Reporter's Notebook

Los Angeles, California
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Courtesy of City Plants

What is the most effective thing an individual can do about climate change? There are lots of possible answers: what you eat, how you vote, where and how you live, how you travel, and so on. All of them matter. For Americans, at this moment, the one that matters most may be how you vote.

But among the steps most immediately within many people’s control, an important one is planting trees. Yes, there are cautions about doing this in the wrong way, or in the wrong places, or in ignoring the legacies of long-standing biases in zoning and city planning. (That is: It’s easy to plant trees in spacious residential neighborhoods; it’s harder when there’s only a narrow strip of ground between the street and a building front.) But overall, step-by-step reforestation can potentially be a significant help, which is why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling a number of local efforts toward that end.

I am chagrined to say that until I looked into it, I had no idea that the second-largest city in the nation—Los Angeles, with its population of nearly 4 million people spread out over roughly 500 square miles—has a very ambitious program to use tree planting as an axis to connect job creation, climate sustainability, urban renewal, and economic equity and inclusion. (Perhaps it would have helped if I’d read at least the headline of a very good Mother Jones story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen last year. The headline was, “Los Angeles, a City Known for Its Freeways, Is About to Plant a Shit Ton of Trees.”)

As it happened, I learned about the LA program largely by accident. The smallish Southern California town of Redlands had set an also-ambitious goal, of helping school children there plant more than 12,000 trees, which I wrote about when it was announced last year. The seedlings were purchased; a computerized way to map and track each one’s progress was set; and they were supposed to be passed out to school children on Earth Day this past April. That plan naturally hit a roadblock when California schools were shut down. As an alternative, the backers of the effort,  including the University of Redlands and the tech company Esri, managed to give away thousands of trees in June. But still some 4,000 seedling trees went unclaimed.

Mainly through the efforts of our friend Shelli Stockton, of the University of Redlands, those little trees ended up last month in the hands of an organization called City Plants in Los Angeles (as shown in this video). City Plants, a program of the LA city government, is part of a broader LA effort toward radical expansion of the “urban forest” cover in this famously sunbaked part of the world.

I talked this week with Rachel O’Leary, a native Angeleno who now directs City Plants, and with Rachel Malarich, a longtime expert in urban forestry who last year was named LA’s first-ever City Forest Officer. Here is what they told me about what they are doing, and why it might matter elsewhere.


How City Plants started: Last year, in presenting his “Green New Deal” vision for the city (which you can download in full PDF version here), Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti set out a tree-planting campaign as one element of a larger sustainability-and-jobs strategy. The plan set a target to “plant and maintain” at least 90,000 trees across the city by 2021, and to keep planting trees at a rate of 20,000 per year. This was largely initially based on the “Million Trees” initiative under Garcetti’s predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but has evolved over the past decade to focus on planting the "right tree in the right place." Garcetti's Green New Deal also was explicitly focused on “canopy equity”—that is, of extending more of the benefits of large-tree cover to neighborhoods that are now typified by asphalt and concrete rather than greenery.

Courtesy of Shelli Stockton

What it does: The City Plants program, as part of the larger urban-forestry program, offers trees to residents of Los Angeles at no cost. Angelenos can get up to seven free “yard trees” for their own property, which they are expected to plant and care for themselves (with instructions like those shown in this picture). They can also request free “street trees,” which a City Plants team will plant for them. (Residents must agree to water the trees for five years.)

For the labor involved in planting and handling the trees, City Plants coordinates with a variety of nonprofit and neighborhood groups —of which its major partner is the LA Conservation Corps. This LACorps is designed to give young people workplace skills, while they work on projects of larger community value.

How is it financed? From a variety of public and private sources (info here), but mainly by LA’s main public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP. Long-standing policy in California requires utility companies to underwrite energy-efficiency programs, including tree planting. LADWP has supported tree planting and innovations in urban forestry in Los Angeles for over a decade. The rationale for including trees as energy-savers, which you can find in longer and more detailed form here, is not just that tree growth stores carbon directly, as the trees mature. It is also that leafed-out tree cover reduces electricity and water use, especially the demand for air-conditioning. With support from LADWP, City Plants has an online calculator in which residents enter their street address, and get estimates of energy-bill savings from planting trees, in real time.

“Trees are one of the least expensive, and most powerful, tools we have for improving our environment,” Rachel Malarich told me. “More and more research is showing how important a good, healthy tree canopy cover is for our communities as a whole—and how important it will be not just for our health right now but for our resilience in the face of a changing climate.” (Malarich went into more detail on these features in the Mother Jones interview.)  

Courtesy of City Plants

The program’s other ambitions: The 90,000-tree program concentrates on the parts of LA that are now the least forested and most parched. These are of course generally the lowest-income areas, and the most likely to become broiling “heat islands” because of climate change. The official goal, set out in the Green New Deal document, is to “Increase tree canopy in areas of greatest need by at least 50% by 2028 to grow a more equitable urban forest that provides cooling, public health, habitat, energy savings, and other benefits.”

I asked Rachel Malarich how that would be possible, considering that many areas now short on trees are also short on space to plant them. The extensive suburban-style portions of Los Angeles were designed to include leafy glades; others have barely an unpaved square inch to support plant growth.

“Trees need space to grow, and much of our infrastructure was set up not to allow that space,” Malarich said. “Frequently in these high-need areas you’ll only have a four-foot-wide parkway, where you can only plant a small tree. Or there are overhead power lines.” I asked, given these realities, how the city could realistically expect to equalize tree coverage across the city. It would be complex, and hard, and would involve short- and long-term creativity and planning, she said. But that was the deadline the city’s plan set out, “putting our feet to the fire.”

Tree planters making the most of the space available, in Los Angeles (Courtesy of City Plants)

Does it matter outside LA? The scale of Los Angeles makes anything that happens there consequential in its own right. But Rachel O’Leary argued that the partnership model—connecting different parts of the city and state government, and linking job-training and community-justice initiatives to climate sustainability—would be “replicable and scalable in other places.”

“Trees are a powerful tool of climate resilience,” she said. “This is definitely one of the most powerful actions a resident can take, to take climate change into their own hands. That it is how we view it here in this city. And we would encourage other cities to develop partnerships like these.”

“We’re not the only city that is dealing with this,” Rachel Malarich said. “If we can figure out this way of dealing with this issue of tree canopy inequity, we will have figured out something for other people to look at and learn from.”

Is any of this “the” answer, for neighborhood justice, civic engagement, and climate sustainability. Obviously not. But it could well be part of an answer, in this large city and elsewhere.

Artist Richelle Gribble with her cotton spider web on kozo washi paper, created during her artist-in-residency in Japan
Artist Richelle Gribble with her cotton spider web on kozo washi paper, created during her artist-in-residency in Japan Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory

We’ve seen artist-in-residence programs in a number of the towns we’ve visited. The first was in Eastport, Maine, where we ran into Richelle Gribble, a young artist based in Los Angeles, whom I consider an resident-artist extraordinaire. Over the past three and a half years, Richelle (as I’ll refer to her) has been an artist-in-residence in 15 different programs around the world, from a biosphere in Arizona to a ranch in Wyoming to the Arctic Circle in northern Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. I’m not kidding about the Arctic Circle.

Richelle is an accomplished artist with pages and pages of a CV that includes solo and select group exhibitions, awards and fellowships, public collections, curated projects, public speaking engagements, memberships in committees and organizations, and publications. She is 28 years old.

When I was back in touch with Richelle recently, she had just returned from the Arctic Circle. I was interested in talking with her about the idea of residencies, how she approaches her time on location, what artists’ perspectives bring to a town, and what the experience brings to an artist.

We decided to talk about her residency in Japan, with its famously complicated culture, and where my husband, Jim, and I had lived for about two years back in the late 1980s, when our children were young.

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Here’s what we talked about: Along our own travels around the country for American Futures and Our Towns, many people have asked Jim and me how we start our reporting when we visit a town. It’s a fair question, and our answer is that we do some research ahead of time—and then once on scene, we spend a day or two talking to the “usual suspects” (journalists, school administrators, city-government officials, business people, librarians, people in the arts, etc.) and ask them about the interesting and compelling stories and issues in town, and about the people we should meet. Then we head out to connect with as many people in as many on-the-ground situations as possible.

I was interested in how this process worked for an artist-in-residence, so I asked Richelle the same questions: What does she do upon arrival? How does she build a sense of the place? How does that begin to translate into the art she makes? Her answers resonated with me.

Pieces of the Land, kozo pulp, ink, colored pencil, graphite on washi, 8.25 x 11.75 x 1.25 inches. Artwork by Richelle Gribble. (Jonathan Ferrara Gallery)

Richelle told me that during her first few days or weeks in a town (depending on the length of her stay, which can range from a few weeks to a few months), she talks to lots of people in the community, engaging in conversation and listening to their language and forms of expression. She takes in the colors of the landscape and environment, looks at plants, wildlife, architecture, animal migrations, maps, photos, and the foods everyone eats. She gathers an understanding and a collection of the materials around—whether from beaches, forests, glaciers, or cityscapes. And she takes note of how the local art is made: what materials the artists use, and what their techniques and practices are. The latter were especially important, she said, as she began her international travels where the world of art could be so very different.

Then Richelle told me something that really hit home. She said she looks for recurring scenes, materials, or symbols that link one place to another, to show that all systems (social, technological, or physical) are linked around the world. This search for recurring patterns is something I did regularly via language when we visited new places. I would routinely write down interesting words or phrases that struck me—ones that surprised me or stood out. I would often make “word clouds” of a town, which taught me a lot about the culture of the place, and sometimes about universals. See a few examples here and here.

In meta-terms, these starting points build toward to her goal to reflect the community or its ecosystem through her art. She hoped to build a sense of what towns have in common and what sets them apart from each other. And ultimately, perhaps, to find a greater interconnection of communities and a sense of perspective of the planet. That is a tall order, but one she bears in mind as she works locally to reflect global themes.

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Yoshinogawa: Richelle spent two and a half months in the city of Yoshinogawa, Japan, a farmland community with a population of about 40,000. It is in the prefecture of Tokushima, southwest from Kyoto. The residency was no doubt a prized one, allowing her to work at the centuries-old Fujimori family’s Awagami Factory. Minoru Fujimori took over the family factory in 1945, and was designated a “Sixth Class Order of Merit, Sacred Treasure” by the Emperor in 1986 for washi paper work (a Japanese traditional craft). Minoru Fujimori died in 2015, but the family continues the age-old eco-friendly washi paper-making technique.

Blending and coloring raw kozo fiber for pulp painting at the Awagami Factory (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Richelle created an entirely new collection of artwork at the Awagami Factory, and she described to me the challenge of how to use the traditional materials and techniques in the contemporary art that she produces. It took some doing to try to replicate the traditional practices and mimic the gestures and movements involved, she said. Presenting her contemporary work to a community steeped and sophisticated in hallowed art forms, and explaining it through a translator, would be threading a needle of honoring the craft, reflecting the practice, and making her own art.

Leading a collaborative drawing workshop at an elementary school (Tak Abe / Awagami Factory)

Richelle found, as did we when we lived with our then elementary-school age children in Japan for two years, that the local residents were very interested in visitors and their ways. She taught workshops in local schools, met the city’s mayor, and attended press events. The Yoshinogawa residents were interested in how she innovated and elaborated on the traditional work she learned about, and ultimately, the Western perspective through which she interpreted and produced her art.

Creating kozo pulp painting at the Awagami Factory (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Peeling pulp painting off drying board (Nonomura / Awagami Factory)

Richelle described her main project: She used natural materials to make the pulp and produce a map, “painting the land from the land” she told me. She collected traditional kozo fibers, pounded them into the paper mixing with mountain water, and used natural indigo dye from the plants grown by the river. She wanted the residents to see themselves in her artwork, to be able to identify their own house within a larger map. It was her way of broaching the language barrier. If they couldn’t connect through language, she said, “we could share a place this way. (The art became) another way of understanding each other.”

Pieces of the Land, ink, colored pencil, graphite on washi, 8.25 x 11.75 inches (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Sorting drawings on washi paper (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

She also produced art on a small scale, drawing images of the many gifts the residents presented her, such as plants from gardens, and fruits and vegetables from their yards. She took photos of her drawings and placed them on a map she drew of the area, which she described as “showing the personality of the town in a more micro-intimate way through gifts exchanged and found objects in the area. It serves as a key or legend to give identity to the larger maps.”

Mounting a large woven web to be embedded in kozo fiber (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Richelle also told me a charming spider-web story. Always on the lookout for spider webs, Richelle spotted them as she walked around town getting her bearings and her map sense. She was noticed. Foreigners are always noticed in Japan, in our experience. If our little boys got temporarily lost in our Japanese neighborhood, neighbors—even ones I had never seen before—would bring them home, knowing exactly who we were and where we lived. One older man was watching Richelle looking for spider webs, and after a time, he offered to guide her along her walks about town, pointing out the webs he had spotted on her behalf.

Presenting “On Place” a new collection of paper-based artworks to local community at the Inbe Art Space in Yoshinogawa, Japan (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Her art became a way to be something way more than a tourist, to open the door to a different kind of more intimate experience with the country. More like being a scientist or a detective, she described it to me. A common component of residencies is an open-door policy, where people in the town can stop by. For Richelle, this was valuable, as much of her work was driven by ideas and messages she took in from her visitors. And for those who drop by, she thought, it is one of the few times that people get to see what happens in the studios, to learn how involved the process of making art really is—seeing the incubating, testing, and interaction, as she described it, to create the final product. They see the process from start to finish.

More from this series

Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles
Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles Courtesy of WildPlaces

Last month, as part of a “Big Little Ideas” series, I mentioned a surprisingly valuable short-term step that communities can take, on their own, for positive climate effects. That is to start planting trees. More on the science behind the idea, plus discussion of exactly how much difference trees can make, from: MIT Technology Review, the long-established Arbor Day Foundation and Nature Conservancy, the newer One Tree Planted and Plant for the Planet organizations, and Cool Antarctica, with links at these sites to much more.

Short version of what you’ll find: Intensified tree-planting obviously is not the full answer to the climate crisis. But it’s a step in reducing atmospheric carbon levels, and potentially an important one.


Last week, a team from Otis College, or formally the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, put this outlook into effect with its “100 Giants” project. The idea originated with Shelley Forbes, an Otis alum who is circulation manager at the campus library, as part of Otis’s centennial observations last year.

The goal was to plant 100-plus seedlings of the famed giant sequoias of northern California’s forests; nurture them to the stage where they could be transplanted; and then ship them northward, for permanent rooting in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The organization WildPlaces, which focuses on conservation and “re-wilding” in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, was a partner in the project.

Sequoia seedlings in the background, at Otis College, growing before their transplantation at the Giant Sequoia National Monument in northern California (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

They grow up so fast! This past week, the Otis community bade farewell to their year-old, several-inch-high seedlings, which began the trip north. As an article by Anna Raya on the campus news site said:

Spread across The Commons lawn they stood—staffers were proudly taking selfies with them, students were wandering amongst them, saying their names: Charlie Brown, Little Buddy, Paisley. These were the 100 Giants of Otis College, Sequoia tree seedlings that were whisked off this week to their final home in the Trail of 100 Giants in the Giant Sequoia National Monument …

“The front of the library will seem very naked now that the trees are gone,” says [library official Shelley] Forbes of the popular growing spot on campus for the seedlings. “I am, however, very excited that the trees are going home to their native lands.”

Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, and Shelley Forbes, of Otis College, at the seedling-shipping ceremony last week (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

“From a scientific point of view, giant Sequoias are one of the best carbon sinks there is,” Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, said of the project. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, giant sequoias are the largest and most massive trees on Earth, and their trunks and limbs contain more carbon per tree than any other species. “Imagine a tree growing massively over two- or three-thousand years,” McMillan said. “it’s holding carbon [all that time] … Spiritually, it goes without saying that being in a forest with big trees is going to help your spirit.”


Grow well, little trees. In their prime, giant sequoias can gain one and a half to two feet in height per year. Thus it will take centuries for any of them to reach the species’ peak height of 300 feet or more.

None of the students or staffers at Otis will see their trees at full maturity. But if the best time to plant a sequoia is 500 years ago, the second best is now.

At Otis College’s ceremony last week, as they sent off the seedlings (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)