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How to Make LA Greener
Colorful array of city activities: food truck, cyclist, vintage car, barber, girl in quinceanera dress; 6th street bridge in the background with purple gradient overlay
(Dan Carino
/
LAist)
Episode 5
10:33
How to Make LA Greener
For its size, Los Angeles is lacking in parks and other green spaces compared to other major cities. Meet one man who is on a mission to make a difference in some of L.A.'s most underserved neighborhoods - one tree at a time. Guest: Aaron Thomas, Director of Urban Forestry for the non-profit Northeast Trees. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Aaron Thomas 

In low income communities of color in LA, the air quality is among the worst in the country. As far as pollutants in the air, in the soil, in the water-schools that lack any green space so the children are struggling even just to play outside, it's too hot-it's-they're surrounded by asphalt.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Yeah, that sounds just like when I was growing up in LA during the 90s-hot summers, black asphalt-you know the deal. But people are working to change that. This is How to LA, connecting you with this city every episode, discovering the new, navigating the confusing, and even making some change along the way. I'm your host, Brian De Los Santos. In LA, the lack of green space is real. I know because I have two dogs. One is a mutt named Bigotes and the other one is an Australian shepherd named Remix. And in my neighborhood in Westchester, there's really nowhere for them to run around. So I have to drive 10 minutes to Mar Vista to the closest dog park.

 

Aaron Thomas

Every neighborhood needs more parks. Every person should be able to walk out their front door and go to some sort of park.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

That's Aaron Thomas. He's the Director of Urban Forestry for a nonprofit called North East Trees. Basically, his mission for the last 30 years has been about making LA greener. Because it's not just nice for dogs. It's literally about public health. According to a recent study from UCLA, one in four people killed by extreme heat in LA could be saved if more trees were planted in the region. And research from UC Davis found disparities based on race and class. On a hot day in LA the neighborhoods that are primarily Latino can be more than six degrees hotter than the ones that are not, and Aaron says parks can make a difference.

 

Aaron Thomas

It's almost inevitable that the population is going to continue to grow in LA, we're still a pretty young city. In order to have any meaningful quality of life, we need to have more parks-like everywhere, in every neighborhood.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Today I'm out in a little half acre stretch of grass and trees on the east side of LA in a neighborhood that's between Boyle Heights El Sereno and Lincoln Heights. We’re outside Ramona Gardens, a public housing development that's been here since the 1930s.

 

Aaron Thomas

They use this as a gathering area, they do a little Mercado, sell tamales are other foods tortas and all the other, you know, local favorites.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Over the last 20 years. He's recruited Ramona Gardens residents to plant hundreds of trees outside their homes. Because before it was pretty bleak.

 

Aaron Thomas

This is it. I mean, there's no nature this is surrounded by the 10 freeway-right there. The Metrolink on the north end is a huge cargo train. And then on the east side is industrial area. You don't have to be a genius or a scientist to know that the air quality is really really poor.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

The trees can help filter some of that junk in the air. And it does help other kinds of pollution too.

 

Aaron Thomas

Noise pollution as well. As you can tell it's extremely loud right here. So the people who live in these units have to hear this all day every day.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Aaron says the trees are a buffer absorbing noise from the freeway and train walking around the complex. There's lemon trees, plums, oranges, avocados, oaks, olives, all trees that Aaron put in. He points to on that right now, it's all green. But in the spring, it'll transform into a huge pink cloud.

 

Aaron Thomas

Here we have this is just a flowering pink trumpet tree. But you know, in addition to fruit and shade, people need color and pretty flowers.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

So with all these benefits, I asked Aaron why is it that LA doesn't actually seem to have that many public parks. He says it goes way back to when the city was designed, and what it was designed for. I'm talking about cars.

 

Aaron Thomas

We're a different kind of city people want to move around the city in in cars, and their own transportation. People come here and they want to settle and have their own little house.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Everyone was supposed to have their own green space at home. But as a region became more dense public parks didn't keep up with that expansion. He's trying to make up for it with a new project at Ramona Gardens. We walk over to the top of some stairs looking out over a big old dirt lot.

 

Aaron Thomas

So this little park which was pretty rundown. We were able to get the funding to redo this park. And where are you see dirt will be native rain gardens. There'll be little walking paths, lots of new trees.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Aaron says planting trees outside of people's homes here was just the bare minimum. His dream is to fix up this park. Then add some trees and vines to nearby alley which connects residents so bigger city park and bus lines. And from there, create pathways to an even bigger open space like Ascot Hills, just north of Ramona Gardens.

 

Aaron Thomas

It's like a corridor, really a nature corridor for this whole community.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

For this job they're planning to put in 4000 trees. But today, construction is on hold. They're waiting to get some permits worked out. Typical, Aaron says, but in the end, it'll be worth it.

 

Aaron Thomas

Where some people might look at this and see a trashy, weed filled hillside. I know that this is where kids play, they told me they climb on the rocks there. Can you imagine you grew up in Ramona, you don't have the luxury of going to a climbing wall and being part of a gym. And when they want to play rock climbing, this is really common, you know, and they should have a safe, but enjoyable space right? To be out in nature and climb a hill, like every kid should.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Look, we know there's inequality across neighborhoods when it comes to parks, which ones have them and which ones don't. Wider and richer neighborhoods get more investment to create green spaces. That's why Aaron and North East Trees focus efforts on low income communities of color.

 

Aaron Thomas

Over here in Boyle Heights, around Cypress Park, South Central LA, in the Watts neighborhood, again, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, and Buchanan Elementary is in Highland Park.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

But when I hear about those neighborhoods, I can't help but think about the way some of them are changing. Why do my friends who have come from these backgrounds, feel like their committees are being gentrified? When people step in with this idea of let's make a cute park. And we it's not just parks or, or green spaces, it could be a bike lane. But, even just infrastructure, people are like kind of like are suspicious about it.

 

Aaron Thomas

Wow. Ok.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

You can take a minute to think about it.

 

Aaron Thomas

Yeah, yes. Yeah. I mean, I personally have never seen the co-relationship between people taking care of the environment that they live in, and ultimately being gentrified. So, if a person plants a tree on a street, or builds a little park, or puts in a bike lane, or paints out graffiti, for that matter, or picks up trash, obviously that's making the quality of life better in that place. And it makes it more appealing. So theoretically, other people would want to live in a place like that. That might be what people are referring to, as you know, it's a stepping stone to gentrification. If we collectively make the effort to improve those conditions, is that a worthwhile effort? I think so. I've never, you know-honestly, I've never would-in my 30 years doing this, I've never heard a large consensus of people tell me please don't plant trees in my neighborhood, there may be a few. But the usually the majority of people who I work with throughout LA, understand the need and the benefits and they do want it.

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Community members have started coming to him asking for help to plant trees or build parks in their own neighborhoods. Aaron says the process is like a treasure hunt. It's about finding unused spaces that have potential.

 

Aaron Thomas

Keep your eyes open the city is actually, for all of the challenges that we've described. It's full of opportunity, and even mystery and even in one's own neighborhood. You know, it's so easy to just kind of wake up in the morning and take the same route to go to school or take the same route to go to work, and you're kind of on automatic mode. Try going down a different street one day look down that alleyway-what's back there behind that building? And what is that vacant lot? If you're interested, maybe contact a nonprofit or the city and say hey, what if we cleaned up this alley and made it into a park?

 

Brian De Los Santos 

Alright, y'all, that's it for today. This is How to LA from LAist Studios. I'm your host Brian De Los Santos. Learn more about green spaces and the people involved by reading our newsletter subscribe at laist.com/HowToLA. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting a private corporation funded by the American people. See you tomorrow.