This year, the city's elected leaders conceded what was obvious to anyone who has walked around Los Angeles: Too many sidewalks are cracked and broken, making them dangerous for the average pedestrian and nearly unusable for the disabled. A settlement approved by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council commits the city to spend $1.4 billion over the next 30 years to fix the sidewalks, and work is expected to begin in earnest early next year. But in the rush to replace the busted concrete walkways, what will happen to the trees that broke them in the first place?
It's estimated that 80% of the city's sidewalk damage was caused by trees. Developers in the last century often planted big, fast-growing trees in the public rights of way. Those species, including ficus, magnolia and ash, eventually outgrew their little patches of dirt, and their roots pushed up the surrounding sidewalks. For most of L.A.'s history, the city required property owners to fix any cracks or crevices that developed in the sidewalks outside their homes or buildings. But in the 1970s, when the trees planted 20 and 30 years earlier began to cause damage, unhappy property owners began protesting the expense. The City Council passed an ordinance in 1974 granting free repairs for sidewalks buckled by trees, but it never budgeted enough money to do the work.
Officials estimate that 40% of the 10,000 miles of sidewalk in the city is damaged and that the city pays out $4 million to $6 million a year in trip-and-fall claims. Disability rights advocates sued the city for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in April the city settled the lawsuit by agreeing to budget more than $30 million a year for repairs. But that money is not enough to fix all the sidewalks, nor does it address long-term maintenance. So the City Council is considering a policy that shifts responsibility for sidewalk care back to the property owner.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana has proposed a “fix and release” program for residential properties. The city would do the long-promised sidewalk repairs and then make homeowners responsible for any future damage. Commercial property owners, however, wouldn't get the same break. They would have two years to make the repairs themselves or face an order to do so from the city.
It's clear from the past 40 years that the city cannot or will not maintain the sidewalks, and it makes sense to give this responsibility to property owners — as most cities do. Going forward, L.A. should make the work as easy as possible, offering no-fee permits to get the work done and helping cash-strapped property owners with low-cost loans or other financial options.
What about the trees? The easiest and cheapest solution would be to chop them down, fix the sidewalks and plant some small, decorative species in the parkway. That would please some property owners who might reasonably worry that keeping or replanting a big tree would just create new sidewalk problems in the future. And it would be in line with the settlement, which puts the top priority on sidewalk safety, not preservation of the urban canopy.
But it would be shortsighted. Big trees remove pollution from the air, collect water during rain storms and create shade that not only cools nearby property, but helps reduce the heat island effect that causes paved urban areas to be hotter than open spaces. Climate change is expected to make Los Angeles a hotter, drier city and having more big, healthy trees could lessen the impact.
So far, Garcetti's office and the city's Urban Forestry Division intend to preserve as many trees as possible. When a tree does need to be cut — either because it's impossible to properly fix the sidewalk without removal or because the tree is diseased or dying — the goal is to plant two new ones. That's good, and it could help add trees to many barren neighborhoods. The city should educate residents about the benefits of having a tree adjacent to their home or business. And the city needs to be sure to plant the right size and species of trees in the appropriate spaces in order to minimize the likelihood that Los Angeles finds itself in the same position 40 years from now.
L.A. has an opportunity to fix the sidewalks and make its street infrastructure more environmentally sound. It will take money, time, planning and commitment.