By azavea, September 10, 2014
A TreeMapLA user enters tree data into her phone
Los Angeles poses a unique mix of urban environmental challenges. It is the second largest city by population in the US, but it lacks a truly walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly urban core like first-place New York or third-place Chicago. Instead, Angelenos are settled quite uniformly across the whole region. These two factors contribute to L.A. having more vehicles per square mile than any other urbanized area. All those cars and trucks demand wide swathes of asphalt and concrete, which generate a formidable “urban heat island” effect that raises temperatures in an already hot Southern California climate. On bad days, the extra heat can cook these vehicle emissions into a soupy smog – giving L.A. the worst air quality of any major American city. Access to water, too, is a challenge in the hot climate. L.A. must import a staggering 85% of the water it uses from surrounding communities.
“Suffice it to say, it’s not awesome where our water comes from, what we use it for, or how much of it we use.”, said Danny Carmichael, the Senior Manager of Forestry Projects at TreePeople, the tree-planting and conservation nonprofit in Los Angeles behind TreeMapLA.org.
As TreePeople’s work in the areas of urban forestry and green infrastructure can attest, L.A.’s stressed environment is not without effective solutions. Urban trees and other green infrastructure like green roofs, bioswales, and rain barrels can bring relief to the hot, smoggy, parched Los Angeles climate with their cooling shade, air cleansing, and water filtration powers. TreePeople has been planting trees in the region for over 40 years. The organization also pushes for other types of green infrastructure and “forest-mimicking technologies” as part of the “Functioning Community Forest” model it has developed. All of TreePeople’s activities are aimed at its mission of inspiring and supporting people with resources to take personal responsibility for improving the urban environment of Los Angeles.
TreePeople began using the OpenTreeMap Cloud platform in March of this year to grow and steward TreeMapLA.org, which will eventually be a map of all the trees and green infrastructure in greater Los Angeles. TreePeople’s focus on inspiring individuals to care for the urban environment is a great fit for the crowdsourced approach to urban forest inventory that OTM and the mobile apps for iOS and Android enable. “Our bread and butter is working with volunteers. Every single weekend we have 4-5 volunteer events, whether that’s tree planting, tree care, mountain restoration work, or educational workshops,” said Danny. “We have a lot of practice in getting folks out and getting them excited.”
TreeMapLA is a pioneer, as it is the first OpenTreeMap site to be tracking trees as well as other green infrastructure projects (what TreePeople calls “Watershed Solutions”) like rain barrels, rain gardens, and green roofs or concrete reductions.
“We would love to see where these features are,” said Danny. “Who has rain gardens? Can we go in and do a workshop where we have a whole street that has rain gardens and rain barrels?”
While TreePeople sees the potential for innovative programming around green infrastructure down the road, most of their activity in the past several months since TreeMapLA launched has been mapping trees. When the map launched in March, TreePeople set a public goal of mapping 1,000 trees before month’s end – a target that was rapidly met and exceeded by an initial wave of enthusiastic users. In the months since then, Danny and his team have experimented with several tree mapping events, including a new event format they’re calling “Thirsty Thursdays,” where volunteers do tree mapping after work for a few hours before heading to a neighborhood bar.
A TreeMapLA user carefully measures a tree trunk’s “DBH” – Diameter at Breast Height – for inclusion on TreeMapLA.
“We’re putting all our energy right now behind drought response activities,” said Danny, referencing the crushing drought Califonia has been struggling with. Danny said the initial idea for Thirsty Thursdays was to engage volunteers to help water the trees, as a social activity. “So [we would] water trees, and water humans with some alcoholic libations.” But through the course of planning that type of an event – carrying out site visits, getting a sense of what the tree watering needs in certain neighborhoods are – Danny realized TreeMapLA could make the events more successful and play an effective role as a planning tool. “[We are] going out and doing [Thirsty Thursday] events as the first touch, where it basically becomes a site visit,” he said. “We can go into those communities and get a better sense of what the needs are, so that we can go back a month later and tackle those needs.”
Thirsty Thursdays have started small, with about 10 volunteers each time, but Danny hopes to get up to 20-30 volunteers after the word about treemapping has spread. “”When I talk to the folks that do come, they are just sort of taking a chance. [They] don’t really know what it is or what it entails,” said Danny, “but after going through the process of mapping trees for a couple of hours, they’re really excited.”
Treemapping events like Thirsty Thursdays, have required rethinking TreePeople’s expectations for volunteer events. “Doing tree care, tree plantings in the city, that we have down to a science. We know how many folks we need, for how many trees, and how big an area we can hit” in the right amount of time, Danny explained to me. “But [with treemapping] I have very much been experimenting to figure out what is realistic.”
Thirsty Thursdays in particular are an experimental departure from TreePeople’s normal programming because they are held on weekday evenings, after work, and for a shorter time of two hours. “We expected it would be different, but we’re also seeing the people who are using TreeMapLA and the people that we’re hoping will be excited about it are a different demographic than our usual volunteers,” said Danny. “We’re hoping by making it more of a social thing, we can really reach those people better.”
Danny and TreePeople have also held larger tree mapping events on Saturday mornings, a more traditional volunteering time. These events take place over three hours. So far, three events have been organized in Downtown LA, Culver City, and Glendale, with about 15 volunteers at each.
In Downtown LA, TreePeople was working with a community group that is working on a master tree plan. “[We were] trying to figure out where the trees are, and where the empty planting spaces are, so they can figure out what they need to do to add more trees, and where the tree care needs are,” explained Danny. At this event, TreePeople mapped 165 trees, the most at any event. That’s nearly one tree every minute!
The Culver City event was with a group that is trying to protect a unique park. “It’s actually a traffic median that is also a park, and the city is proposing to widen the road that it’s next to,” said Danny. The community group wanted to map the park’s trees in TreeMapLA and use OpenTreeMap’s i-Tree Streets ecosystem services calculations to show the economic and other benefits of the trees to the city. “Hopefully that will change the arguments that the city is making,” and make the case for replanting those trees or reconsidering the course of the road, Danny explained.
TreeMapLA, showing the trees in the Culver City park that were mapped at the event.
TreePeople was also approached by EarthWatch, an international nonprofit, and organized a treemapping event near Glendale. “We were working on a citizen science project where we were gathering leaf samples, and those are going to be used by some university researchers to infer the growth rate and water use of these trees,” said Danny. EarthWatch wants to gather data across L.A. and compare it to NASA satellite data, “so that they can get a better sense of what species are doing well where in the city, so that moving forward, we can be smarter about what trees we are planting where,” explained Danny.
As he explained these events to me, Danny realized that all of TreePeople’s larger treemapping events had been organized as partnerships with other groups, rather than TreePeople going out with its regular volunteer programs. The Downtown LA and Culver City groups were previous TreePeople volunteers, which then came up with the idea of using TreeMapLA to advance their own projects.
“That’s our model: finding motivated people and giving them the knowledge and tools they need to inspire their communities to take personal responsibility for the urban forest,” said Danny. “Those two instances are sort of our dream.”