today in a cluster of yurts complemented by a LEED platinum conference facility, the TreePeople site and park entrance has quite a history: In 1916 it was a chaparral-covered hilltop, used by William Mulholland as the field office for construction of the nearby Franklin Canyon Reservoir. In 1924 it became LA’s first wildfire fighting station, using horse patrols later replaced by Model Ts that originally staffed Fire Station 108. In 1977 when the fire department was moved, LAFD transferred the land to the LA Department of Recreation and Parks.

TreePeople and Coldwater Canyon Park is near the “dead center of Los Angeles. To the north is the San Fernando Valley, west is the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu, south past south-central to the harbor, and east past downtown and through the San Gabriel Valley. A bronze plate 500 yards from the center marks the exact geographic spot. Today the organization’s reach extends further than the eye can see, throughout the Southern California hydrologic area, the vast watersheds that feed the greater Los Angeles area.

The Coldwater Canyon Park is open from 6:30 to sunset every day. There is no admission fee, lots of families enjoy the park, from lazy strolls to brisk, up-hill work-outs, and well-cared-for dogs are welcome on leashes. There are EcoTours for elementary school groups; park tours for others. TreePeople hosts special events in its unique, forest amphitheatre, including small concerts and summer movie date nights. TreePeople and the Center for Community Forestry, Coldwater Canyon Park, 12601 Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

Being Part of the Solution

TreePeople realizes that it can’t do it all. What it can do is inspire, teach the teachers, lead the leaders. It’s a friendly organization, driven by a clear, unquestionably beneficial mission.

TreePeople provides ways to plug in. The Citizen Forestry Program uses volunteers in urban, park, and campus forestry, as well as mountain forestry with current emphasis on wildfire restoration.

This past year, Disney donated over a million dollars to support TreePeople’s ability to leverage of volunteers to restore burn areas. Visit the web site to see how you might visit, become a member, and volunteer: Another way of plugging in is to dedicate a tree. This can be done for $25. For $100 a grove of trees can be dedicated to special family, friends, and occasions.

TreePeople is helping nature heal cities through environmental education, a robust forestry program, watershed management, and demonstration projects. In 2003 it was awarded the United Nations World Forestry Organization Award for its work as a global model for other large cities. Last week, it was my great honor to join TreePeople as a Board Member. It’s an impressive organization we can all be proud to support.