Street Trees Could Plant the Seed for a More Equitable Los Angeles

The city has a growing green canopy, but its benefits aren't equally distributed. Meet the woman charged with changing that.

When Rachel Malarich was 10 years old growing up in San Jose, California, her parents gave her a shovel and asked her to plant several small purple leaf plums and baby Chinese pistaches. She dug the holes and took care of the trees until she left for college.

Malarich is still planting trees 26 years later, only today she is cultivating the future of one of the bigger urban forests in the United States. In August 2019 Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed her the first-ever forest officer of Los Angeles, making her a small but key part of the city's climate plan.

Many cities, from Chicago to Detroit to Phoenix, have managed their green canopies for decades. At first, strategies mostly focused on ensuring trees didn’t damage sidewalks, pipes, and buildings. More recently, governments have realized that a healthy treescape can be the difference between a community ready to face the worst effects of climate change and one that is not. The right species in the right place can cut air conditioning costs in half, absorb stormwater, alleviate heat waves, and remove air pollutants, not to mention add value by improving people’s mental health and creating habitat for urban wildlife.

What puts Los Angeles in unique territory is that it’s one of the first cities to make social equity the cornerstone of its tree strategy, says Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry at American Forests, a national nonprofit. The city has pledged, by 2021, to add 90,000 trees to its existing stock of 1 million growing on streets and in parks and 9 million on private land—a target it is about one-third of the way toward meeting. By 2028 Los Angeles intends to increase the tree canopy by at least 50 percent in the mostly lower-income neighborhoods that need it most. These are ambitious goals, Leahy says, but with current political momentum they are not out of reach.

Achieving these goals, however, will require Malarich to wield a symphony conductor’s coordination, an urban planner’s foresight, an anthropologist’s sensibility, and an ecologist’s knowledge. In Los Angeles, a city better known for highways than parks, she must inject a forestry vision across departments with wide-ranging aims, including designing bus stops, building housing, and preventing fires, all while working with nonprofit partners. “It’s about making different agencies look at their jobs through both a forest lens and their own lens,” she says. Having formely led forestry efforts at the nonprofits Tree People and the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, she is up for the challenge: “When the opportunity arose to get back to serving communities like the one I grew up in, that didn’t have a lot of trees and were relatively low-income, it just was a perfect fit,” Malarich says.

Affluent L.A. area communities have twice as many trees as low-income ones.

But her challenges go beyond coordinating people. A major issue will be digging up the $40 to $50 million that a recent report found is needed to accomplish the city’s forestry goals. While New York City spends around $71 per public tree a year, L.A. spends a meager $27—a shortfall that hits low-income communities hardest, says Eric Wood, an ecologist at California State University, Los Angeles. The city doesn’t allocate money for care during a tree’s first three years, a crucial period in which it requires additional watering for root development. The owners of nearby property often take on maintenance, which is far more feasible in wealthier areas. In a 2020 study, Wood found that affluent L.A. area communities have twice as many trees as low-income ones. Those trees are five times as big and attract more birds like Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bushtits, and Lesser Goldfinches.

The legacy of racist housing policies like redlining—which denied Black people and other groups access to homeownership and basic public services—also extends to the tree canopy, says Portland State University researcher Vivek Shandas. His recent analysis of 108 U.S. cities found that previously redlined areas had less tree canopy and were on average nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than other neighborhoods. “What we’re trying to do now is be much more intentional in undoing those centuries of historical privilege,” Shandas says.

Malarich is now working with the nonprofit City Plants as it conducts a financing study. She is also overseeing a new inventory of every city tree, which will inform a realistic and equitable urban forestry plan before 2024. Shandas, meanwhile, is conducting interviews to understand the planting challenges particular to low-income areas, such as narrow sidewalks and greater distrust of government initiatives. By next year, he plans to present L.A. officials with recommendations to better address needs in these communities. Even if the pandemic has shrunk the number of volunteers planting trees, most of the efforts are still on track, says Malarich. 

Today, when she visits her parents, Malarich can’t help but glance at the trees still standing in the yard with a little remorse. Though her childhood spent caring for them was deeply formative, she also knows that bigger, more luscious species might have shaded the entire house by now. In a way, her job is to prevent Los Angeles from similar regrets—and seed a forest that others will look up to. 

This story originally ran in the Fall 2020 issue as “A Tree Grows in Los Angeles.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.