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Imagine if you could call for your car to drop you off at work and then come pick you back up later.  While in the car you could do work, watch the news on the way home, or perhaps jump onto one last conference call without having to worry about driving at the same time.  The car could pick up the kids along the way, then drop you off at the grocery store before continuing on its way home to drop them off, then return to pick you up.  The car would be able to do this automatically, without a driver.

Autonomous vehicles are coming sooner than you think, as noted by Patrick Sisson’s fantastic article over at Curbed summarizing the state of the autonomous vehicles – a must read.

A couple of years ago, I had a heated discussion at a sustainability networking meeting about the California High Speed Rail and whether it would be obsolete as soon as it opened with the eventual rise of driverless cars. At the time the promise of driver-less technologies seemed too far-fetched  – well beyond the norm of what an average person would tolerate. Besides, Southern California is the ultimate symbol of car culture, something anyone sitting in an outdoor cafe in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, or even Brand Boulevard in Glendale can attest.

Shiny, modified cars with real estate-worthy price tags roar past onlookers, each a symbol of success and power.  But after reading the Curbed post, I have to admit, the promise and ease of autonomous vehicles may actually convince Angelenos to give up driving.

Self-driving cars would be a revolution for Los Angeles. Driverless vehicles would not only change in the way Angelenos think about transportation – it would change the way we live.  Here’s how:

Reduced traffic:  I’ve said it before – we have the worst traffic in the country. Autonomous vehicles would be able to drive much closer together at a steady speed, reducing stop-and-go traffic.  Automated cars would essentially become a single entity moving throughout the city, picking the best routes and lining up orderly to get to each of their destinations.

Thanksgiving traffic on the 405 that went viral.

A reduction in pollution: Moving vehicles produce less air pollution. Coupled with electric (you could send your car to a charger when you don’t need it!) or hybrid technology, emissions due to vehicles could become virtually non-existent.

Economic relief: The Federal poverty-level income for a family of four is $24,600/year.  An average car costs about $8,000 to own, including repairs, insurance, and fuel. This means a family at the poverty level might be paying as much as 1/3 of their income for their car. Los Angeles is designed to necessitate at least one car for nearly every household of its citizenry.  Autonomous vehicles can be easily shared and rented, vastly reducing the ownership cost for low income households.

Reduce fatalities: There were 32,675 car-related deaths in the United States in 2015. This is about the same as the entire student body at the University of California, Davis, my alma mater. Driverless cars have the possibility of being much safer by taking control of the vehicle away from flawed human decision making.

Promote urban renewal: Think about how much space we allocate for our cars.  We have the 2 car garage at home, plus the parking space for where we work.  We have parking spaces at every store, school, and business we frequent. Our streets and freeways are wide. If we sent our car home after it dropped us off at work, we would not need the parking space at work.  We would not need as many lanes on our streets because the cars would take up space more efficiently. Suddenly, high density housing wouldn’t seem so bad. Pedestrians and bikes would have more room. Parking garages in our economic centers could be torn down for living spaces, new businesses, or for communal open spaces. Think about how different our cities would look and feel freed from the shackles of car parking.

Reduce the Heat Island Effect: Less road and more open space means a cooler city. All of the asphalt and concrete we dedicate to driving and parking our cars is responsible for our cities heating up.

Provides safe transportation for an aging population: In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to reach 83.7 million – almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012.  I don’t know about you, but my mom really should have stopped driving at 70 instead of 82.  However, with a desire to remain active, what choice did she really have? Maybe my wife and I will have a choice of buying or using an autonomous vehicle in the twilight of our lives.

As we densify here in Los Angeles, every argument in every community meeting about development will begin and end with conversations about parking and traffic. We will spend our time and money debating, voting, and pointing fingers at each other over car transportation. However, I believe eventually we’ll need to admit to an addiction to the automobile. We spend too much money on cars and the infrastructure supporting its use.

The promise of an autonomous vehicle society will shift the paradigm away from this addiction and move us toward a more sustainable future.  I say we try it.

This Biodegradable Paper Donut Could Let Us Reforest The Planet: “Called the Cocoon, this simple invention protects seedlings from harsh arid climates and reduces the amount of water they need to thrive–and boosts their survival rate by as much as 80%.”

A Green Infrastructure Guidebook for City Planners: “This new online resource developed by the Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the American Planning Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, National Association of Counties, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers showcases how communities across the country have successfully mitigated the effects of extreme weather by relying on green infrastructure.”

My Garden Answers: Ever asked, “I wonder which plant this is?” With over 1,250,000+ Users and counting, Garden Answers App is the most trusted gardening app available for the iOS / Android and will help identification, help with pest problems, and offer expert advice in growing and tending plants.

L.A.’s Tap Water Is Officially As Clean As Bottled Water: “Save your money. Your water coming out of your tap is just as good or if not, better” than bottled water or water treated with various devices. What’s more, at half a cent per gallon, it’s a whole lot cheaper, too.

To Build a Great Public Space, You Need More Than Good Design: “A pitfall is thinking that design can solve all the problems. As architects and planners, we like to think that our skills cover a lot of different disciplines, and that’s true. But design alone is never going to be enough.”

My trusty ’07 Toyota Prius, circa 128,000 miles old. Photos by Gary Lai.

I still remember my wife’s family’s 4th of July celebration even after nearly a decade later. I had just moved to Los Angeles and and was the proud new owner of a 2007 Prius. I was harboring high expectations about showing my wife’s family the car. We had been married for almost 15 years and I was already acquainted with my wife’s family ritual revolving around any new car. Family would gather around the shiny new vehicle to “ooh” and “ahh” appreciably in harmony. Just a year before I witnessed this tradition first hand when one of my wife’s cousins bought a new Subaru WRX.

Remembering this ritual I attempted to be helpful, parking close to the garage so that no one would need to venture too far away from the house during the summer heat to check out my new car. I walked in, set down our potluck dish, then proudly announced my $28k purchase.

The sound of crickets was deafening.

Needless to say, I could have parked in San Bernardino. No one even bothered to come out to look at the car at any time during our visit.

That was then, this is now. The boring, pedestrian, and weird Toyota hybrid is now the most common car across the city. My wife and I recently counted 97 Priuses pass by in just a span of an hour and a half while seated at a Silver Lake restaurant outdoor patio.

Hollywood has even taken notice. There a scene in La La Land when Emma Stone’s Prius keys are surrounded by scores of others on the valet board. Automobile anonymity.

Angelenos need to face reality: the era of the Mustang or the Mercedes SL500 convertible is over. The Prius is the car that most represents Los Angeles today.

A snapshot recently from Astro’s Coffee Shop in Silver Lake. From left to right:  Honda Insight, 2 Toyota Priuses (Third Generation), Chevy Volt.

Don’t kill the messenger! I’m a “car guy” too. I spent a sizable time during my 80s era youth salivating over Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I wasted most of my young adulthood tightly griping a controller in front of a TV playing Gran Turismo on the Playstation. I owned an illegally modified “rice rocket”, an Acura Integra, for 10 years. I even had the honor of driving on the track at Laguna Seca behind the wheel of a 2004 Dodge Viper. However, when it came down to buying a car for driving in Los Angeles a decade ago, I chose a Prius.

Why? Because…

1. …I am a Landscape Architect on a limited budget who lives in a very expensive city.
2. …our traffic is the absolute worst in the country. LA commuters waste an average of 81 hours a year in traffic compared with the next worst cities, Washington DC and San Francisco, tied at 75 hours of annual traffic purgatory.
3. …owning a BMW M5 capable of 0-60mph in under 4 seconds is meaningless in a city where you rarely afforded the opportunity to “speed” over 35mph.
4. …in a city with the worst air quality in the country, I drive a car that emits a fraction of carbon versus a gas-only internal combustion engine vehicle. I’m not the only one that made this decision. Los Angeles is now the leading city in sales of alternate fuel cars: Teslas, Volts, Leafs, and of course, new generation of Priuses.

Angelenos, I understand anyone’s apprehension and concern. Los Angeles invented car culture and its difficult to fathom Los Angeles choosing something so pedestrian as symbolic of our auto-loving city. Take heart, in the near future there will still be sexy, exotic fire-breathing sports machines rolling into parking lots along Sunset Blvd. or Beverly Blvd. for valets to lustily salivate over. For the foreseeable future certain cars will retain their status symbol.

But change is visible just over the hill of the proverbial 405 freeway: Millennials have stopped driving and are ride sharing; Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers have decided saving money and protecting the quality of air is more important than “status”, especially while stuck for hours every day in traffic.

The emergence of the Prius shows that we have, indeed, turned the corner on transportation.

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?

filled-tree-grate

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…