Los Angeles, fix the sidewalks but save the trees

Los Angeles must preserve its mature trees while fixing its broken sidewalks

After years of neglect, Los Angeles is about to begin a nearly $1.4-billion effort to repair miles of cracked and busted sidewalks. The big question is what the city will do with the trees that caused the damage in the first place? Can Los Angeles keep its big trees and have smooth sidewalks?

Most of the city’s sidewalks were broken by trees and tree roots. When Los Angeles was built, developers planted large fast-growing species, like the American Sweetgum, Evergreen Ash and Southern Magnolia, without considering or preparing for the fact that these giant trees would eventually become too large for their little square of dirt next the sidewalk.

But among the biggest, hardiest and gnarliest trees planted was the Indian Laurel Fig tree -- also known as the ficus. It’s no wonder these trees were so popular in Southern California and planted throughout most of the region’s developments. They are lovely. With dark green leaves and a dense canopy, they’re like a shade umbrella over the hot city street. But their giant trunks and raised roots busted or simply grew over concrete barriers like octopus tentacles. (The photo on this NextCity blog post is amazing.) 

Ficus and other large trees don’t have to be sidewalk menaces. With space, regular maintenance and root pruning they can be manageable street trees. And they have the benefit of providing shade and greater absorption of storm water, which is especially important as L.A. tries to replenish its groundwater and reduce the amount of polluted runoff that ends up in the Santa Monica Bay.

But here’s the problem -- L.A. doesn’t do preventative maintenance on its trees. The city never funded or developed a comprehensive tree care system. And when the mayor and City Council took responsibility in the 1970s for repairing sidewalks damaged by street trees, the city never adequately funded that program. As a result, the number of overgrown trees and broken sidewalks became so large that disabled residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the city for violating their right to use the public pathways.

Under the settlement announced this week, L.A. will spend more than $30 million a year to fix the sidewalks. But the agreement is narrowly focused on ensuring that people can use the sidewalks. In fact, the settlement makes clear that if the choice is between accessibility and keeping the tree, accessibility wins and the tree comes down.

Also, when a sidewalk is repaired to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the city is responsible for ensuring the walkway is maintained in perpetuity. So, there may be an incentive for the city to cut down those high-maintenance ficus or other big trees and plant something that is more easily contained.

That would be a mistake. Los Angeles needs mature trees and a dense canopy now more than ever. Large trees can mitigate the impacts of climate change -- providing shade and reducing the “heat island effect” of hotter air in paved areas. Mature trees have deep roots and can live with less frequent watering during the drought.

There are ways to fix the sidewalks without removing big trees, but those options can be more complicated or cost more upfront. The sidewalk can be rebuilt to swerve around the tree trunk. Some cities have even built elevated walkways over trees roots, according to the nonprofit TreePeople, which has pushed the city to expand and protect the urban forest.

During the settlement announcement this week, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would direct staff to develop a comprehensive tree replacement plan to ensure the sidewalk settlement doesn’t reduce the city’s tree canopy. Certainly, some trees will need to be removed for sidewalk repairs. But the goal should be tree protection, not just tree replacement.

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan

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