Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Where the Sidewalks End: 4 Recommendations for Greener, Healthier, and More Walkable Streets in LA

Note: This guest blog post was written by Jenny Binstock, Policy Coordinator for TreePeople.

Look around Los Angeles and you’re bound to see crowds of people — youth, individuals with disabilities, and older adults — standing in the sun waiting patiently for a bus. Or you might see an older adult pushing a walker across craggy sidewalks, navigating around bulging tree roots. Or worse, you might see communities already disproportionately impacted by extreme heat, poor air quality, and poor quality sidewalks with very little shade. But, it no longer has to be this way…

In Los Angeles, we have an unprecedented and extraordinary opportunity to meaningfully create safe, walkable communities while investing meaningfully in street trees to save lives and protect public health. The sidewalk repair program spurred by the Willits settlement in the City of Los Angeles is addressing the urgent and long overdue need to ensure safe sidewalk and pedestrian access for all Angelenos. This investment of $30 million annually and $1.3 billion over the 30 year life of the program represents a tremendous opportunity to strategically invest resources to achieve public health, safety, sustainability and resilience goals in our city.

We have the opportunity to leverage upwards of $20+ billion from local funding sources that is expected to be invested in water supply and quality improvements, flood protection, and transportation that will take place along the very same streets, sidewalks and parkways of neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Where We Are Today

The City Sidewalk Repair Program, approved by the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor in March of 2016, lays out an ambitious plan for expediting sidewalk repairs while directing City departments to investigate a range of opportunities for improving standard practices and leveraging infrastructure enhancement opportunities. This includes, but is not limited to, directives to: protect street trees and advance City urban forestry practices; explore alternative and sustainable designs, materials, and manufacturers; and investigate low-cost and ADA-compliant green infrastructure standard plans (and potential funding sources) to capture stormwater.

As of September 2016, the City is rapidly advancing deployment of sidewalk repair program components to target high-need repair areas, as mandated to do. However, there’s a huge problem: the City has yet to conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to understand the full impacts of the sidewalk repair program, and we still don’t have critical report-backs from various City departments on what standards we’re going to use to protect street trees from removal whenever possible. This means that we are already starting to rip up our sidewalks without any sense of how this program will impact our City’s street trees, or how we’ll mitigate for the damages — this is unacceptable, and will have long-standing consequences for Angelenos if we don’t do things right.

Protective mature tree canopy can take decades to replace, and given the pressures already placed on our street tree population by drought and pests, unnecessary removal and/or inadequate replacement of canopy could result in permanent loss of the critical protections trees provide. Furthermore, an unintended consequence of rapid sidewalk repair program deployment is that many of the repairs, investments, and construction done in the early years of the program face a high chance of being undone, or redone, as other programs are implemented.


  1. Public Outreach and Education. Key stakeholders, including people with disabilities, low-tree canopy communities, City agencies and elected officials, neighborhood leaders and the people of Los Angeles, MUST understand the public health, environmental, equity, and fiscal impacts of the sidewalk program. We need greater transparency and appropriate communication forums to provide the public with opportunities to input on how the City prioritizes investments in our infrastructure.
  2. Protect against immediate threats to street trees. It’s critical to jumpstart repairs to improve accessibility for Angelenos. However, it is possible that we could see 1,000 trees removed in just the first year of the program so it’s imperative that the City develops a thorough understanding of the heat and health impacts to communities if urban canopy is removed. We also need ironclad strategies for avoiding tree removals whenever possible and ensuring adequate levels of canopy are maintained. A critical first step is ensuring that the City commits to funding and caring for replacement trees that the sidewalk program removes — you can visit our website to take an important action on this TODAY by writing your Councilmember!
  3. Update and re-imagine urban forestry standards and practices. The sidewalk repair program provides a unique opportunity, given its impact on street trees, to re-imagine a robust, visionary urban forestry program that adequately protects LA’s urban forest for 30 years of sidewalk repairs and beyond. Key to this is updating standards around planting specifications, proper tree species selection, replacement ratios, pruning and watering cycles, and other best practices to reflect the reality of the health of our City’s current street tree population, as well as future drought and climate change scenarios. We also need a citywide framework that prioritizes a data-driven, needs-based approach for identifying high priority planting areas while providing communities in these areas with appropriate resources for maintaining healthy trees. To achieve all of this, the City’s Urban Forestry Division must be adequately resourced to maintain our current canopy levels and ensure we’re planting today for the canopy we’ll need tomorrow.
  4. Leverage multi-benefit opportunities through coordinated planning. Given the contributions trees make to public health, flood control, water quality and supply, and energy savings, the sidewalk program should be leveraged to bring together a range of City stakeholders to advance upgrades to our infrastructure. Spending time now, at the program’s inception, to collectively and meaningfully identify collaborative funding and planning opportunities around infrastructure investments can help ensure we avoid canopy loss and missed opportunities for enhancing public health and livability investments in public rights-of-way.

The City of LA is truly at a crossroads (streets pun=INTENDED). Are we going to join other cities around the US and the world that have recognized the critical life-saving and environmental benefits that a thriving urban forest provides its residents, and make worthy investments in trees as essential City infrastructure? Or will we fail our communities by leaving them vulnerable to heat-related health impacts because we were unable to see the value of our urban forest as we craft new sidewalk repair policies and programs? It’s up to us as a community to make sure our voices are heard loud and clear on this one — make sure yours counts by taking action on this today.

Contact Jenny Binstock, Policy Coordinator at TreePeople, at jbinstock@treepeople.org to get more information or to get involved.

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