Strip a street of its trees — those breathing sentinels powered by mere water, air and dirt –– and you rip the very soul from a neighborhood. Bleak and barren, a sun-baked block turns desolate without its oxygen-rich canopy.
The good news: greening your street or yard is free and easy — and now is the optimal planting season.
For its part, Los Angeles is providing trees for parkways, yards, schools and businesses free to city residents. “If you want a street tree in front of your house, all you have to do is sign up and one will appear in a few months; it couldn’t be much easier,” said Elizabeth Skrzat, executive director of City Plants, a public-private partnership funded by the L.A. Department of Water and Power, grants and corporations.
Other cities offer similar tree-planting programs — Long Beach was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response to its offer of free fruit trees to its city residents — so check to see if your municipality offers something similar. There are also tree-planting organizations, such as TreePeople, that help provide free trees to green neighborhoods.
The effort is desperately needed. A U.S. Forest Service survey predicts that 38% of Southern California's 71 million urban trees could perish from invasive pests, a condition worsened by extreme heat and drought.
Los Angeles’ urban forest — it’s one of the world’s largest — is the city’s premier radiation defense system, shielding people and buildings from growing solar bombardment, as well as steep energy costs. The city’s 700,000 street trees can literally help save lives with the shade they give us: among all national weather events, extreme heat fatalities are often the highest.
Advocates say trees are also an environmental justice issue. A 2008 study by the U.S. Forest Service found that the city’s poorest areas can have bare canopies –– as low as 5% coverage, and wealthier neighborhoods have the highest, up to 37%. Those emerald-rich sunshades are proven to trigger lower incidence of asthma, hypertension, diabetes and obesity — among myriad other benefits, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Health & Place about the multiple health benefits of an urban tree canopy.
Given that the dynamos are seriously valuable (they also green property values), Los Angeles recently called for a “Tree Summit” of experts and advocates to recommend proposals to protect and enhance our urban forest.
Residents can join that effort: grab a few neighbors, get organized and welcome some towering pines (give them a few decades) among other species as your neighborhood’s shadiest new friends.
Here’s how it works for city of Los Angeles residents: City Plants, working with partners including TreePeople, works to site, permit, purchase and plant the street trees. (Click the “get free trees” link at cityplants.org to order a tree.)
Within a few months, you’ll receive a door hanger with City Plants’ decision to plant — or not to plant, based on an inspection. (A parkway is sometimes too narrow or it might be covered with cement, bricks or pavers; adjacent utilities can also scuttle a planting.)
Your street trees — there may be room for more than one — will be planted within 2-to-6 months after an approved request –– which includes your promise to water the trees for five years, a period that is crucial for survival.
On planting day, residents receive another door hanger that notes the species (chosen by the city from City Plants’ list of 60 climate-appropriate varieties), watering instructions and a link to tree care videos.
The process includes care tips and a planting plan to help maximize energy savings. You can also choose a yard tree from 30 species: from a colorful crape myrtle that grows 25 feet high to a deodar cedar that soars 80 feet.
The process of greening an entire street or neighborhood is similar to requesting a tree that fronts your home –– except you’ll need to do some door knocking to get neighbors and possibly property owners and managers or an HOA board to agree to the plantings and “commitment to water” as well.
A unique plan to keep trees alive: Give them a name
Planting a tree on a Southland street is just the start toward a greener community.
After all, street trees have a tough life. They grow along narrow strips of compacted soil –– battered by pollution, vandals, gophers and yes, dog pee. About one in 10 perishes during its first year.
TreePeople’s Citizen Forester program boosts survival rates by regarding trees as bona fide members of a community.
Each tree is named, helping to further attach personal meaning, investment and ownership –– a TreePeople tradition that dates to its founding in 1973; trees are often named after deceased loved ones or pets.
The organization holds free half-day Citizen Forester workshops every few months where participants learn how to organize a neighborhood “green team” for street and park plantings held anywhere in L.A. county. (TreePeople’s program differs a bit from City Plants in one key aspect: Residents do the physical labor.)
“People were so excited –– every time I was out in the neighborhood they would ask, ‘When are the trees coming?’” said Chiara Munzi, 18, a trained Citizen Forester who last year organized a planting of 18 trees along a four-block stretch in Van Nuys.
That laborious process involved a 50-member crew of neighbors and other volunteers. Water and mulching stations were set up, holes were dug, and trees were staked and tied; neighbors and businesses donated snacks. Moreover, former block strangers bonded over the trees –– something vital and green to collectively look after.
Joined by her mother and two siblings, Munzi has grander ambitions –– the family plans to green their surrounding square mile of residential development.
“Everyone now looks at the trees, noticing how they grow: new branches, new leaves,” said Munzi. “We feel like we started something that will just keep going –– for generations.”
Arbor Day celebration
Want to help? You can volunteer to plant 180 trees around the Van Nuys Rec Center during the event, which includes a resource fair with food and music. Los Angeles City residents can also pick up a free yard tree.
When: 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 9
Where: Van Nuys Recreation Center, 14301 Vanowen St.