On trees and what they say about us

Jared Farmer's book on the history of the trees that now signify "California" in the public imagination
Jared Farmer’s book on the history of the trees that now signify “California” in the public imagination

Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.

There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.

Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.

Where’s the give and take?

Four-foot-wide sidewalk with no trees along 50-foot-wide Claremont Boulevard
Four-foot-wide sidewalk with no trees along 50-foot-wide Claremont Boulevard

In our quest to add more and denser housing along commercial corridors in California’s cities, we are thoroughly short-changing both the residents of these new developments and those who walk down the sidewalks of these evolving commercial corridors. The sidewalks are staying impossibly narrow, while the roadways are staying too wide. In short, we are creating corridors of dense housing along dry creek beds of public space and along rivers of asphalt-lined roadway. Landscape in the broader sense of the term – the spaces in between buildings, the spaces that really make or break urban space – is simply not considered.

We wrote about this situation – the missing role of landscape in the housing discussion – for the Los Angeles Chapter of the APA a few months ago, and you can find that here.

There needs to be some give and take when we are asking people to give up four walls and space and a yard to move into a building of shared walls and no yard. The sidewalk and the spaces in between buildings need to be given just as much thought and care as the buildings and units themselves. But this, alas, we are simply not seeing.

Rethinking the magnolia

Two dead magnolia trees in Alhambra, California. Victims of drought and a lack of foresight.
Two dead magnolia trees in Alhambra, California. Victims of drought and a lack of foresight.

While past peak, the years-long drought in California is showing its effects in slo-mo delay, coming on in the form of many a street tree stressed to the point of just not being able to take it anymore. Nowhere can this phenomenon be seen more than in Southern Calfifornia, where one of the street trees hardest hit has been the southern magnolia / Magnolia grandiflora. A tree native to the rain-abundant American South, it probably never should have been planted in Southern California at all, where rainfall is typically a scant 12 – 15″ during a good year. But, alas, like so many consumer goods, trees come in and out of fashion, regardless of what practical considerations there may be. So in the ’50s and ’60s street upon street were planted with magnolias in places like Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, and Alhambra – all arid regions and all requiring that the magnolias be irrigated generously in order to survive and thrive. So when the watering bans then hit a few years ago and folks were told to let their lawns and parkways go brown, the trees were never ready for the suddenly parched conditions. Many became stressed, and now, some years later, many are dying. As a result, the cooling shade and outdoor-room-creating canopies will be lost, and we will be left with wide streets and excessive sunlight and heat.

A jacaranda, cactus, and yuccas growing and thriving in hot Riverside County.
A jacaranda, cactus, and yuccas growing and thriving in hot Riverside County.

While devastating for the character of so many neighborhoods and the quality of life of our cities, we need to view this loss of trees as an opportunity to rethink what we plant and how. Even before the drought and worsening global warming, LA was a dry place. This simple truism is not going to change in the foreseeable future, and thus we must start planting trees that can handle these hotter and drier conditions – and that can handle them for the long haul. All it takes is a little observation to see which trees are still pushing on and looking good. In the photo above, you can see that this jacaranda – a tree actually not considered one of the most drought tolerant – and its surrounding plants are doing just fine – more than fine – and this is in hot hot Riverside County, in a parkway space surrounded by heat-absorbing asphalt and concrete. What other trees do you see still doing well? What other trees that you haven’t seen could be invited in, to create amazing tree-lined boulevards for the 21st century? Mesquites, acacias, jacarandas, palo verdes, tristanias – and the list goes on. We cannot keep doing what we’ve always done; it’s simply not working, and we’re seeing our lack of foresight in the form of sadly dying trees and sunbaked parkways. Let’s do better this time around.

City planning shake-down


Canary Island Pines along Main Street south of Olympic Boulevard

For those who have not heard, the Los Angeles Director of City Planning, Gail Goldberg, has resigned after a four-year stint at City Hall. Goldberg entered the Department and City Hall to much fanfare and many high expectations. Now, her earlier-than-expected departure has prompted a flurry of conjecture, finger-pointing, and lament. One of her primary missions, the so-called “12 to 2 Plan,” which would have reduced the number of departments one must obtain development entitlements from from 12 to two, failed to materialize. Critics have cited this as proof of her failure to deliver; however, that anyone would think Goldberg alone – minus any real political support – would be capable of carrying out such a herculean mission is beyond us. This city made the mistake long ago of redistributing the power Planning once had over the public realm – streets, sidewalks – to a whole slew of other departments. Thus for example, street trees, those beloved elements of virtually any livable street, are not under the jurisdiction of Planning. Nor are a whole host of other elements that make up good city design. The 12 to 2 Plan in essence would have consisted of multiple departments rescinding a large portion of their power and abdicating it back to Planning, which, in the world of city government and its penchant for silo fiefdoms, would simply never happen – absent a concerted effort on the part of the Mayor and the Council. And that effort has heretofore been seemingly absent.

The story behind a near-postcard-perfect streetscape. . .

SECOND STREET BETWEEN MAIN AND LOS ANGELES STREETS

This tiny one-block stretch of verdant goodness in the heart of Downtown LA is a rare find in this city. At one time in the not-too-distant past, this street was set to be widened, the row of trees within the parkway (or, “boulevard,” if you are from Minnesota) to be removed. I am still a bit incredulous that it wasn’t widened, given the cards stacked against it. Street trees are not under the jurisdiction of LA City Planning, nor are streets and sidewalks in general. In the City’s General Plan, City Planning simply set all Los Angeles streets to desired widths, and DOT and Public Works have since then enforced these designations by requiring road widenings to match the required street widths. Any attempt at narrowing a street or not widening a road now causes quite the kerfuffle, as DOT and Public Works are simply not keen on giving up their power of enforcement.

The good news is that LA City Planning, in conjunction with the CRA, and a host of urban design and transportation consultants, have been working to revise Downtown’s street standards so that future road widenings don’t occur, and, in some instances, so that over-widened roads can be narrowed, as is the case along Grand Avenue at Olympic, where a future park might be placed.

Godspeed, narrow street.