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TreePeople's Andy Lipkis: 'We are the change'

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Last weekend, the homeowners, docents, and designers who are taking part in today's Green Gardens Tour gathered in the beautiful Santa Monica library to talk with each other and to be honored by the tour organizers at a thank you breakfast.

The event was highlighted by brief talks from actress Amy Brenneman and TreePeople's Andy Lipkis, both of whom spoke about the power of conservation, and in appreciation of a few individuals who are doing small things that have a big impact.

Brenneman, who is an advocate for the Healthy Child Healthy World, spoke about making the conscious choice not to mourn the times we're in because of the damage that has been done to our natural environment, but rather to step in and begin to do what she can right now. Though she hails from the east coast, Brenneman is a resident of the San Fernando Valley, who, when faced with landscaping her home, realized "you can't recreate Connecticut [there]" and that she had to create a garden that respected the natural environment.

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Her brief remarks to the homeowners on the Green Gardens Tour ended with reflections on the pressing validity of Stevie Wonder's beautiful song "Always" and made for a natural transition to guest speaker Andy Lipkis, who focused his message on the power of community and the ability to grow large-scale change from individual seeds.

Lipkis began by telling those gathered that their gardening efforts were saving lives. He emphasized the fact that by introducing alternatives not just for energy and resources but for young people lives can be changed. For example, someone who may have otherwise been tempted to join a gang might find greater success working on the land as part of youth programs that are becoming more readily accessible. Food for thought was the powerful observation that "the human equivalent of the landfill is the prison," which is so often where youth end up when they have few choices. "Sustainability creates jobs," he asserted.

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But the suffering is not just limited to troubled teens or low-income communities. Lipkis cited the findings of the UN Science Panel on Climate Change, who determined that the state of California will be one of the first to lose its water thanks to the melting of the Sierra snow pack. With water being the largest user of electricity in the state (approximately 20% of our energy use goes into the moving of water, most of which we fritter away on watering our lawns, which can only absorb so much in the first place) we are placing massive demands on our infrastructure and our resources.

Lipkis said the question raised by those in power is: "How are we going to keep feeing this thirsty monster down here?" and that the solutions being marketed now by politicians and businesses is to shift to nuclear power, however he sees that we have viable options that individuals are implementing, while in the bigger picture they are being ignored.

Some of our options for decreasing our demand for water and energy is to gather rainwater and recycle it through the use of cisterns. TreePeople has installed six demonstration cisterns in Los Angeles, which on average collect a million and a quarter gallons of water for every 1" of rain, and have gathered 11 million gallons since January 1 of this year already. To put the potential rewards of cistern use in perspective, Lipkis pointed out that we could be collecting 7.6 billion gallons in the city with just 1" of rainfall. But by continuing to import our water and burdening the system, all that water is just going to waste, rather than capturing it and "using it more responsibly."

Our individual role is a precarious one, he stressed. "When we turn on the tap it's a climate change event."

As communities, "we are mismanaging an eco-system" with disastrous consequences; "the result is human pain and destruction," said Lipkis. Here in Southern California 5,400 people die each year in preventable pollution-related deaths; so many that the SCAG has declared a "disaster." This is the sad situation we've inherited that Brenneman mentioned, and like her, Lipkis said we cannot dwell and opt to be inactive because we are sad, but rather act as beacons for change.

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Lipkis' main purpose in speaking at the Green Gardens Tour homeowners' breakfast was, of course, to thank them for their efforts. His gratitude was openly expressed, and furthered by the concept that what they were doing was vital because these landscapers and gardeners were doing "little stuff that's also big stuff." These small changes, he said, are really emblematic of the overall process of embarking on large scale change, likening it to the task of tearing up a phone book for a city as sizable as Los Angeles. You cannot simply rip it in two in one motion, but rather find you can be more effective in breaking it down into smaller sections--individuals making small changes.

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Californians, and Angelenos in particular, have a prominent national and even international profile, he said, remarking that what some people do here has a great impact on others due in part to our part of the world's unique ability to create trends. We can make conservation popular, he said, because Californians "export healthy trends."

Things being done by the gardeners and landscapers whose gardens are being showcased today on the Green Gardens Tour are examples of small changes. By using native grasses in place of sod; by selecting plants and flowers that are drought-tolerant, climate-appropriate, less thirsty, and native to the area; by installing infiltration pits to keep water on the land and not sending it into the streets; and by sharing their experiences and educating the public and creating opportunities they are examples of acts that resonate in the community at large.

It is possible for all of us to participate in conservation and sustainability, Lipkis said. The power is within the people.

"We are the change," said Lipkis.

The 4th annual Green Gardens Tour takes place today and raises funds for the Virginia Avenue Project, a non-profit that provides after-school arts programs for children. The self-guided tour begins at 1027 Princeton in Santa Monica, where tickets can be purchased for $50. The tour includes 6 Westside homes, which will be accessible until 4:30 this afternoon. For more information call (310) 264-4224. Tour participants will not only see the six beautiful gardens featured, but can listen to talks and workshops facilitated by professionals involved in sustainable gardening practices.

Photos from two of the gardens featured on this year's Green Gardens Tour by Lindsay William-Ross/LAist