There was nothing brilliantly new about my friends and me carrying a massive city-scale rooftop greening project back in 2012 in Beirut City, Lebanon. There was nothing particularly new either about the Million Tree Project organized across New York City, Los Angeles, and Shanghai. One thing is for sure: as a city-wide program – in any city – urban tree initiatives require riding the bumpy tracks, sinkholes, and flat tires of politics. Looking back at urban tree initiatives across New York City, Beirut, and Los Angeles, it is just striking how the political and climatic story shaped the nature, objective, methodology, execution, and the manifestation of these projects.
NYC already celebrated the planting of its millionth tree. What started off as an over-ambitious dream not only completed its goals, but also activated over 25 city agencies, giving birth to some 131 PlaNYC initiatives, all aimed at equally enhancing the urban environment across the city’s five boroughs. The vision expanded to address housing, parks, brownfields, solid waste, and climate change as part of its social and economic development endeavors in response to a projected increase in population.
220,000 of the million planted trees were street trees, bringing the total number of trees in NYC’s urban forest to 5.2 million, comprised of 168 different species! New Yorkers took a step further and actually mapped and spatialized the urban forest by species: London plane tree, silver maple, willow oak, redwoods, pears, dogwoods, and many more.
The action is still on, both on the private and public fronts. The project initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 hit milestones by 2009, expanding further in the years to follow. The project claims the urban forest of NYC removes 2,200 tons of air pollutants per year, provides $27 million a year in energy savings, and retains the equivalent of $35 milllion in water beneficial to the city.
On the other side of the nation, Los Angeles kicked off its tree planting initiative a year before NYC during the tenure of then mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. Since then 407,000 trees have been planted, with a focus upon planting in tree-deprived areas of the city. The national average of city tree canopy cover is 27%; in 2006 Los Angeles was at 21% coverage. But what does that mean for a city like Los Angeles? How is it fair to compare and contrast the same initiative across different biomes, political contexts, urban fabrics, and territorial scales?
The reason Los Angeles stands way behind the aspired million tree count is partially political. Though the program is part of the city government, it is still subject to delay when placed in the track of a new Mayor, one who brings with them a whole new agenda for the well-being of Los Angeles citizenry. Furthermore, it is important to remember Los Angeles has experienced historical climatic changes that really renders the question of whether greening and tree-planting is a matter of priority, and one ultimately determined by the projected benefits to the city on the longer term.
A study conducted in 2011 showed that there would have been the potential to plant around 2.5 million trees, but only 1.3 million of the proposed sites seemed realistic for planting. Of the projected benefits, the study showed that 81% of the total benefits were aesthetic, 4% air quality improvement, and less than 1% for atmospheric carbon reduction.
As Los Angeles continues to face a slew of problems – homelessness, a serious drought crisis, an almost obsolete water and transportation infrastructure, all the while weathering the driest summers and wettest winters – the city finds itself in need of incremental, efficient, responsive, and decentralized solutions which can be effective across a city-wide scale. Los Angeles is in need of applications that are as aggressive in their impact as they are brilliant in their simplicity, capable of taking root in a city whose needs are unique to its landscape, population, and climate.