As the sun rises in Los Angeles, a handful of passengers wait for a downtown bus in front of Tony’s Barber Shop, on an exposed stretch of Figueroa Street near the Pasadena Freeway. Like Matryoshka dolls, they stand one behind another, still and quiet, in the shadow cast by the person at the head of the line. It’s going to be another 80-degree day, and riders across the city are lining up behind street signs and telephone poles.
For years, the business owners on this block have tried to do something about the lack of shade. First someone planted banana trees and jammed an I-beam into the sidewalk well. Tony Cornejo, the barber, swears he didn’t do it, but he admits rigging up a gray canvas between a highway sign and parking lot fence to put a roof on the makeshift shelter. He was just taking care of the street, he said, so that the “ladies and children” who had grown accustomed to waiting out the heat in his shop could be comfortable outside. He dragged wooden crates under the canopy and nailed them together to create two long benches. In the shade, people ate their lunches, read magazines, scrolled through their phones. Can collectors rested. Bus drivers waited before beginning their shifts.
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There are nearly 1,900 official bus shelters in Los Angeles city limits, but only a handful within two miles of Tony’s Barber Shop. 1 Who decides where the shade goes? You might imagine that transit planners call the shots — strategically placing shelters outside grocery stores and doctors’ offices on high-frequency routes, according to community need — but Los Angeles, like many cities, has outsourced the job. The first thousand shelters were installed in the 1980s by billboard companies in exchange for the right to sell ad space, and they tended to show up in wealthy areas where ad revenue surpassed maintenance costs. 2 In 2001, the mayor signed a deal to double the number of shelters and give public officials greater control over their placement. The new vendor agreed to install and maintain shelters throughout the city and offset its losses with freestanding ad kiosks in lucrative areas. But when politically savvy constituents complained about the coming spate of advertising, the city withheld permits, and the deal broke down. As the contract nears its end, the vendor, Outfront/Decaux, has installed only about 650 new shelters, roughly half of the projected number. 3
Another reason why there’s no bus shelter in front of Tony’s Barber Shop is the street design. Figueroa is a major artery with five travel lanes, two parking lanes, modest sidewalks, and storefronts that come right up to the edge of the property line. You can’t install a shelter here without disrupting underground utilities near the curb (a right-of-way controlled by multiple city agencies), violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (which requires four-foot clearance for wheelchairs), or blocking driveway sightlines. The same goes for street trees. On this block, shade is basically outlawed. 4
You can’t install a shelter here without disrupting underground utilities, violating the ADA, or blocking driveway sightlines. On this block, shade is basically outlawed.
Sidewalk inspectors forced Cornejo to take down the canopy in the summer of 2015, just before the worst heat wave in 25 years rolled through Los Angeles. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works said sidewalks have to be “safe and secure,” and he pointed to a section of the municipal code prohibiting “obstruction in the public right of way.” 5 Never mind that Cornejo’s shelter, open at both ends, let pedestrians pass freely. It was deemed a safety hazard. You could argue that the law should be more flexible, and that as temperatures rise in this sun-baked city, the meaning of public safety should evolve. But in fact the city code had been revised to be more punitive, so that violators could be fined and repeat offenders charged with misdemeanors under the city’s “overgrown vegetation enforcement program.” The hardline approach was pushed by councilmember Greig Smith, who wanted to promote the “aesthetic value” of “tidy and attractive” neighborhoods like the ones in his district, an affluent, car-dependent part of the San Fernando Valley. 6
So here come the shade police. Los Angeles processes about 16,000 sidewalk obstructions annually, a category which includes informal shelters as well as unruly trees, piles of trash, and other encroachments on the right of way. The public has an interest in accessible sidewalks. But the enforcement of aesthetic values can quash grassroots self-improvement in neighborhoods like Cypress Park, where Cornejo’s rasquache oasis had its two-year run.
Urban theorist and historian Mike Davis says the city’s regulatory powers could be used for greater good. “Drive through South Central L.A., and just see what Latinos have done to their yards,” he urged me. I’ve seen it. Makeshift porticos made of blue poly tarps. Patios shaded by lush tree canopies, which cool the dry air as it blows inside the house. Catholic shrines and taco stands under pop-up gazebos. And those domestic enhancements spill over into the public realm. Sidewalk vendors cluster in the shade of large umbrellas, and neighbors string shade sails across the alleys. 7 “Are there any tax advantages for it? No.” Davis said. “Are there city programs? Well, the city’s been forced to make a few concessions for urban gardens, but the larger phenomenon just goes unnoticed.” 8 He argued that public action could dramatically transform the geography of shade. “If they got a little financing and were better supported, it could bring about wonders.”
A People’s History of Shade
All you have to do is scoot across a satellite map of the Los Angeles Basin to see the tremendous shade disparity. Leafy neighborhoods are tucked in hillside canyons and built around golf courses. High modernist homes embrace the sun as it flickers through labor-intensive thickets of eucalyptus. Awnings, paseos, and mature ficus trees shade high-end shopping districts. In the oceanfront city of Santa Monica, which has a dedicated municipal tree plan and a staff of public foresters, all 302 bus stops have been outfitted with fixed steel parasols (“blue spots”) that block the sun. 9 Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles flats, there are vast gray expanses — playgrounds, parking lots, and wide roads — with almost no trees. Transit riders bake at unsheltered bus stops. The homeless take refuge in tunnels and under highway overpasses; some chain their tarps and tents to fences on Skid Row and wait out the day in the shadows of buildings across the street.
Shade is often understood as a luxury amenity, lending calm to courtyards and tree-lined boulevards, cooling and obscuring jewel boxes and glass cubes. But as deadly, hundred-degree heatwaves become commonplace, we have to learn to see shade as a civic resource that is shared by all. In the shade, overheated bodies return to equilibrium. Blood circulation improves. People think clearly. They see better. In a physiological sense, they are themselves again. For people vulnerable to heat stress and exhaustion — outdoor workers, the elderly, the homeless — that can be the difference between life and death. Shade is thus an index of inequality, a requirement for public health, and a mandate for urban planners and designers. 10
A few years back, Los Angeles passed sweeping revisions to the general plan meant to encourage residents to walk, bike, and take more buses and trains. But as Angelenos step out of their cars, they are discovering that many streets offer little relief from the oppressive sunshine. Not everyone has the stamina to wait out the heat at an unprotected bus stop, or the money to duck into an air-conditioned cafe. 11 When we understand shade as a public resource — a kind of infrastructure, even — we can have better discussions about how to create it and distribute it fairly.
Shade is often understood as a luxury amenity. But as deadly heatwaves become commonplace, we have to see it as a civic resource shared by all.
Yet cultural values complicate the provision of shade. Los Angeles is a low-rise city whose residents prize open air and sunshine. 12 They show up at planning meetings to protest tall buildings that would block views or darken sunbathing decks, and police urge residents in high-crime neighborhoods to cut down trees that hide drug dealing and prostitution. Shade trees are designed out of parks to discourage loitering and turf wars, and designed off streets where traffic engineers demand wide lanes and high visibility. Diffuse sunlight is rare in many parts of Los Angeles. You might trace this back to a cultural obsession with shadows and spotlights, drawing a line from Hollywood noir — in which long shadows and unlit corners represent the criminal underworld — to the contemporary politics of surveillance. 13 The light reveals what hides in the dark.
When I think of Los Angeles, I picture Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village, a streetcar suburb converted into a ten-lane automobile moonscape. People say they like this street for its wall of low-slung, pre-war storefronts, home to record stores and restaurants. To me, it’s a never-ending, vertiginous tunnel of light. I squint to avoid the glare from the white stucco walls, bare pavement, and car windows. From a climate perspective, bright surfaces are good; they absorb fewer sun rays and lessen the urban heat-island effect. But on an unshaded street they can also concentrate and intensify local sunlight.
Mark Schiler, an architecture professor at the University of Southern California, has studied visual and thermal glare in downtown Los Angeles. He found that heat reflected by the aluminum wings of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall was strong enough to melt traffic cones. Schiler suggested thinking about direct light as ideal for performing oral surgery and diffuse light as ideal for reading a book. Put it that way, and most Angelenos would be happy to live in the shade. 14
Shade was integral to the urban design of southern California until the advent of cheap electricity in the 1930s.
At one time, they did. “Shade was integral, and incorporated into the urban design of southern California up until the 1930s,” Davis said. “If you go to most of the older agricultural towns … the downtown streets were arcaded. They had the equivalent of awnings over the sidewalk.” Rancho homes had sleeping porches and shade trees, and buildings were oriented to keep their occupants cool. The original settlement of Los Angeles conformed roughly to the Law of the Indies, a royal ordinance that required streets to be laid out at a 45-degree angle, ensuring access to sun in the winter and shade in the summer. Spanish adobes were built around a central courtyard cooled by awnings and plants. 15 As the city grew, the California bungalow — a low, rectangular house, with wide eaves, inspired by British Indian hill stations — became popular with the middle class. “During the 1920s, they were actually prefabricated in factories,” Davis said. “There are tens of thousands of bungalows, particularly along the Alameda corridor … that were manufactured by Pacific Ready-Cut Homes, which advertised itself as the Henry Ford of home construction.” 16
All that changed with the advent of cheap electricity. In 1936, the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light completed a 266-mile high-voltage transmission line from Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam), which could supply 70 percent of the city’s power at low cost. Southern Californians bought mass-produced housing with electric heating and air conditioning. By the end of World War II, there were nearly 4 million people living in Los Angeles County, and the new neighborhoods were organized around driveways and parking lots. Parts of the city, Davis said, became “virtually treeless deserts.”
Look at what happened to Pershing Square, where sunlight was weaponized to clear out the ‘deviates and criminals.’
Look at what happened to Pershing Square, which was once a glamorous five-acre park in the heart of the city. In John Parkinson’s 1910 design, three axial, brick-lined paths crossed an urban forest planted with international species like Canary Island date palms, bamboo, and Italian cypress. Under the enormous leaves of banana trees and birds of paradise, a white-collar lunchtime crowd read newspapers and books from a library cart, as “war strategists” rabble-roused in shirtsleeves. Then, in 1951, the park was bulldozed to install a three-story underground parking garage. The trees were relocated to Disneyland, where the ficuses shaded Main Street, U.S.A., and the date palms became scenery for the Jungle Cruise. 17 On top of the parking garage, Pershing Square was reimagined as a thin, large expanse of grass. The subsurface made it impossible to plant deep-rooted trees. To make things worse, the square was fenced off from the promenaders and flâneurs. The park’s “nuts” and “blabbers” were relegated to its edges, where they competed for space with cars entering the garage through deep gashes in the surface. 18
It’s easy to see how this hostile design reflected the values of the peak automobile era, but there is more going on here. The destruction of urban refuge was part of a long-term strategy to discourage gay cruising, drug use, and other “shady” activities downtown. In 1964, business owners sponsored another redesign that was intended, in the hyperbolic words of the Los Angeles Times, to finally clear out the “deviates and criminals.” The city removed the perimeter benches and culled even more palms and shade trees, so that office workers and shoppers could move through the park without being “accosted by derelicts and ‘bums.’” Sunlight was weaponized. “Before long, pedestrians will be walking through, instead of avoiding, Pershing Square,” the Times declared. “And that is why parks are built.” 19
Pershing Square set a template for Los Angeles: the park as an open space to walk through, and as a revenue-generating canvas.
But that is not why parks are built, and the design failed. Shorn of its canopy, surrounded by car traffic, the “see-through” Pershing Square was forsaken by the lunchtime crowd. It was not so much a dangerous place as it was ignoble: “a sort of last resort for people sleeping off the night before or dozing off the rest of their lives.” As Times columnist Art Seidenbaum moaned, “Out went sweet shade. In came sterility.” 20
Yet to a certain kind of politician, failure looked like success. Pershing Square set a template for Los Angeles whereby a park is not really a park, exactly, but a revenue-generating canvas. Five blocks north of the square sits Grand Park, a rectangular, twelve-acre space catering to downtown’s growing residential population. At the official opening in 2012, five thousand visitors stood in a freshly landscaped field to watch aerial dancers hang from City Hall, the de facto stage across the street. Movie screenings and concerts are held regularly, and the park rakes in around $1.5 million annually, mostly in rental fees. 21 Like Pershing Square, Grand Park is built above a parking garage, which means there is no depth for deep-rooted shade trees, and no respite from the sun for visitors. 22
“They like the events. They like the lawn. They like being there. But it’s very hot,” said urbanist Mia Lehrer. 23 Her firm is designing a new park across the street, which is informed by critiques of Grand. FAB Park — an acronym for the location at First and Broadway — is projected to open in 2020. City officials, Lehrer said, “heard loud and clear from people that they wanted shade.” The design by OMA and Studio-MLA calls for 26-foot-tall metal structures, meant to resemble enormous California poppies, shading a split-level amphitheater and outdoor restaurant. Native oak and sycamore trees will be planted at the edges.
Meanwhile, a new design for maligned Pershing Square — its sixth — was unveiled in 2016. Like prior efforts, the design competition was sponsored by nearby property owners; this group calls itself Pershing Square Renew. The winning proposal, by Agence Ter, again centers on a great lawn, with plenty of space for public events. One edge, opposite the Biltmore hotel, is dominated by a massive block-length arbor that the designers call a shade pergola. 24 The thin slats of its canopy will be hoisted 30 feet in the air by columns which split like a tree’s branches as they extend upward. The whole structure is to be subsumed by climbing vegetation, echoing the more natural tree grove planned for the other side of the park. In renderings, the pergola seems to recede into the foliage, as crowds mingle in diffuse, dappled light at restaurants and the farmer’s market, or on the viewing deck.
Conspicuously, there are no benches. I asked Agence Ter landscape designer Lauren Hamer about that. Shade creates shelter, she said. “And Los Angeles obviously has a very conflicted position towards creating shelter in the public realm,” which is reflected in attitudes toward homelessness. “Public spaces need to be open, so that people can move across them, as opposed to gathering there.” She cited a failed 1986 proposal by James Wines, which would have transformed the park into a miniature of the city itself — a “magic carpet” of different micro-climates, each module locked in a grid. Although Wines won an open design competition, his park was never funded or built. 25 Hamer said she thought that was because it would be too inviting: “a place for people to hang out.”
Shade creates shelter, and Los Angeles is very conflicted about creating shelter in the public realm.
This expectation — that the park not be too social — is strange to the team at Agence Ter. “It’s exactly opposite the design traditions that we, as a French firm … are used to working with,” said architect Annelies De Nijs. “For us, parks are mainly places that are a destination,” not merely a place for passing through. The pergola grapples with the site’s history: the tensions between privacy and surveillance, personal comfort and presumed safety. De Nijs said the architects have responded to the “very contested element” of public shade by designing a shelter that is “very high and very wide, so it becomes like one big overall ceiling, let’s say, that provides a lot of different types of spaces underneath,” rather than smaller shade structures which might be dominated by people who “gather, group, stay there, and see it as their little house.”
The First ‘Million Tree’ Movement
High-concept architecture is one way to transform the shadescape of Los Angeles. Street trees are another. Unfortunately, the city’s most ubiquitous tree — the iconic Washington robusta, or Mexican fan palm — is about as useful in that respect as a telephone pole.
Palm trees have been identified with southern California since 1893, when Canary Island date palms — the fatter, stouter cousin — were displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair. On the trunk of one of those palms, boosters posted the daily temperatures at a San Diego beach, and the tree itself came to stand for “sunshine and soft air.” In his indispensable history, Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer traces the palm’s transformation from a symbol of a healthy climate to a symbol of glamour, via its association with Hollywood. 26
Mexican fan palms were the ideal tree for an automobile landscape, beautifying the city without making a mess.
Despite that early fame, palm trees did not really take over Los Angeles until the 1930s, when a citywide program set tens of thousands of palms along new or recently expanded roads. They were the ideal tree for an automobile landscape. Hardy, cheap, and able to grow anywhere, palm trees are basically weeds. Their shallow roots curl up into a ball, so they can be plugged into small pavement cuts without entangling underground sewer and water mains or buckling sidewalks. As Farmer puts it, palms are “symbiotic infrastructure,” beautifying the city without making a mess. Plus, as Mary Pickford once pointed out, the slender trunks don’t block the view of storefronts, which makes them ideal for window-shopping from the driver’s seat. The city’s first forester, L. Glenn Hall, planted more than 25,000 palm trees in 1931 alone. 27
Hall’s vision, though, was more ambitious than that. He planned to landscape all of Los Angeles’s roads with 1.2 million street trees. Tall palms, like Washingtonia robusta, would go on major thoroughfares, and side streets would be lined with elm, pine, red maple, liquidambar, ash, and sycamore. A Depression-era stimulus package provided enough funds to employ 400 men for six months. But the forestry department put the burden of watering and maintenance on property owners, and soon it charged for cutting new tree wells, too. Owners weren’t interested. So Hall concentrated his efforts on the 28 major boulevards that would serve the 1932 Olympics — including the now-iconic Ventura, Wilshire, Figueroa, Vermont, Western, and Crenshaw — and committed the city to pay for five years of tree maintenance. That may well have bankrupted the tree planting program, and before long the city was urging property owners to take on all costs, including the trees themselves. 28
If you see a mature shade tree today, you can assume that a private citizen paid for it and maintained it. Canopy inequality thus follows lines of wealth.
This history partly explains the shade disparity in Los Angeles today. Consider the physical dimensions of a major city street in Hall’s time. Between the expanding road and narrowing sidewalks was an open strip of grass, three to ten feet wide, known as the parkway. Having rejected a comprehensive parks system, Los Angeles relied on these roadside strips to plant its urban forest, but over time the parkways were diminished by various agencies in the name of civic improvements — chiefly, road widening. 29 And the stewardship of these spaces was always ambiguous. The parkways are public land, owned and regulated by the city, but adjacent property owners are responsible for maintenance. Today, if you see a mature shade tree in Los Angeles, on a boulevard or residential side street, or spilling out over the fence of a front yard, you can assume that a private citizen, decades ago, decided to pay for it and maintain it. Canopy inequality thus follows lines of wealth.
Hall’s vision for a tree-covered Los Angeles was revived in 2006, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced an initiative to plant one million street trees. (Cities like Denver, New York, and Shanghai have since joined the “Million Tree” movement.) 30 The U.S. Forest Service researchers who mapped potential planting sites found that canopy cover in Los Angeles was around 18 percent, well below the national average of 27 percent. Moreover, it varied dramatically across the city. 31 Among the shadiest areas was Hancock Park, a luxury neighborhood in the flats with double-size lots and underground utility lines, where developers planted trees in the wide parkways and arranged for homeowners to pay extra maintenance fees. The canopy stands out in satellite photos: a green rectangle in a sea of gray. Also high on the list were the hilltop communities of Bel Air and Mount Washington. A century ago, both areas were covered with grassland, desert chaparral, and sage scrub, with small walnut groves in difficult-to-access river canyons. But the hills offered fantastic views for wealthy Angelenos who wanted some distance from the city, and the trees they planted have matured into the city’s highest, densest canopy, drawing celebrities and politicians to live in what Reyner Banham called “thickets of privacy.” 32 Further east, in the valley between the Verdugo and San Gabriel mountains, the wealthy town of San Marino charges entrance fees to parks of shady sycamores and oaks.
Canopy coverage is about 10 percent in South Los Angeles, compared to 18 percent citywide and 27 percent nationally.
Compare those hills and canyons with South Los Angeles, a 51-square-mile flatland developed around the turn of the last century — first as estates, just outside the city center, and then as a commuter suburb served by streetcar lines that ran down Western, Normandie, and Vermont avenues toward the Port of Los Angeles. Past the grounds of the University of Southern California, mansions and gabled cottages gave way to rows and rows of single-family craftsman bungalows on 50-foot lots, built out with consistent setbacks and neatly tailored parkways, often with a palm tree. Some of those middle-class streets were developed as worker housing by the Goodyear Tire company, which operated a factory on the periphery. Poorer residents lived in duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts mixed among the single-family homes. In the 1920s and ’30s, redlining forced black families to live near industrial land along the river, which the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the agency responsible for federal home financing, declared “a fit location for a slum clearance project.” 33 White veterans returned from the war to live in Watts’ Jordan Downs housing project, along with Avalon Gardens and Pueblo del Rio, complexes with common courtyard and green spaces. But they soon received government support to buy houses in new suburbs, outside the flats, with trendy ficuses shading the parkways. 34
Eight of Hall’s palmed avenues cut through South Los Angeles, and as the suburbs grew these arterials were reconfigured as six-lane highways, destroying their residential character. Over time, side streets were widened to accommodate industrial traffic. The imposition of freeways in the 1950s and ’60s bisected historic neighborhoods and fatally damaged the streetcar business districts. As manufacturing left the city, unemployment rose and property values declined. Riots in 1965 and 1992 further damaged properties, paving the way for modern, parking-centric redevelopment and large apartment complexes, which pose special challenges for arborists.
To the list of environmental injustices in this country, we can add the unequal distribution of shade.
While many American cities have figured out how to plant street trees in areas with high numbers of renters, the urban form of Los Angeles — all those curb cuts — makes that difficult. The dingbat, a classic local housing type, transforms the frontage and sidewalk into a driveway for parking underneath. City policy hasn’t helped, either. In the years following Hall’s beautification campaign, the forestry department would plant in parkways only if petitioned by 75 percent of the property owners on a block. (“Legal owners and not tenants,” a Times writer admonished.) 35 Absentee landlords rarely bothered.
As a result of these historical forces, South Los Angeles is a hard place to find shade. The tree canopy cover is about 10 percent, compared to 53 percent in Bel Air. 36 The residential side streets run east-west, so they are blasted with sun all day, and the commercial drags are grade-level highways. Even the schoolyards are barren, which is significant, since the Los Angeles Unified School District owns so much land. 37 “The average LAUSD campus is 90 percent asphalt,” arborist Aaron Thomas said. Trees don’t count toward the state-mandated allotment of “playspace” per student, and operations managers prefer blacktop to green landscaping because it’s cheaper and easier to maintain. Arborists who plant trees at schools often have to enlist parent volunteers because watering isn’t in the janitors’ contracts. 38
So to the list of environmental injustices in this country, we can add the unequal distribution of shade. People living in poor neighborhoods, many of them black and brown, are exposed not only to higher levels of air pollution, soil toxins, contaminated water, and flood risk, but also to higher temperatures on unprotected streets. 39 But because shade is conceived as a luxury, or comfort, it hasn’t taken hold as a public health issue. Maybe we ought to start talking about shade deserts, just as we talk about neighborhoods without grocery stores as food deserts. In Sidewalks, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht cite a study showing that household income is the only statistically significant variable in determining tree canopy. 40 Putting the burden of maintenance on residents means that trees in less-resourced neighborhoods will die out, stressed by drought or besieged by the Southland’s prodigious pest infections. And when they do, the wells and parkways stay empty.
Ted Watkins, a Ford plant employee, was early to recognize the need for shade in South Los Angeles. After the Watts riots, he took out a loan from the United Auto Workers to buy empty lots and build parks. He founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, which became one of the area’s largest private landowners, controlling many low-income apartment complexes. In the 1960s and ’70s, the organization hired neighborhood kids, including Watkins’s son Tim, to plant street trees as part of a city contract. Many of those trees are still standing, like the “monstrous” windbreaks Tim remembers planting on Pacific Coast Highway, as well as thick canopies of ficus in Hollywood and parkway groves in the San Fernando Valley.
Ted Watkins died in 1993, and his son is now the WLCAC president. On a driving tour of Watts, Tim pointed out a stretch of empty tree wells on Central Avenue, in front of a senior center operated by his organization. He’d like to fill those spaces, which have been empty for the better part of a decade, with ash trees, but the city won’t permit planting there. The senior center is built into a street-accessible parking lot, and guidelines discourage tree planting within six feet of a driveway or 45 feet of an intersection, in order to clear sightlines for drivers. 41 When I asked Watkins why the wells were empty in the first place, he sighed. “Maybe they were the wrong trees,” he offered. The only surviving trees on that side of the street are three shadeless palms.
The city won’t permit the planting of large trees where the roots could rip up sidewalks or destroy underground utilities. That effectively zones shade out of many poor neighborhoods.
Aaron Thomas, the arborist, lamented that the city won’t permit the planting of large trees in parkways less than five feet in width, because the roots could rip up sidewalks or destroy underground utilities. That effectively zones shade out of many poor neighborhoods. To teach me how an urban forester sees the world, he took me to Lincoln Heights, the oldest neighborhood outside downtown Los Angeles, where industrial infrastructure has made it impossible to plant trees that provide real shade. The riverbank that once supported a thriving riparian habitat was developed as factories and railyards. Over time, the Victorian mansions were demolished or converted. Roads were widened, parkways narrowed, and utilities installed. Thomas and I walked past a stretch of auto body shops and parking lots, on sidewalks that were only three feet wide. To plant a shade tree here, he explained, the street would have to be extensively reengineered and the sidewalk expanded. I pointed to an empty well across the street. Too close to a driveway, he said, and anyway, it would have to be a small, shrubby species, because of the criss-crossing wires overhead. “The rule is, if the branches are within 30 feet of the powerlines, then the DWP is allowed to come in and prune ’em back.”
“That’s, like, every street tree,” I said.
“Often. And you’ve got a water main right there. So the roots of the tree will always be in conflict with it.”
Surveillance is another concern. With Tim Watkins, I toured a 2.5-acre lot in Watts that WLCAC has owned for over a decade. Two years ago, the organization broke ground there on a community garden, across the street from the Jordan Downs public housing project, and not far from industrial land that the city is remediating to become the future site of the housing complex. Toxic dust coats the minivans and trucks parked along the garden’s perimeter. 42 A massive tree grows in the corner of the future garden, creating a shady tunnel over the sidewalk. Watkins told me police have asked him to remove it, because “loiterers hang out under the tree, and the helicopters can’t see them.” Eventually, he said, he’ll oblige. He pointed to a row of chest-high trunks nearby, trees that were cut back when a pole camera went up across the street. Now, they’re basically stumps — not removed, exactly, but trimmed so severely that they are likely to die.
Surveillance is another concern. When a new pole camera goes up in a public park, the mature canopy around it vanishes.
Requests to deforest are common in heavily policed areas, where shade is perceived as a magnet for drug dealing and prostitution. In the early 2000s, the L.A. Police Department began installing security cameras in high-crime areas of the city, and it asked city crews to cut back trees that obscured sightlines. Eventually, street cops submitted so many requests that the overwhelmed forestry department started recommending tree removal in places where “regular maintenance” was not feasible. Officially, the city has no policy about removing shade for surveillance purposes, but it happens: public housing courtyards, including Jordan Downs’s, are bare of trees, and when a new pole camera goes up in a public park, the mature canopy around it vanishes. On private property, the approach is more informal. “It’s not that the police have the authority to say, you can’t plant trees here,” explained Michael Pinto, a principal at NAC Architecture who specializes in community design-build projects. “It’s that they have convinced community leaders that, if you want to save your community, you can’t have too many trees, because it restricts [the police’s] ability to do their jobs.” 43
Planning for Shade
Perhaps cities would place a higher value on street trees if the benefits of shade were more widely understood. Ariane Middel, a climate scientist at Arizona State University, studies how people stay comfortable outdoors. To do that, she mounted a multi-directional radiometer on a garden cart and dragged it through campus to record temperatures in different areas, while interviewing students about how they felt. To her surprise, it wasn’t air temperature, humidity, or wind speed that had the greatest effect on personal comfort. It was shade. In another study, conducted on a playground, she found the difference in surface temperature between shaded and unshaded asphalt was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit — and the difference was even greater on jungle gyms. Shade stops skin burns. 44
One study found that the difference in surface temperature between shaded and unshaded asphalt was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Surface temperatures also contribute to the urban heat island effect. We know cities are hotter than rural areas because there is more going on: more lights, air conditioning systems, cars, and so forth, converting electrical and chemical energy to heat. But cities also have more impervious surfaces that soak in the sun’s radiation — not just asphalt schoolyards, but big parking lots, wide roads, and dark roofs. On a hot day, those surfaces can absorb up to 90 percent of solar radiation, rising to 160 degrees, and release it as convection heat through the day and night. Los Angeles officials have backed sustainable design initiatives like tax incentives that encourage homeowners to install green roofs, and a prototype of so-called “cool pavement” — which reflects the sun’s heat through high-albedo white coating — in the San Fernando Valley. But those strategies won’t make people more comfortable if there isn’t already sufficient shade or tree canopy. Cool pavements on unshaded streets can actually make people hotter by reflecting the sunlight right back at them. 45
David Eisenman, a public health professor at UCLA, described heat stress as basically the opposite of a panic attack. The skin’s pores close as the body works hard to conserve water. Organs pump blood to the surface, which cools the skin as it comes in contact with more intense heat. As your body goes into overdrive, your mind goes into hibernation; it’s a kind of physical and mental withdrawal. 46 Heat stress can also lead to more serious problems, especially for the young, the elderly, those who work outdoors, and the poor and socially isolated. 47 “People get exhausted. They get lethargic. They get confused,” Eisenman said. “That also makes people less able to reach for water. … They don’t recognize their thirst.” Too much heat can eventually overwhelm the regulatory system and lead to organ failure and heart attack.
Eisenman has been working with arborists and climate scientists deputized by the city council to figure out how to cool down Los Angeles. During a heat wave in 2006, county hospitals took in 17,348 patients for heat exhaustion, cramps, and heat strokes, as well as related conditions like kidney failure and heart attacks. Vulnerable people who couldn’t afford air conditioning died, while those who cranked up the AC released more greenhouse gases and generated more waste heat, making things worse for everyone. It’s likely that in 30 years, the global climate will have changed so much that winter in Los Angeles will feel like spring. Parts of Los Angeles County furthest from the ocean, pressed up against the San Gabriel foothills, will quadruple their days of extreme heat, when temperatures rise above 95 degrees. Downtown Los Angeles will have 22 days of extreme heat annually. Santa Monica, by comparison, will have one. 48
The mayor has pledged to reduce the temperature by three degrees by 2050, but sustainability programs will vary by neighborhood.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to combat climate change by reducing the city’s temperature by three degrees by 2050. 49 But solutions will vary geographically. Neighborhoods with wide sidewalks and parkways will get the best street trees, while areas with compromised infrastructure may be targeted for green roofs and cool pavements, which can lower the heat island effect without actually increasing comfort for people on the street. Lauren Faber, the Chief Sustainability Officer coordinating the city’s climate change response, told me she recognized a role for shade in lowering the temperature of the city. But still I wondered if the city needed to set additional goals, focusing on the creation of shade itself. Real estate developers, who in a very practical sense drive the design of this city, have not been incentivized to experiment with more durably shady streetscapes, like sidewalk canopies or covered walkways on their side of the property line. And in the effort to cool down the overall temperature, nobody is really focused on shade disparities, and the need to provide shelter to those who need it most.
Shade is not in the DNA of modern Los Angeles. After a rezoning in the 1930s, high-density developments like rowhouses and tenements were effectively banned, since the prevailing wisdom held that Los Angeles shouldn’t feel like an older East Coast city — dark, cramped, and overcrowded. New housing was required to have front and side yards, and deep setbacks were the norm. For decades, no building could be taller than the 27-story City Hall, and even when height limits were raised in 1957, density was encouraged only in small pockets of the city. Then came the parking minimums. Beloved prewar residential types like the bungalow court were endangered, as the shaded commons were converted to parking. Even today, the city requires two parking spaces per housing unit. 50
Voters expressed their fear of density again in 1986, when they approved a ballot measure to reduce the floor-area ratio — the amount of buildable space, relative to lot size — in new commercial developments. 51 What does that have to do with shade? Open areas beneath habitable space — like an arcade cut out of a building, or a patio beneath a balcony — can be counted as floor space in the density ratio. That makes it hard for architects to justify such spaces to their clients. “The name of the game is to maximize floor area,” said architect Simon Ha, who is advising city planners as they rewrite the zoning code to avoid such disincentives. 52 Even installing a shade sail in a public park creates new “floor area,” requiring the provision of more parking. 53
Since the 1970s, an individual right to sunshine has been practically enshrined in state law. Many construction projects fall under the California Environmental Quality Act, a law that ostensibly requires review of public works, but in practical application can be used to thwart the development of tall buildings. One section of the act — on aesthetics —requires a “shadow analysis” of projects over five stories tall. Buildings of that height cast hundred-foot shadows, and as a condition of approval, developers can be required to kick in hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate the neighborhood impact. 54 NIMBYs everywhere are quick to complain when their views are blocked and their swimming pools shaded, but in California environmentalists have gone further with the Solar Rights Act, which protects homeowners from shadows falling on their solar panels. The law even goes so far as to define circumstances in which they can trim their neighbors’ trees. In 2013, a CEQA exemption was carved out for transit-oriented infill projects, which are no longer subject to aesthetic review. That means taller buildings, and longer shadows, along transit corridors — perhaps a good thing for climate resilience, but also another vector for shade disparity.
Since the 1970s, an individual right to sunshine has been practically enshrined in state law.
So long as some Angelenos remain allergic to tall buildings, and so long as developers are penalized for creating shady, outdoor spaces, the path of least resistance to reshading Los Angeles lies in walkable, tree-lined boulevards in the flats. 55 Villaraigosa’s Million Tree Initiative has been renamed “City Plants” and folded into the L.A. Department of Water and Power as part of a state mandate to lower demand for electricity. The program charter evokes the noble goal of spreading the tree canopy more evenly throughout the city, but it stops short of a guarantee. Although the agency coordinates some public planting, mostly it donates trees to private citizens, who are responsible for maintenance. Director Elizabeth Skrzat calls shade trees a “leafy, green utility,” but the city doesn’t care for them as it does other environmental infrastructure, like sewage or water pipes, or powerlines. 56
Much of the actual street tree planting is done by nonprofit groups funded by public grants. At his office in the Los Angeles River Center, Thomas showed me how he uses a state-developed tool, Enviroscreen, to identify potential areas for tree planting. The software pulls together demographic data like income, education, and race, along with environmental data like soil and air quality. Thomas is funded to work in the deepest, darkest red areas, which seem, on his map, to radiate out from the center of the city, along former river paths — now the major freeways and lines of light rail transit — and filling in along the flats of the floodplains. 57
‘The grant programs now for urban forestry are crazy. It’s money that we’ve never seen before … [but] they have no idea of the real challenges behind these kinds of projects.’
One state grant funded the planting of about 1,800 trees on and near Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles. During four planting days, sanitation crews cut 700 tree wells along 80 blocks of concrete sidewalks, while Thomas and other arborists planted tree saplings and staked them. The grant also paid for three years of tree watering. Thomas’s major contribution was on the residential side streets. In weeklong spurts over six months, his crews planted about 350 shade trees in parkways where residents agreed to water the trees to maturity. 58 Since Hall’s time, the city has relaxed its policy about property owners taking responsibility for maintenance. But when arborists go to areas like South Los Angeles, they are still limited by urban design factors like the narrow width of sidewalks and the location of underground water mains and overhead powerlines. The city tends to work with a four-foot tree well standard when making new cuts in concrete, which prevents the planting of trees with large canopies, like coast live oaks, camphors, and Chinese elm — which you’ll still see in the city’s historic preservation areas, at the considerable expense of the property owners. Instead, the city plants smaller species, like Chinese flame, African sumac, Brisbane box, and tabebuia.
“The grant programs now for urban forestry are crazy,” Thomas said. “It’s money that we’ve never seen before. And what’s good is that the state has mandated that funding go, almost all of it, [toward tree planting in] disadvantaged communities.” The disconnect, he explained, is that it’s hard to abate climate change with such puny trees. “Disadvantaged communities, part of the reason they’re disadvantaged is because their infrastructure is extremely compromised,” he said, getting worked up. “There’s a lot of infrastructure and limited space. So the state’s a little naive in thinking that someone can easily go into these areas and just plant these massive canopy trees, get all this GHG sequestration, boom boom boom. We’ll give you money, just do it,” he sighed. “They have no idea of the real challenges behind these kinds of projects.”
Those challenges have grown more complex as the city’s infrastructure ages, even as urban forestry programs have gotten smarter. In 2006, the City Council voted to stop planting palms as street trees, recognizing their effectiveness as a symbol and their uselessness for offsetting global warming. 59 But the city also no longer actively encourages shade-bearing ficuses because their roots cause too much damage. Nearly half of the city’s sidewalks — 4,400 miles — are so thoroughly destroyed that they violate federal and state disability laws. In 2015, the city settled a lawsuit by agreeing to spend $1.4 billion over 30 years on sidewalk repairs and street enhancements. 60
Thomas worries that those repairs could threaten the urban forest as mature shade trees are cut down. “99 percent of the time,” he claimed, crews will junk the street trees when they lay down new concrete. But it also presents an opportunity. Imagine what Los Angeles could do if it tied street enhancement to a comprehensive program of shade creation: widening the sidewalks, undergrounding powerlines, cutting bigger tree wells, planting leafy, drought-resistant trees, and making room for arcades, galleries, and bus shelters.
In 2028, the city will again host the Olympic Summer Games. Meanwhile, it is legally obligated to repair its sidewalks and is working to enact climate sustainability plans. The convergence of these three factors has forced Los Angeles to grapple with street design on a bigger scale than ever before. The funding is there to do something truly transformative, especially in areas of Olympic redevelopment. Claire Bowin, a veteran city planner now in the planning department’s urban design studio, says street trees are the main focus, since they help meet many agencies’ long-term goals, from creating bird habitat to capturing stormwater.
Imagine what Los Angeles could do if it tied street enhancement to a comprehensive program of shade creation.
A new urban forest is theoretically possible a decade from now. But what about all the people who need shade today? Why not do something simpler and faster, like promoting sidewalk canopies or specialized street furniture? Could Los Angeles have its own take on Santa Monica’s blue spots? “That’s kind of … a new different beast that we haven’t really thought about,” Bowin said. She noted that street furniture projects can get expensive fast, but she took a moment to spin out the thread: “Ideally, the city would come up with a single design,” one that serves multiple uses. “It’s a water cooler, and it’s wayfinding, and it’s shade.” I found it fascinating to listen to a city planner brainstorm in real time. “We’d have to go through a lot of testing of the different materials,” she continued. Perhaps the planning department could identify vendors and make shade elements part of their standard kit for street design. Developers could be given some kind of incentive to create shade. Or maybe, Bowin said, “the city’s just going to put them in [ourselves], because we recognize the value to that, and we’re going to take on the liability?”
I ask when it could happen. “That idea?” she laughs. “We just made it up, just now.”
A $10,000 Idea
It’s not actually that hard to come up with designs for creating urban shade. What’s hard is building the political support to fund programs and roll out designs at scale, given the complexity of ownership and regulations on city streets. What we need, first of all, is urbanists in and outside City Hall who conceptualize shade itself as a public good.
What we need is urbanists in and outside City Hall who conceptualize shade itself as a public good.
Down the road from Tony’s Barber Shop is a triangular wedge of land caught between three major roads and choked by fourteen lanes of asphalt. It faces a used auto dealership called Cars 911. For decades, the Glassell Park transit island is where riders waited — after going to the cleaners and shopping at bakeries on Cypress Avenue — to board the streetcar. Five bus lines converge here today. 61 Some passengers are heading to historic bungalows in the foothills of Mount Washington, others to the cookie-cutter rowhouses on San Fernando Road, or the massive new state park with its soccer fields and basketball courts. If you were to visit a few years ago, you’d find hardly any shade. Some passengers huddled beneath a single, dying pine tree. Others used umbrellas.
In 2004, a neighborhood resident, Helene Schpak, decided the transit island needed a bus shelter. She planned to request one from her City Council representative. Then she met Pinto, who was teaching a community design-build class at SCI-Arc. He had his students design a transit center for the site, and they came up with a steel frame supporting a row of white, triangular shade sails, with benches below. Riders had unobstructed views of both sides of the islands, and the sails were angled to block the sun when it was highest in the sky. The design shaded every rider waiting there — far more than the handful of people who could fit under the canopy of Decaux’s standard-issue shelters.
To convince the city to make the investment, Schpak canvassed the transit island, collecting 650 signatures under a pop-up tent. 62 As she met with her council office, the public works department, and the bureau of engineering, they all stated additional site requirements. The small, lightweight design project became the tripwire to rebuild an entire parcel of land. It wasn’t just that the non-standard structure — with unusual bench widths, and so forth — would need its own maintenance contract. There would have to be new curb cuts to make the site wheelchair-accessible. A gas line had to be rerouted, and the maze of electrical wiring that connected all the stoplights had to be put into utility boxes above ground. Pedestrian walkways would be moved to make room for bicycle parking, and the surrounding grass and trees replaced by drought-tolerant shrubs and bricks. The budget ballooned to $190,000, then $237,500, up to $630,000, before the final construction cost was set at $352,470. 63 “That’s a hell of a lot of money for something that we thought was simple,” Schpak said. “It started out as a $10,000 idea. And it went on from there.”
For years, the site was fenced off for crews to reconfigure the utilities. During that time, the city endured record-breaking heatwaves. Mercury broke a glass thermometer downtown. The new apartments opened on San Fernando Road. The barber on Figueroa lost his battle with the city and took down his shade canvas. Then, thirteen years after Schpak first started asking about a bus shelter, she attended the opening of the Glassell Park transit island. It didn’t have the lightweight, Erector-set look of the project that Pinto’s students had designed. The canopies were affixed to poles that extended deep underground. Instead of five triangles, angled for maximum effect, there were three — gray, not white. But there was shade. Bodies returned to equilibrium. Schpak thanked Pinto, and her councilmember, and the dues-paying members of the neighborhood improvement association, who saw what needed to be done and never squinted as the city changed around them.
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