Nearly seven years ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched a program to plant 1 million trees. Since then, the city has planted more than 400,000 trees — in fact, 407,000 and counting.
So is the program a success or a failure? As Villaraigosa prepares to leave office, should we be thrilled to have 400,000 trees we otherwise wouldn't have had, or should we be disappointed that his campaign promise has gone less than half fulfilled? And here's another question: Should we care? The tree-planting program has been derided as a goofball idea often enough that even on the city's official Million Trees L.A. website, under "Frequently Asked Questions" is this one: "Why are you doing this when it seems there are more important things for the city to be doing?"
In fact, there are plenty of good reasons for a planting program — the energy conservation that results from tree shade, beautification, storm water capture, even stress reduction. (Would you rather look out your window at trees or just buildings?) And Los Angeles could use more trees. Overall, the city's tree canopy cover was 21% in 2006. The national average is 27%.
Million Trees L.A., which is funded not by the city's general budget but by an assortment of grants, does plantings on public and commercial property as well as at schools and homes. Any city resident can get up to seven trees free. And Villaraigosa's program has particularly focused on tree-deprived areas like South Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley.
There was nothing brilliantly new about the idea of planting trees. The Department of Water and Power had already launched a campaign in 2002 to plant about 200,000 trees. And several major metropolitan areas — including L.A. — established ambitious tree-planting programs at roughly the same time. Most gave themselves a decade or two to plant a million or more trees, according to a 2010 study of the effort.
That said, the mayor's program has greatly outpaced the DWP's. The utility has planted only 43,000 trees in about five years.
The Million Trees L.A. program is now part of city government, so it will survive beyond Villaraigosa's tenure. That's good. It should continue, but with less emphasis on some alpine-high number and more on raising awareness about what an owner must do to maintain a tree. (Already the city gives tree adopters a primer on care; the mortality rate for the newly planted trees is 4% to 5%, half the national average.)
In the end, the mayor may have planted only half of what he promised, but it's fair to see this urban forest as half-full, not half-empty.