Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

T.R.E.E.S. in LA
Gil Friend, 24 Oct 05

la_river_flood.jpgJill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich mentioned TreePeople's Andy Lipkis in their brief Bioneers conference summary last week. What Andy talked about is worth noting, since it offers a hopeful signpost to the future of water, land use, and Los Angeles.

TreePeople's initial focus (when Lipkis founded it decades ago, at the ripe old age of 15), was to plant trees in LA. As it's matured, its mission has grown: to restore the forest, and reknit the fabric of community. Lipkis shared one page of that big story.

LA got hit with a 100 year flood in 1978 -- and again in 1980 -- likely a result, in part, of Los Angeles being two-thirds paved, impermeable surfaces. The familiar piecemeal response: bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to raise the walls of the LA River.

TreePeople took an integrative approach. "The city spends $1 billion a year moving water in," Lipkis noted. "Rainfall provides half the water we need, but we throw most of it away - and spend more money to do that."

"'It's cheaper to build canals,' a county flood control agency told us, 'and you'd need 20k gal swimming pool at a million homes' for a water capture strategy."

In contrast to the Corp of Engineer's philosophy of "keep water and people apart," TreePeople seeks to "inspire people to take personal responsibility for environment and participate in its healing." So TreePeople challenged the project's EIR, and secured US Forest Service funding to demonstrate better alternatives. A four day, 100 person design charrette considered how to retrofit the city, and developed best management practices (BMPs) for industrial sites, commercial buildings, schools, apartments and single-family homes.

The resulting Planbook offers "a blueprint for an ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable Los Angeles, and an implementation plan implementation planproposes public policy and financial strategies that can facilitate the widespread use of the BMPs."

The project employs technologies that mimic the "sponge and filter" function of trees. It also demonstrates the technical and economic feasibility (and desirability) of retrofitting a city to function as an urban forest watershed.

Integrated resource planning -- coupled with whole system economic analysis that showed significantly lower capital costs and operating costs -- didn't persuade the powers that be. What did persuade was a demonstration project. TreePeople retrofitted a single family house, on a typical lot, to capture rainwater and store it in a below ground cistern, invited the public agencies that hadn't been persuaded by the plan, and held a flash flood in full view of the media, of course -- dumping 4,000 gallons of water on the home in five minutes. Not a drop ran off the site.

"It opened people's minds to integration," Andy reported. The water district official, who had been unconvinced , told Andy "now I get it" -- and went on to freeze a $50 million storm drain project to try this approach instead, at watershed scale. After two years of feasibility studies, and a four year planning process, the project was approved last June with a $200 million capital budget -- and projected savings of $300 million.

But this is just a bigger pilot. TreePeople's goal is all of LA, and they're now "installing a citywide system across Los Angeles of cisterns and infiltrators to help capture water runoff and recharge the aquifer - just like a mature oak tree." As their web site puts it:

If fully implemented, T.R.E.E.S. can:
  • Reduce fresh water imports to our region by up to 50%
  • Create up to 50,000 jobs
  • Dramatically reduce pollution into Santa Monica and San Pedro Bays
  • Remove the 100 year flood threat on the L.A. River
  • Eliminate "greenwaste" from the waste stream, thereby reducing landfill content by 30 percent
  • Significantly improve air quality
  • And, Lipkis noted, eliminate the need for a new $4 billion waste water treatment plant.
    "Nobody's in charge of integration," Lipkis concluded, "so we have dis-integration, and cities are disintegrating. So you need to demand this from your city. We don't all have the skill to do integration, but the technology is there." (TreePeople's stormwater management innovations have already inspired projects in other cities including, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, WA.)

    In 1994, I wrote about the "sustainable re-development" initiatives by Valmeyer IL and other communities in response to the Mississippi floods of 1993. "Today Valmeyer," I concluded. "Tomorrow -- LA?"

    Little did I know how true that would be!

    Bookmark and Share


    An overview of Lipkis' projects can be seen
    in the upcoming documentrary series Edens Lost & Found airing on PBS this Winter. I interviewed him as part of the series footage and may even have a walk on part as journalist interviewng Andy.

    Posted by: enrique on 24 Oct 05

    The reason la is flooding more now then before is that what everyone assumed was nromal weather for the area never was normal.

    Many major cities sit in old dry lake bottoms that arnt gona stay dry for long.

    Posted by: wintermane on 24 Oct 05

    I love it when Andy Lipkis says "No one's in charge of integration, so cities are disintegrating." Perfect.
    Our project will also be featured in the PBS documentary Edens Lost and Found. We're facing the same issue in Seattle. For instance, we have a mayor who pledged to meet Kyoto protocol goals for GHG reduction, but the other side of his mouth says he wants to spend upwards of $4.5 billion on rebuilding an urban highway that continues to enable car-dependence. When we suggest it's time for integrated thinking and a more holistic approach to planning, it really opens peoples eyes.

    Posted by: cary on 24 Oct 05

    $4 billion. If wikipedia's population figure of 4 million is accurate that's a cool $1000 per person.

    And that's just for treating the water- it doesn't include the savings from people's homes and businesses not flooding. Wish my city caught on- this approach could finally stop the flooding in my basement!

    Share the worldchanging book when it comes out:

    Posted by: Daniel Haran on 24 Oct 05



    MESSAGE (optional):

    Search Worldchanging

    Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
    Click here to sign up!


    Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
    Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

    Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg