Tree People

A Los Angeles nonprofit is showing that citizens can cool their neighborhoods and reduce the emissions responsible for global climate change
Citizen foresters in Los Angeles are cooling and greening their city. Photo by Doug Huyn

 Global warming creates some special hardships in cities. Those in cities who can't afford air conditioning - especially the elderly or people with limited mobility - have nowhere to hide from stifling hot weather. Plus, soaring summer temperatures climb even higher in urban areas where pavement and roofs trap heat. In the 15 largest cities in the US, 1,500 people die every summer from heat-related causes.

Experts refer to the steamier weather in cities as the "heat island effect." Temperatures in Los Angeles and its suburbs can be anywhere from 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than those in surrounding rural areas. Naturally, global warming intensifies the heat island effect and vice versa. In the 1930s, L.A. was both a booming industrial center and an area covered with verdant, irrigated orchards. The high temperature in the summer of 1934 was 97. As the city metamorphosed into the sprawling concrete jungle it is today, the thermometer steadily rose. In the 1990s, the high temperature in the summer reached 105 and is still climbing.

Healing the Earth

It may be difficult to imagine that individuals can do anything to counter the heating of the planet. However, TreePeople, ( a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, is showing citizens that they can cool their neighborhoods and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees and increasing the city's green space.

In 1973 - before most people had even thought about climate change - founder Andy Lipkis went camping in the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles. While he was there, he learned that the trees in the area were dying because smog from L.A. was drifting up and choking them. Lipkis was just 15 years old, but his age didn't stop him from taking action. He organized fellow campers, who tore up a large parking lot in the San Bernardinos and planted 8,000 trees to replace those that had died. That event marked the birth of TreePeople, and Lipkis has remained the president and, some say, the heart of the organization to this day.

"Trees are like acupuncture needles," says Lipkis. "They help heal the Earth."

Strategic planting of trees can reduce demand for fossil fuels, says TreePeople spokesperson Leslie Mylius: "When I plant a tree next to my house, it will naturally shade and cool my house and reduce the need for my air conditioning to run on high all the time." The Heat Island Group, a team of government-sponsored scientists who develop solutions to the heat island effect, says that on warm afternoons, the demand for electricity in L.A. rises nearly 2 percent for every degree Fahrenheit the daily maximum temperature rises. This increased power costs Los Angeles citizens about $100,000 per hour, or about $100 million per year. Planting trees saves energy and money. It also reduces the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate electricity, improving air quality.

Even a relatively small increase in the area devoted to trees and green space in L.A. could return the city's temperatures to close to the levels of the 1930s. Models developed by the Heat Island Group for the Los Angeles basin show that summertime high temperatures could be significantly reduced through increased plantings coupled with lighter colored roofs and pavement.

Citizen forestry

For all these reasons, planting trees is Lipkis' passion. In 1998 alone, TreePeople mobilized and trained over 700 volunteers to care for 1,800 trees on Los Angeles school campuses and neighborhood communities.

However, for all the good that maples, oaks, and sycamores can do the city, TreePeople doesn't believe in forcing its trees and ideals upon the unsuspecting citizens of Los Angeles.

"We can't just come in, plant trees, and say, 'There you go; there are your trees,'" says TreePeople's Mylius. "Someone needs to care for them for at least five years until they've established themselves, and that only happens if they're in an environment where people care about them and have a sense of ownership."

So TreePeople creates a visible presence in the city - primarily through word of mouth and by networking with other nonprofits and with government agencies -and lets communities come to them. Ron Frankel approached the group at the suggestion of his local city councilperson when he noticed that his Studio City neighborhood was losing trees due to neglect, disease, and improper trimming.

"I'd originally gone to them for a little direction on how I might plant four or five trees on one block. They kind of broadened my horizons," recalls Frankel, a retired deputy chief of police. "They talked me into becoming a Citizen Forester and organizing a neighborhood planting of 25 trees for all three blocks on my cul-de-sac."

"People call us all the time who aren't sure what TreePeople is about; all they know is they want trees," says Mylius. "We have to ease them into the Citizen Foresters program. We say, 'Well, guess who'd be planting those trees? That would be you, but we will help!'"

Citizen Foresters like Ron Frankel spend five Saturdays attending TreePeople's training program, where they learn how to select the right trees for their neighborhood, to organize their neighbors for a planting, and to master planting techniques such as site-preparation, proper planting depth, mulching, and the use of tree fungus.

"If you plant a tree wrong - and that's so easy to do - it's only going to last six months to a year," says Frankel.

After completing the training, Frankel went door-to-door in his neighborhood, asking for donations to cover the $100 cost per tree. Although he expected only a handful of households to participate, the response he garnered went far beyond his expectations.

In Ron's case, 60 out of 62 households participated in the community planting. The neighborhood gathered with TreePeople "expert" volunteers at eight-thirty on the morning of the planting, started work at nine, and planted 25 trees in the area between the sidewalk and the street before noon. One household even brought a Girl Scout troop to help out.

Once the trees were in place, the neighborhood gathered for a potluck on Frankel's lawn. "It was a delight," he says. "The planting gave our neighborhood a sense of local pride. Now, when I walk my German Shepherd, people will come outside of their homes to talk with me. It wasn't like that before."

This pride and sense of accomplishment translates into the very practical matter of keeping the young trees pruned and watered. "Everyone in the neighborhood has been very faithful and cooperative about doing their part," says Frankel. "The upkeep would have been pretty tough if one person had planted these trees for all the others. No one would have the sense of ownership they feel now."

Cooling schools

Students in the Cool Schools program help pant and care for trees
But the Citizen Foresters are only part of the TreePeople story. TreePeople also participates in a Cool Schools program, which is similar to the Citizen Forestry program, except the trees are planted in schoolyards by students, parents, and teachers. In 1998, TreePeople began working with the L.A. Department of Water and Power, which funds the program, and joined with three other L.A. nonprofits to help manage the large project. Since its birth, the Cool Schools program has been responsible for ripping up 60 million square feet of asphalt and replacing it with green space.

At Broadous Elementary, for example, TreePeople is mobilizing 100 kids, parents, and teachers to plant 250 trees on their campus early next year. In addition to cooling the school and creating lush, green play spaces for the students, the trees reduce children's exposure to direct sunlight, thereby minimizing their risk of skin cancer, says Mylius. The trees will also be strategically placed to reduce flooding - a chronic problem at Broadous.

"We have too much sun. Now there will be shade and no flooding when it rains," says fifth-grader Luis Valdez.

Many Los Angeles area schools - especially those in poorer areas - put in all-asphalt play areas because they believe they are cheaper than maintaining lawns and flowerbeds. Eager to discourage this practice, TreePeople performed studies that showed the costs and benefits of planting trees - from lowering air conditioning bills to reducing school closures due to flooding - and worked with the school districts and the local government to encourage creating green space in schoolyards.

The Broadous planting gave the students a sense of pride in their school and their part in caring for the trees. "Now our school will look pretty," says fifth-grader Vanessa Jimenez. "We need that."

Visions for a greener Los Angeles

With their Citizen Foresters and Cool Schools program, along with elementary school field trips, mountain forestry, and other programs, it would seem that a small nonprofit like TreePeople would have enough on its hands. But president and founder Andy Lipkis doesn't plan to stop until the entire city of Los Angeles is sustainable and green.

"We have a vision that could really change L.A. for the better, and it involves everyone," says Lipkis.

That vision is taking shape through a collaboration between several L.A. public and private agencies and TreePeople called T.R.E.E.S., which stands for "Trans-Agency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability."

T.R.E.E.S. has retrofitted a 1920s bungalow to serve as a model for how L.A. can work with nature's cycles of flood and drought. The bungalow has a heat-reflecting roof and strategically placed trees that cool the house, plus special drains, downspouts, and cisterns that reuse rainwater.

If these innovations caught on, says TreePeople's Leslie Mylius, "not only would it drastically cool the city and reduce smog, but it would lessen our water consumption as well."

Little by little, the people of Los Angeles are turning on to TreePeople's vision of a cooler, more sustainable city. Four of the Cool Schools sites, including Broadous, are being retrofitted to be sustainable sites like the model house. Next on the list is a 400-acre community in Sun Valley, which will be the first entire watershed to be retrofitted under the T.R.E.E.S. project.

"There's not much that one school, one community, or even one city can do to stop global warming by itself," says TreePeople's Jim Summers, who oversees the Citizen Forestry program. "But we can make our little corner of the world healthier and hope other cities will follow."

"It always takes a little bit at a time to change people's minds and thinking," says Mylius. "In the early '80s, people in L.A. thought curbside recycling was impossible when TreePeople and other groups proposed it. But now in L.A. and in cities all over the US, we have curbside recycling programs. We can plant trees and rebuild our cities to reduce the heat island effect and do our part to stop global warming. It's just a mindset."


Tracy Rysavy was associate editor of YES!

Contact TreePeople at 12601 Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210; 818/753-4600; Fax: 818/753-4635;  Web: . For more information on heat islands, call the Heat Island Group at 510/486-7437, or check out their Web site at



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