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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The shuttle, trees and social justice

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Los Angeles accomplished quite a coup in beating out other cities to become the permanent home of the decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour. But in the wake of its dramatic arrival, Los Angeles residents and leaders still have a lot to learn about how to live together in a 21st century megalopolis.

In bringing Endeavour to Los Angeles, city leaders hope it will inspire generations to come to engage in learning about science. The fiasco of subverting proper environmental impact analyses and euphemistically classifying the shuttle transport as a house move may present the more valuable teaching moment. The damage done to neighborhood morale — not just as a result of removing hundreds of mature shade trees, but even more so the sense of exclusion and disrespect that the residents on Endeavour’s route to its new home feel — shows how much we could all benefit from greater knowledge of social, environmental and health science.

From the moment Los Angeles won the bid, the shuttle’s move in and around the city took on an almost deified importance. We were told the presence of this pristine national treasure would transform the economy, attracting millions of visitors to our city to get a chance to see it up close. Perhaps this is why, along with NASA’s prohibition, the idea of temporarily unbolting the wings and tiles to enable a less damaging move was deemed out of the question.

Perhaps it was this special aura of hyper-importance that caused officials to lose perspective and circumvent the law requiring an environmental impact analysis. The analysis would have revealed and quantified the extent of potential damage to the city’s overall health. Deep community engagement would have been required, and the depth of concern among people living in the affected communities couldn’t have been ignored.

Or perhaps it was an all-too-common failure to recognize the vital services trees provide, including their ability to instill a sense of place and identity in the people who rely on them.

Nonetheless, alarmed community members who attended public forums organized by California Science Center (CSC) alerted TreePeople to a rumored clear-cutting of the 7-mile, 400-tree living legacy to Dr. Martin Luther King in South Los Angeles. These Canary Island pines were planted by more than 3,000 people on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1990, and they have been watered, tended and protected by thousands more volunteers in organized events every month for 10 years. Each tree was named in memory of someone, and then adopted by a neighboring resident committed to its ongoing care.

Fearing the worst possible fate for these mature pines, I set up an emergency meeting with museum officials with the goal of protecting all the trees. They clarified that only 14 of the legacy trees were scheduled for removal, but I argued that none of them should be touched. I emphasized the extent of community ownership and physical and emotional investment embodied by these specific trees. This depth of engagement is why these trees are alive. Many have grown to 40 feet tall, and the green line they form through South L.A. is visible from space. This accomplishment is all the more extraordinary when we factor in that the average life span of an urban street tree in America is now only 6 years, according to U.S. Forest Service.

The 400 trees along other parts of the route were deemed by the Science Center’s arborists as weak, diseased, small or damaging to public infrastructure.  Most of those trees were targeted to be cut next year to make way for a new Metro Light-rail line, and Inglewood city officials wanted their trees removed so they could plant new ones that complied with their city tree plan.  TreePeople never supports cutting down viable trees, and with other groups joining the effort, confronted with a potential disaster of national proportions, I focused on saving the King Memorial trees.

With no immediate agreement to protect the trees and no voluntary follow-up by the CSC, I solicited an update from city staff much later in the process and was told they believed the King Boulevard memorial trees would be spared. For final reassurance, I contacted CSC senior advisor Steve Soboroff personally in August and communicated my shared concern and anger. He checked and confirmed that the trees were safe.

However, most of the other trees did not receive protection.

Public outcry grew as people learned their trees were coming down.  Realizing they had a rising crisis on their hands, CSC and city officials began meeting with community groups to find a solution. The resulting coordinated response from the community, the City and the CSC is something from which we Angelenos can take hope. Community leaders, including Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils, contacted TreePeople and North East Trees, seeking our guidance.  I advised them how to approach the situation to negotiate a far better mitigation to heal some of the wounds and better protect the health of people living in the affected neighborhoods.

A key to success was providing facts about that community’s vulnerability to the cumulative impact of environmental injustice. They very legitimately needed prompt replacement of the numerous health protective services that a multitude of large-canopy trees provide. Public-health scientists have mapped the occurrence of chronic disease in Los Angles and found the highest incidences of diabetes, morbid obesity and lung disease to correlate precisely with the neighborhoods with the lowest levels of tree canopy cover. The link is primarily socioeconomic, and the neighborhoods along Endeavour’s route are among those with the lowest tree canopy percentage in Los Angeles. With this new information, community health leaders were able to ask how long their people should have to live without the volume of oxygen, shade, air pollution particulate filtration, water quality protection, wildlife habitat, natural aromatherapy (from flower scents), and other services their trees had been providing.

As a result of this science-based case, the CSC agreed to a very generous package of mitigations.  Instead of two small trees for every one cut, they have committed to providing 4 very large new trees to replace each tree cut.  Instead of two years, they will fund five years of maintenance and devote half of the funding to train and employ local youths in the tree care. They are also providing a host of other benefits, including environmental educator training and sidewalk repairs.  Ultimately, everyone played well together and something great was achieved. 

Now, more work remains to be done to ensure the promises are met. The people in Inglewood should receive the same mitigation deal.  TreePeople is offering to continue to support and help train our partners there and the community health councils and their constituents to make sure they get the right mix of species to mitigate their problems. The tree palette must be assembled according to the needs of the people in the community, and that is why they have to stay involved. They deserve to lead the way. Their conversations with CSC and the Board of Public Works have been persuasive because they presented their case with scientific clarity. They can call authorities on attempts to circumvent the law. They can cite arborists’ corroboration of the health benefits of specific trees.

Environmental justice relies on an invisible foundation consisting of environmental and health literacy, and a community that is connected and communicating, that has  experienced its power to make a difference.  Perhaps this is Endeavour’s greatest legacy.

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