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Dallas is building America’s biggest urban nature park: Dallas, Texas is about to become one of the greenest cities in America – by building the country’s largest urban nature park. Dallas’ new “Nature District” will comprise a staggering 10,000 acres, including 7,000 acres of the Great Trinity Forest.

New York City Mapped All of its Trees and Calculated the Economic Benefits of Every Single One: “In recent years, NYC Parks has been responsible for creating new programs to help children, youth and adults be aware of the importance of caring for their urban landscape. One of these programs is a TreesCount! which in 2015 gathered 2,300 volunteers to learn about the trees in their environment, what state they are in, what care they need, what their measurements are, and how they benefit the surrounding community, etc.”

Scenic route: the winners of the 2016 Landscape Institute Awards revealed: “From the South Downs to Milan, a range of diverse projects spanning the globe have received accolades at this year’s Landscape Institute Awards”

How to Use Google Maps to Plan an Awesome Vacation: “It turns out to be one of my best lunches of the trip. That semi-serendipitous meal was possible because I had compiled suggestions from friends in a custom Google Map. And unlike a guidebook, it wasn’t weighing me down or outing me as a tourist.”

Radiolab’s From Tree to Shining Tree: “A forest can feel like a place of great stillness and quiet. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a hidden world beneath your feet as busy and complicated as a city at rush hour.”

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In an attempt to maintain some semblance of a psychogeographic tradition, ritual, or mechanism for postponing overwhelming urban banality that develops when I become complacent and comfortable, I decided to go for a bit of a stroll. The original intention was to find a soft patch of Elysian grass and settle into a new book, but the short trek from home to ridge got enough blood moving to motivate a full on exploration.

I have always been keen on a line of Washingtonia robusta that punctuate the eastern ridge of Elysian Park. I had been admiring them from afar for far too long, and before I knew it a mission had been set*. I had been deployed and the derive was underway.

*Note: This is an activity I like to call, “find the tallest thing you can see and then get to know it well”. During the activity I seek to answer: Is it as far as it looks? How far is far? Is the space between interesting? Does the space between become part of the object? How does your perspective change from point A to point B?

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I started to walk along the fire road trail that I walk regularly – at least on the western side of the park. In an attempt to honor the meandering nature of the derive I tried to keep to the roads less traveled, attempting to go against my guttural inclinations and follow the paths that were new, foreign, and unpredictable. I didn’t know where I was going so it didn’t really matter either way. I had all day to get there, and in the worst case scenario I still had my book and could easily justify calling off the mission to pretend to read for a bit.

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Elysian Park’s trail system is interesting, a network of mostly dirt fire roads (I’d assume) in varying states of use and decay. I quickly became intrigued by the rock outcroppings flanking the trail, especially after crossing Stadium Way and into uncharted terrain. Most, if not every rock, had some strange geologic striations, anthropocentric tellings of the culture clash between unmonitored urban surfaces, Krylon, and quartzite. A psychogeology of sorts. I pondered this observation as I continued my walk, photographing these features like a rather pathetic Ansel Adams, with dusty boots and shattered iPhone.

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An arboreal destination in the distance.

Halfway through the trip I discovered a new tree perched on an even farther ridge. I knew I had to change trajectory. What good is a mission if you are aren’t afraid to break off in favor of a new one?

The beauty of personal ritual is you can do whatever you please – a healthy practice of the wanderer. I passed many more graffiti-covered outcroppings and countless vistas, looking out over the Los Angeles River, the interstates, and across to the mountains. I finally came upon a paved road, its sighting soon accompanied with people, sports fields, litter, and laughing. I hopped onto the road for a bit, walking its hardened path until I saw my destination. I skirted off the road, back into the dusty dirt, and scrambled up a small footpath.

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Upon seeing the tree I was surprised and shocked that it actually had surpassed my expectations. A lone giant perched on a hill. Covered from roots to canopy in spray paint scribble and adorned with a tattered rope swing. I was obviously not the first person to play this game. This was a destination for many. But there was not a soul in sight as I climbed the trunk to take in the view.

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I found a praying mantis making her way up the trunk as well. Universal appeal. I hung around a bit, took some photographs, and then made my way to the next ridgeline to find those Mexican Fan Palms, so that I could finally make my way home satisfied.

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Photo by Stumpy Sad; CC-BY-SA-2.0

Creative Commons photo by Stumpy Sad; CC-BY-SA-2.0

Do you remember the story in the New York Times about Jean J. Hsu, a woman who lost her class ring down a grate? It was a rather funny tale, one documenting how Ms. Hsu navigated New York City’s labyrinth of red tape to retrieve her lost jewelry from the bowels of a busy downtown corridor.

While walking through DTLA or through the beautiful City of Glendora downtown corridor, I’ve noticed all sorts of different types of tree grates. It has a role as one of today’s favorite urban landscape features, but times are a changing. There are all sorts of stories that you can muster up about why or why not a tree grate was removed: it was stolen, the tree outgrew the space, the storefront had it removed.

Who needs a tree when extra asphalt is on hand to fill a previous tree well?

Who needs a tree when extra asphalt is on hand to fill a previous tree well? Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

I’ve noticed some sidewalks interrupted by empty square cutouts filled with compacted soil or asphalt, like the one pictured here on the right. I sometimes like to imagine buried treasure awaiting to be found underneath. But more so, I’d prefer such an empty space being occupied again with a thriving tree, one that could offer ample shade from the glaring glass curtain walls along 7th Street, provide a respite for urban birds, or offer a great spot for tourists to take a photo.

The City of Glendora’s downtown corridor – Glendora Avenue – is lined with meticulously clipped Ficus microcarpa nitida, ‘Green Gem’ (Green Gem Indian Laurel Fig) pruned into the shape of gumdrops. These trees were made famous by a commercial for Southern California’s fast food chain, Jack in the Box.

Most of the tree grates on this stretch of Glendora Avenue have been since removed, with only two tree grates remaining. The two trees surrounded by tree grates are much smaller in size than the rest of sculptured trees. Some creative tactics were taken by shopkeepers to keep the area tidy and to prevent dogs from doing their business along the double row of trunks. Now poinsettias line the boxes (just in time for the holidays!).

America is not alone in its fetish for tree grates. In Spain, I fell into a few missing tree grates spaces while admiring the beautiful architecture of the country. Let me tell you, those empty spaces once occupied by a tree grate were rather deep; their planting specs must call for a much deeper tree well than the American version!

Gumdrop trees lit up for the annual Holiday Stroll on Glendora Avenue in Glendora

Gumdrop trees lit up for the annual Holiday Stroll on Glendora Avenue in Glendora. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Maybe it is time we question why even have tree grates in the first place? Other questions floating in my head:

* Is the lack of tree care, alongside their respective tree grates, just another form of “demolition by neglect”? Perhaps, the tree grate is a much more of beautiful ornament than the tree it was originally intended for – something I have seen in NYC with their treasured and historical art deco tree grates. Maybe the expense went into buying the best of the best tree grates, but a low bid or a slashed budget made getting the best tree impossible.

* Maybe the tree and its protective tree grate are considered an annoyance now? Maybe for some people a tree might be considered a hindrance, limiting access from car to building or onto a train platform.

* Why not utilize plants around a tree rather than selecting an expensive tree grate. At a cost of approximately $2,000 a piece, these grates were designed to protect the tree’s apron of roots. But when you walk through a forest, you might observe small shrubs or perennials naturally growing around trees in the wild. Why not recreate the same natural relationship in an urban setting? It would enhance the urban landscape and provide even more natural curiosity. 

* Does every city street need to look like a New York City sidewalk?

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Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

But there are some really good reasons for tree grates. First, in urban areas with a high density of people who park close to trees or walk by one, these grates keep the surrounding soil around the tree from being compacted. Besides lack of water, pests/disease, or pruning at the wrong times, compacted soil is a major reason why trees suffer in urban settings. Tree grates also shade the soil over the tree’s roots, slowing down the evaporation of the water around the tree. And in a drought like we’re experiencing now, that is a definite benefit.

Tree grates can be rather appealing aesthetically . Their ornate traditional designs are quite adaptable, coming in all sorts of shapes. Some even have lights built right into the design. Most are fabricated with metal, but maybe in the future tree grates will be printed using a 3-D printer and laser cutters, using other types of materials to add to curb appeal. What if grates were made from silicone, plastic, recycled tires, and other renewable resources like bamboo or cork? Or maybe they could light up when stepped upon. One wonders due to the fact tree grates have so long gone unchanged, their utility for tree and shrub health is now forgotten or overlooked. Perhaps tree grates need a Project Runway-style redesign representing the times of today. Or maybe it’s just time to say farewell, noting they’re a feature of yesterday?

Expanded tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora covered with Astroturf. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Expanded tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora covered with Astroturf. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Cities are already challenging themselves to use alternatives, including artificial grass, art, and pavers instead of tree grates. If you lose a piece of fine jewelry – like Jean J. Hsu’s class ring from the aforementioned story above – recovering it will be much easier when mulch, ground cover, shrubs, or artificial turf surrounds the tree. Even in Manhattan, the city now shuns using tree grates, replacing them with more advantageous methods of protecting valuable urban trees.

Well-designed tree grates permit water, air, debris, and the occasional unfortunate class ring through its grill. But the space between the tree grate and the soil should be periodically cleaned; if an excess of debris gets trapped between these sections, it can  prevent air and water from entering the basin or result in soil building up around the trunk, both causing undue harm to the tree.

A Ficus tree trunk that grew way beyond the diameter of the tree grate.

A Ficus tree trunk that grew way beyond the diameter of the tree grate. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Most of the time when tree grates are installed, they’ll never be moved again. But occasionally a tree grow will outgrow its once spacious ring, requiring it be removed or entirely replaced. Tree roots will grows upward if there is insufficient room for it to grow outward. Everyone in Los Angeles has seen a sidewalk like this at one time or another. Unless there is an effective root barrier in place or regular root pruning, trees without enough space to grow can push a sidewalk upward, causing a hazardous feature. Occasionally the affected sidewalk area is cut out and expanded, with the tree grate removed to expose the surrounding soil to promote the tree’s health.

Professor of Environmental Horticulture Dr. Edward F. Gilman of University of Florida, Gainesville offers some excellent advice: Tree grates should be considered a short term solution lasting about 15 years. Dr. Gilman advises widening sidewalk spaces around trees, planting clusters of trees, channeling roots to grow toward soil, using alternative material around the tree and gravel as a subsurface rather than compacted soil or other types of materials. He believes planting the tree at least 2 feet away from the sidewalk is beneficial, alongside planting the tree away from the curb, or elevating the sidewalk around the plantings to give tree roots a place to grow. If the space/lot permits, Dr. Gilman believes planting trees in groups is superior to a lone specimen; trees have been observed to work together to help improve surviving the numerous challenges in an urban environment.

Tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora, filled with mulch, art, and a few small plants.

Tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora, filled with mulch, art, and a few small plants. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

It can be odd walking down the street and noticing the trunk of a single palm tree and an evergreen tree shoved into a tree grate. It seems a better idea to plant a natural buffer of spiky-looking plants to help encourage pedestrians to walk around rather than over the space. Consider working deterrents like Dietes ‘NoLa’ (Katrina™ African Iris) or Dianella ‘DR5000’ (Little Rev Flax Lily). 7th Street in Downtown Los Angeles on 7th Street is ripe for such a display of plants and trees living harmoniously together. The streetscape already offers a wide sidewalk, with exposed brickwork that could be quickly refilled with trees and shrubs. More could be done to create a beautiful, urban enriching botanical buffer, just ripe for pollinators. I suspect that property values would also rise, and such urban flora would encourage more people to traverse on the plant-lined side of the street versus the opposite lined with brightly lit stores. Already I’ve noticed traveling on the side of the street with Whole Foods because I’m naturally drawn to their lovely basins filled with trees and Dietes ‘NoLa’ (Katrina™ African Iris), contrasting the bleak parking garage across the street devoid of any plantings.

Tree grates are amazing urban accessories, but a landscaping tool due for a change. I am sure landscape and urban designers can find great uses for tree grates, as well as exploring what we can do to make our shrinking urban planting spaces last longer than ever by incorporating plants, trees, shrubs, art, rainwater runoff, and most importantly, our imaginations. Just remember, the next time you see a tree grate, somewhere underneath may be a ring that will never again reunite with its rightful owner. All I know is I’m not sure who I would call if my ring fell through a tree grate here in Downtown Los Angeles…

 

Photo by Aurelio Pérez-Veith

Photo by Aurelio Pérez-Veith

A tiny piece of Los Angeles history disappeared last week.  After 100 years, the Hollywood Independent Church (HIC) conducted its final service on November 19th. HIC’s Reverend John Vargas final service at the historic Japanese American and Hawaiian church was introduced to the sound of conch seashells and a performance of hula dancers.  After the service, we were ushered into a recreation room where we could talk to old friends and enjoy homemade cupcakes and coffee.  Hollywood Independent Church ceased to exist after a long history of love, inclusion, and diversity in the wake of the cruelty and injustice of the Japanese American Internment.

HIC was a victim of generational and demographic shifts in Los Angeles.  It was my wife’s family church, but like many of the congregation, she moved away for college and ended up marrying a non-Southern Californian. When we moved back to Los Angeles about 8 years ago after nearly 20 years of being away, our ties to her church were only held together by the barest of threads.  We donated a little money and got the newsletter, but rarely it to attend service.  We were not alone.

Most of my wife’s peers had moved away to other cities within California, out of state, or even to a new country.  The surrounding neighborhood became more Hispanic and, consequently, more Catholic.  By the end, only a few souls were filling the sanctuary on Sundays. The church, faced with ongoing debt and an aging facility, decided that the only course of action was to sell the land and retire the debt while still having leftover funds to donate to the surrounding churches and community. Fortunately, Silver Lake adjacent property was a boon for the church who achieved all of its goals and more, contributing to some 20-40 charities and churches around Northeast Los Angeles, Glendale, and Burbank.  Anyone involved with HIC would not be surprised by this generosity given its long history of service in Southern California.

Photo by Gary Lai

Photo by Gary Lai

Originally called the Hollywood Japanese Christian Church, HIC was founded in 1916 by a group of Japanese immigrants to promote Christianity and mutual understanding with the communities around Southern California.  With a membership of only 25 people, HIC was able to buy and build their own church on the outskirts of Silver Lake in East Hollywood.  For almost 30 years, HIC continued its mission in Southern California.

On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of the Japan. On February of 1942, Executive Order 9066 was signed, and the bulk of the HIC congregation was forcibly removed from the West Coast. These American citizens were allowed just two suitcases and were forced to leave their land, property, and most of their belongings behind. An accumulation of wealth for a generation was lost to opportunists, war profiteers, and “entrepreneurs” who were more than happy to “confiscate” and seize HIC members’ property as their own. Fortunately, the Pastor and members of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church held onto and cared for HIC’s facility for 4 long years. Those HIC members who could return to Los Angeles faced financial destitution, bigotry, and isolation – but they still had their church.

Photo by Gary Lai

Photo by Gary Lai

Instead falling to bitterness and negativity from the illegal persecution from their own country, the members of HIC decided to continue their mission of healing, inclusion, and love.  They dropped the “Japanese” from their churches title to promote a more diverse population into their ranks. Hawaiians moving to the mainland were immediately drawn to the church and quickly became important leaders, but all nationalities and races were welcomed. HIC joined the Southern California Congregational Conference and would be a founding member of the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC). It would be one of the first churches to support LGBT rights and members would march in the Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood. This tiny church that would never break more than a 100 members operated a food bank, an adult language center, and would participate in the Pacific Island Asian American Ministries of UCC. HIC would never turn its back on its mission and responsibilities.

Ironically, just a few days before HIC’s final service, Mr. Carl Higbie, a President-elect Trump supporter and surrogate, called for using the Japanese American internment as a precedent for Muslim American registration.  Southern California Japanese American leaders have long cited their experiences as a warning to the Muslim American community and have been actively engaging the community with outreach and counseling.

As I said my goodbyes to former Hollywood Independent Church members after being over-sugared and over-caffeinated, I wondered if I could find the strength and resolve to follow the congregation’s example of love over hate, understanding over bigotry, and service over self-enrichment.  I’m not sure I can do it, but I do know that if one tiny sliver of light in the second largest city in the country could do this much good, one tiny individual in this city can try.

All photos by Seth Babb

All photos by Seth Babb

1922-planRalph Cornell was an early Los Angeles landscape architect and plantsman who left a large mark on Southern California’s landscape. I believe he will be the topic of a number of articles in the foreseeable future. But before we get into who he was, let us begin with one of his projects that has endured and is still here today.

Washington Park was an empty lot and natural stream basin that was turned into a sunken garden by Ralph Cornell and horticulturalist Theodore Payne in 1922. The park is characterized by its grade changes which give the landscape a unique enclosed nature that separates the park from the surrounding area.

Expanded in the 1940s under the WPA, Washington Park was redesigned in 2003 with updated amenities, while retaining the historic nature of the park and its surrounding area. The update included the planting to a largely California native palette with the help of the Theodore Payne Foundation.

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The update was completed in 2006, and the planting has fared well in some areas, but not so well in others (most noticeably in the native California plant demonstration garden). But Washington Park remains well used, and an experience you won’t find in the other Pasadena parks designed by Ralph Cornell.