Posts tagged infrastructure

The Quest To Grow Cities From Scratch: “The prospect of building cities out of materials that can grow, self-heal, and adapt to changing circumstances on their own is near the point of becoming a reality, according to some working in the field. Eben Bayer, founder of the biomaterials startup Ecovative, predicts it will happen before 2050.”

City infrastructure could turn Los Angeles into a pedestrian paradise: “If Los Angeles wants to get serious about the street safety of Angelenos, it needs to rework the walkability of its streets. Right now, streets in Los Angeles are clearly utilized with the driver in mind. For example, the majority of space on almost every street is allocated to cars, while pedestrians are confined to small slivers of sidewalk space. While this is how we are conditioned to think of streets, this does not have to be the case.”

For Urban Transit, a Hostile Budget: “The budget proposes “funding to projects with existing full funding grant agreements only.” That means Boston’s Green Line extension and the Portland-Milwaukee light rail project in Oregon would be safe, among others. But some of the most “shovel-ready projects” in the country, to use a Trump team-favored phrase, don’t have a full agreement in place, including Caltrain’s electrification project. Dozens of projects would be in limbo, among them several metros that passed major transit referenda in November, including Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Seattle. ”

I’m 35 and I love gardening. Deal with it: “Gardening is many things: beautiful, meditative, healthy, exciting, rewarding and creative. However, I often feel as if gardening is not particularly popular among my peers. It seems to come down to one thing: age. I’m 35 years old and I’m passionate about gardening.”

The Crushing Defeat of Measure S Is a Defining Moment for L.A.: “The election this week revolved, in so many ways, around development. There was Measure S, the controversial anti-development ballot measure, but also the mayor and City Council races, in which the incumbents were attacked, time and again, for allowing density in L.A. It’s no exaggeration to say the election was a referendum on development, on density, on urbanization. And density won.”

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?


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…


modern skyline of Los Angeles resulted from the termination of severe height restrictions in 1957
The practice of landscape architecture seeks to engage in proactive decision-making rather than corrective post-disastrous action. Cities vulnerable to sea level rise are adopting new planning schemes that consider potential flooding scenarios capable of displacing current housing residents, then plan accordingly to ensure future development does not take place within that zone of risk. In doing so cities reduce loss and deploy natural landscape systems and infrastructures (restored wetlands, salt marshes etc) capable of partially consuming the looming threat.

NASA_Radar generated 3d_View_of_San_Andreas_FaultHaving gotten intimate with city regulations, strict codes, and precise landscape requirements of the city of Los Angeles over the past months of practice here, I wonder if there is a city scale zoning code relevant to city planning in relation to earthquakes, and whether open space availability in relation to built-up environment should be enforced? A code that allows the city to acquire land on the basis of providing open space accessible by either foot or bike.

This space – a new typology –  is not necessarily a park. Instead, imagine a safe-marked street, an adjacent school court, a community garden, a collection of pocket open spaces, or a collective of other outdoor spaces designed for emergency situations. The area allocated for each of these sites would be calculated on the basis of being able to host the community in its direct proximity and in open air. The park would be planned according to a new set of park design standards and codes (e.g. the ratio of tree clusters/vertical elements to open space).

Think of a building emergency exit plan. Residents are trained about exits and safe destination outdoor sites to convene, while also being given a defined exit path – a number of them – precisely designed to lead people to safer spaces in case of an emergency. Street parking lots are not always the best refuge, but as landscape typology, they can act as a post-crisis refuge, an emergency center, and a first aid node, etc.

Now think of a neighborhood-scale emergency exit plan. This is definitely an over ambitious and impractical proposal that probably ends up with more open space than livable space. Nevertheless, as a resident of Los Angeles for a few months now concerned with the forthcoming threat of an upcoming historical earthquake, one wonders about the resiliency of our living environment and infrastructure, and whether building codes have served to reduce the risk and loss sufficiently in any significant way.

We have packed our neighborhoods, developed every parcel of land, and also have built up towers arguably disproportionate with the street/neighborhood’s own capacity. This idea of communal safety areas on the other hand is a conceptual resilient-focused approach to the planning and design of safe open space systems across the city scales. After all, parks are not only a matter of recreation.


This is a visual exploration of the constructed landscape of Los Angeles from the top – as it spans vastly across the natural landscape – represented through an overlay of roads and topography.

Sublime in its expanse, the Los Angeles urban landscape expands uninterrupted and flat – quite flat – until it hits a foothill, wraps around it, and climbs up like a reverse tributary. The urban landscape cuts, then exits, finally resting on flat plains again. Planned, carved, delineated, clustered, scattered, and at all times well-networked…a vast land of infrastuctural ecological systems. From an aerial perspective it’s quite beautiful in its entirety, your sense of time, distance, scale, and space distorted by its enormity.






Only in LA.

It’s something we mutter when we sit in traffic.  Admit it. In my case, I marvel that my former commute from Silver Lake to Pasadena is actually faster than to Downtown LA, even though it’s twice as far. In LA, time and distance are mutually exclusive. Angelenos don’t describe our trips in miles, only in minutes. I’m sure you’ve had a conversation eerily close to this one with your out-of-town friend:

“Hey, I’m coming from the airport. I’ll meet you at the restaurant. How far is it?”
“It’s 45 minutes.”
“Huh? Isn’t it only about 10 miles away?”
“Yeah. 45 minutes.”

Only in LA.


At least we don’t have the worst traffic in America this year. The crown goes to Washington, DC even though it had to take “the crown” from us in 2014. It’s like a traffic equivalent of the Lakers and 76ers seasons this year.

My ranting points out the obvious: Los Angeles traffic is bad, and has been bad for a half century. We know it. California knows it. America knows it. The world knows it.

In some perverse way, Southern Californians enjoy the notoriety. Like Chicago Cubs fans sticking with a hometown team that hasn’t won a championship in over 100 years, Angelenos take a certain amount of self-flagellating pride in our commuter’s misery. A shared misery is still shared: traveling side-by-side in our shiny metal shells, 10 feet apart, creeping along at 2 miles an hour on the 405. Except…

…in 2008 we collectively snapped like Michael Douglas’s character in the ultimate “I can’t take this anymore” movie, “Falling Down“. We decided that a massive transportation bill called Measure R was needed to help solve our collective woes. This $30 billion measure was a comprehensive measure to fund widening the worst bottlenecks on our freeways AND provide alternate transit options – namely adding rail. We achieved the required 2/3 vote to implement this new sales tax.

Measure R was a watershed moment for a couple of reasons: 1) we voted by a super majority to tax ourselves. I think this bares repeating. Almost 70% of us voted to TAX OURSELVES! You understand that every time a person utters that phrase a Tea Party member’s head explodes somewhere. 2) Things must have been terrible, horrible, no good and very bad for us to agree to tax ourselves. And it was. LA City Council members had started to instruct their staff not to book meetings after 2pm on the Westside because they could never get back home at a reasonable hour. Yikes.


Consequently, we have embarked on a great adventure of widening freeways, laying down rail, and debating whether we are spending our hard-earned money wisely. As the County readies “Measure R2”, the conversation is beginning to heat up, as illustrated by a recent LA Times front page article about diminishing transit ridership in LA County (followed by a counterargument for boosting ridership).

Amongst all of the rhetoric, something will get lost: the core reason why we taxed ourselves in the first place. We cannot get around this city and county efficiently. Whatever traffic vision and solutions mid-century transportation planners had for our region, it did not work. The fact is that by only accommodating for car mobility over the past 40 years, we’ve left our city population’s mobility life support. We are one freak storm away from complete gridlock.

Our freeways and city street system are maxed out. There is no more practical widening left to do. The 405 widening project cost us $1.1 billion and was back to business as usual almost immediately after it opened last year.

With Southern California projected to increase in population by 10 million people by 2050, we must continue to build infrastructure that provides us with transportation options that include all modes – rail, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and, yes, automobiles. With our innate and ingrained car culture, we should expect this change in the transportation paradigm to be revolutionary, painful, and costly. However, like the hundreds of movies and television shows shot here every year, the hero will undergo trials and tribulations only to realize the folly of her ways and will rise to the occasion to complete the happy ending.

Only in LA.