You may have seen an item on local news broadcasts back in August where a group of activists staged a protest to prevent the removal of 18 mature trees on the 1200 block of Cherokee in Hollywood. The City had determined that the trees needed to be removed as part of its Sidewalk Repair Program (SRP). Lawyers working with UN4LA and the Eastside Nature Alliance asked a judge to grant a temporary restraining order to prevent the removal of the trees. By the time the hearing was held, the City had offered to hold off on cutting the trees down, and so the restraining order was denied.
You may be wondering what all the fuss was about. If you've been living in LA for any length of time, you know that a lot of our sidewalks are in bad shape, and you may be asking why UN4LA would stand in the way of getting them fixed. Even if you care about trees, you may be thinking that broken sidewalks are a safety risk, and that they create barriers for the disabled, and that we need to resolve the problem even if it means losing a few trees.
You'll be glad to know that UN4LA agrees with you on almost all those points. LA's sidewalks are in terrible shape. They do create safety risks. They do constitute a barrIer for the disabled. We do need to fix them.
The problem for us arises when we talk about cutting down trees. But let's do a little review....
LA's sidewalks have been getting worse for years, and in 2010 a class action lawsuit was filed, Willits vs. City of Los Angeles, to force the City to fix them. A settlement was finalized in 2016 which required the City to spend about $1.3 billion over 30 years to address a number of issues related to pedestrian access. There were a number of projects included in the agreement, and one of the priorities was fixing sidewalks that had been damaged by tree roots.
The City knew that repairing sidewalks could mean cutting down a lot of trees, and so in 2017 it started the process of preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The idea was to look at the impacts of potentially removing thousands of trees, to offer possible alternatives to removal, and when removal was necessary to evaluate the best approach to replacement.
The problem is, the City hasn't even released a Draft EIR, but they've already started cutting down trees.
That's why UN4LA got involved. Sidewalks are a crucial component of our infrastructure. And so are trees. If you think fixing our sidewalks is more important than maintaining our urban forest, think again. We'd like to point out that City officials have repeatedly emphasized the many benefits that trees offer, including lowering the temperature, capturing stormwater, and keeping our air clean. As LA's climate grows hotter and drier, we're really going to need a robust urban forest to keep this city livable.
You see, this is a lot more serious than cutting down a few trees here and a few trees there. Our urban forest is already declining rapidly. A 2017 study from USC showed that from 2000 to 2009 urban green cover declined 14% to 55% in cities across the LA basin, primarily because of the growing size of single family homes. But that's only the beginning. Researchers with the US Forest Service say insect infestations could kill millions of trees throughout Southern California.
So we need every tree we can get, including the ones that are being removed under the SRP. The City has argued that there's no net loss because they plant replacement trees at a ratio of at least 2 to 1, but there's no scientific basis for this formula. Some believe that the City arrived at this number because they see about half of newly planted trees die off, but as our winters get drier and temperatures continue to rise it's going to become more challenging for trees to survive. And since it's usually not feasible to plant 20 trees on a parkway that originally held 10, there's a good chance that replacement trees won't end up in the same neighborhood.
But let's get back to the sidewalks. Don't we need to have safe sidewalks, especially for the elderly and disabled? For a senior citizen a relatively minor fall can cause serious problems. But there are also very real health risks related to the loss of our urban forest. Anybody who spent this past summer in LA knows that we went through a nasty heat wave, with temperatures reaching record highs in some places. According to the Centers for Disease Control , extreme heat in US cities is responsible for more deaths than all other weather events combined. And as air quality in Southern California gets worse, we'll see more more children and seniors suffering from respiratory problems. Maintaining a healthy tree canopy will help keep our air quality from degrading further.
So while we need to fix our sidewalks, we also need to preserve our urban forest. UN4LA wants the City to do both these things. That's why we believe it's necessary for the City to complete the EIR before doing any more tree removals. We need to have a well-thought-out plan in place to minimize the impacts of the SRP. This will cause some delay, but in the long run the results will be worth it.
This isn't an either/or situation. We need to have safe sidewalks and a healthy urban forest. We can have both. Let's take the time to do the job right.