Making Spaces for Nature and People

One of my staff sent me a link to this story on Treehugger about this innovative solution to the problem of not enough parks. In Istanbul, the Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanical Garden is a botanical garden inside the cloverleaf of a freeway exchange. This mostly privately funded 125-acre garden has over 1,800 plant species under cultivation, an herbarium with over 1,000 species, a children’s garden with programs for youth, and it features geophytes (plants that grow from bulbs), Quercus species (oaks), Turkish endemics, Turkish rare and threatened species, economic, medicinal and aromatic plants, and insectivorous plants.

Can we adapt this idea for greater Los Angeles? Sure there are lots of questions and issues to be explored – especially safe access for people, air quality inside the exchange, and potential impacts of plant roots and water infiltration – but even if we developed the spaces inside interchanges just for nature, we would all benefit from the air and sound filtering effects of all that vegetation.

A quick visit to the internet will show you how many of these spaces we have tucked into the Los Angeles transportation skeleton.  Already some are used for construction project staging, and some have developed purposes (self-storage facilities, CHP stations, etc), indicating that at least in some places the issue of people access has been considered and approved.  It seems that some which have pedestrian access (by design or accident) might be a great place to tuck away a pocket park.  And the ones that have no easy access might prove very useful for habitat restoration projects. Here’s one exchange in El Monte that I pass by frequently. What better could we do with this land?

What can we expect this winter?

Before the spring wildflowers, our foothill communities may be suffering from mudflows this winter. The USGS just released its assessment based on two scenarios, a gentle, sustained 12-hour rain and a hard 3-hr rain storm. In both of the scenarios, the USGS predicts that Pacoima Canyon, Big Tujunga Canyon, the Arroyo Seco, the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and Devils Canyon would have an 80% risk of mudflows. This risk includes the basins that are tributaries to each of these canyons, too. Our geomorphology works against us here. To quote the USGS report: “The high probabilities from basins burned by the Station fire reflects the combined effects of the steep slopes throughout the area and extensive areas burned at high and moderate severities.” To my surprise, a gentle soaking rain could actually generate more of a hazard than the short duration hard rain, and it looks like the communities of La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge will suffer the most, potentially. The USGS report suggests that Altadena will be spared mudflow hazards because the major drainages that burned, El Prieto and Millard, drain into the Devil’s Gate Reservoir. Remember, these are the results of modeling and real life experiences will be different. The 28-page report is available on the USGS website. You can also listen to an interview by KPCC’s Larry Mantle with Lucy Jones.

12-hr Rainstorm Predictions3-hr Rainstorm Predictions

This is the bad news. The good news is that we have this information in advance of the winter rains so people can plan. For an unfortunate few, their homes are reported to be at so much risk they’ve been advised to install plywood on the windows and get out when it rains, according to the article in the Los Angeles Times. The County Flood Control District and Department of Public Works staff are working overtime to reduce the hazards by cleaning out all of the 28 debris basins, including expanding some of them. They have been holding frequent meetings for emergency response personnel in the foothills to plan and coordinate. And they have been meeting with communities and individuals to assess risks and draw up plans for protection. You can learn more at the County’s website.

Arundo sprouts post-fire


I’ve seen the pictures and videos, and went on a short hike into the forest myself. It’s hard not to feel devastated, hard not to cry for the burned over mountains and lost trails. It’s hard not to feel like it is gone “forever.” It’s hard not to worry about the deer and put out food for the birds. I’ve heard people say it will be “generations” before the forest is like it was. I’ve also heard people say we need to reseed and replant for a “new, better forest.”

Millard Canyon, looking north, 9/6/09
Millard Canyon, looking north, 9/6/09

First of all, the forest is not dead. Chaparral plants have a few tricks they have evolved to deal with fire – they either sprout from seeds that have been dormant in the soil waiting for a fire to give them the right conditions, like poppies and sages, or they store enough energy to resprout from underground roots and stems, like toyon, sumac, and wild cucumber. It might surprise some people, used to reading the expiration dates on seed packages, to know that the seeds of chaparral plants actually survive a very long time in the soil. Some, like whispering bells, fire poppies, and many lupines, are even called “fire followers” because they only show up after a fire. Their seeds might have waited decades for this one chance to bloom.

Reseeding in chaparral is a waste of time and money.

Matilija poppy, by Drew Ready
Matilija poppy, by Drew Ready

After the 1993 fires, the Forest Service refused to seed the lands burned by the Green Meadow fire but LA County Forestry Division insisted on seeding within the Old Topanga fire boundaries. As the two areas were very similar in all ways, it was simple to count the plants that were present the following spring to see if the seeding (with almost all non-native plants) had any effect on recovery. In the end, the only difference detected between the two areas was the higher prevalence of non-native weeds within the Old Topanga burn (Jon Keeley, 1996). Seeding was indeed a waste of time and money.

Along with the misguided calls to seed the hillsides and the perennial calls to ramp up burns in the backcountry to create “slow burning” chaparral (which is also a misconception), some have been suggesting that we should use this as an opportunity to replant a new and better Angeles National Forest.

The Los Angeles Times has been furthering some of these misconceptions through its reporting on the Station Fire. This last week the Los Angeles Times published a letter from TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis suggesting that he wanted us all to plant trees in the forest. It turns out that our own LA Times mangled his letter by cutting out a crucial paragraph in which Andy said:

“Our hope is that in large portions of the forest a natural and healthier chaparral and pine forest can re-sprout without human help. Where that is not possible, the Forest Service will prescribe the restoration strategies and timeline consistent with fire ecology.”

Black Sage, by Drew Ready
Black Sage, by Drew Ready

We will need to pay attention to the fire breaks that were cut for many miles through the forests.  Scraped of the plants that used to catch the rainfall and hold the soil in place, these cuts will be additional sources of slope failure, mud slides, and easy places for invasive plants to take hold.

Millard Fire Break
Millard Fire Break

Those who want to do something to help the wildlands recover would do best to join in local habitat restoration efforts in a park or public land near you. Look for volunteer opportunities with organizations that have experience in habitat restoration. Invasive plant control projects are especially helpful because removing invasive exotics from these areas protects the landscape from future ignitions. And if you must plant a tree, be sure the seeds used for the effort were sourced from the watershed in which you are planting. When it comes to restoration, plants need not just be native, but need to be native to and sourced from the watershed for highest survivability.

Good thing chaparral has the wisdom to repair itself. When it comes to restoring chaparral, as the Buddhists say, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Fire break, Sunset Ridge, 9/6/09
Fire break, Sunset Ridge, 9/6/09

Little Round Top: before and after the fire

The San Gabriels are rich in history. One of my favorite stories is about the Brown brothers, Jason and Owen, two of the sons of John Brown the liberator. Owen was the last surviving participant in the raid on Harpers Ferry and with his brother Jason he had homesteaded a place at what is now the top of Rising Hill Road. Owen lived only about five years here before he died suddenly January 8, 1889. His funeral in Pasadena was attended by 2,000 people, and his remains were interred on what is now called “Little Round Top.” You can read more about Owen and Jason Brown in the Altadena Historical Society’s book, Altadena: Between Wilderness and City, by Michele Zack.

Last weekend I spent a lot of time looking at Little Round Top. Because of its proximity to two homes above the Meadows, it was hit repeatedly with fire retardant, and its red slopes stood out. I could only see the hill from below, and I’ve been anxiously wondering about its fate ever since. Now Paul Ayers has sent out before and after photos, and with his permission I am posting the series. The first photo was taken during Owen Brown’s graveside service. The second, taken in 2003, is the contemporary before photo. Finally, Paul sent a photo taken on September 2nd. All three photos were taken from the same vantage point, looking to the west.

Gathering at Little Round Top for the buriel of Owen Brown, 1889
Gathering at Little Round Top for the buriel of Owen Brown, 1889
Little Round Top in March 2003, photo by Paul Ayers
Little Round Top in March 2003, photo by Paul Ayers
Little Round Top on September 2, 2009, photo by Paul Ayers
Little Round Top on September 2, 2009, photo by Paul Ayers

How do we do nothing after the fire?

People are asking what they can do – and blaming those who they think didn’t do enough – before the fire is even put out. I heard that in the past people accepted that fires would happen every year and didn’t worry too much but viewed the fires more as entertainment. That was probably in the days when there were  not so many people living so close to the forest, and those who did were a hardier sort. Now, so many new developments have brought people who don’t understand or don’t want to think about what it means to live right next door to native chaparral. They are searching for someone to blame, and recently they have settled on the Forest Service. It must be the fault of the managers, right?

A gated development, during the Station Fire

Not so fast, says Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute: “The Station Fire is not the fault of federal land managers, firefighters, or environmental laws. Huge wildfires will occur in Southern California regardless of how the government ‘manages’ its lands. They are an inevitable part of life here.” You can read more about Rick Halsey and his California Chaparral Institute, but he is someone who I trust. As a teacher, fire fighter, author, and passionate advocate for California chaparral, he focuses on current research and his own experiences.

My own interest in chaparral started when I took a plant taxonomy course at Occidental College and had the good fortune of having Dr. Jon Keeley as my professor. Jon spends his time studying the interactions between wildfire and our California wildlands. I learned then about the different strategies chaparral use to recover from fire  (and I’m using chaparral broadly to include all plant communities in our Mediterranean climate forests). Over the last 30 years of living in California, I have witnessed fire recovery first hand. In the early 80’s we had beehives in one of the canyons off Kanan Dume Road. After the big Malibu fire, I could track the recovery of the chaparral by the taste and color of the honey. Initially, in the spring we got the most wonderful, yellow-colored honey from native sunflowers, but no sage honey. Over about five years the amount of sunflower and sage shifted, until the early spring honey was back to all sage. I saw the incredible diversity of “fire-followers,” those flowers that only grow after a fire. I was amazed to see Yucca whipplei plants rolling down the hill, having been severed from their roots by the fire, sending up flower stalks and blooming successfully. Yucca whipplei and mariposa lilyAnd all of the sumacs send up new stalks using energy stored in their root system (this is why it is futile to cut down a sumac bush as it will just resprout from the base and come back even larger than before).

So, back to the Station Fire. Why is this fire so large, and what can we do once it is out? And is it true that the Forest managers should have done more “brush clearing” to prevent the fires? According to research by Drs. Jon Keeley and Paul Zedler, drought is probably the major reason for this fire and its large size. Their research showed that there have been eight extremely large megafires (150,000 acres or larger) since the 19th century and all were preceded by unusually long droughts. As Rick Halsey points out, “The main reason this fire spread as quickly as it did had more to do with the current long term drought conditions and steep terrain than the age of the vegetation.”

WhiteonWhite, October, Chaney TrailThe San Gabriels are among the steepest and youngest of mountain ranges. With our Mediterranean climate, chaparral plants are uniquely adapted to live here and thrive with occasional burning. Trying to the strip the back country of native plants is most ineffective – think of the consequences from erosion alone. Before the County Flood Control District built the system of debris basins, foothills communities were regularly inundated by mudflows, the most disastrous of which occurred after fires. Not only would we suffer loss of life and property from mudflows, the damage to the watershed would result in even more water running off rather than percolating to refill our aquifers.

Homeowners can and should keep dry dead plants away from houses, but we have to stop making plants the villains. A laurel sumac bush kept watered and pruned is as fire resistant as a camellia and should be just as prized. In my neighborhood, we have just formed a Fire Safe Council to educate ourselves about best practices. What we have learned is how important it is to selectively remove certain plants – like pine and eucalyptus trees – and that making your house fire-safe is just as important, and maybe more important – than brush clearance. Enclose your roof vents and the sides of your porch. Use fire-resistant roofing. Windows should be double-paned. Keep tree limbs from overhanging your roof (oaks excepted). Every wildland community should incorporate as a Fire Safe Council.

Oak tree on Chaney TrailLastly, what to tell all those who want to volunteer…to do something? I would tell them to stay home and be patient. Support organizations whose work benefits the Forest (disclaimer – I am president of one non-profit and Executive Director of another that work to improve our watersheds and preserve wildlands). Wait until the Forest Supervisor says it is safe to go into the Forest again, and don’t pester land managers with demands that you be let in. Right now the recently burned lands are very fragile and more dangerous than usual. And please don’t go spreading seed (a topic for another day) – the chaparral has its own seed bank and will recover if we let it.

A final word from Rick Halsey: “Rather than blaming land managers, fire agencies, or environmental laws for the fire, we need to take responsiblity for our own properties, understand the natural environment in which we live, and value California’s most characteristic ecosystem, the chaparral.”

The Fires This Time…are Personal

I’ve been out of my house in Altadena since Saturday night around 7:30 pm. We got the order to evacuate about 5 pm, and so we finished packing the car and drove to a friend’s house. My daughter and I left, that is. My husband stayed to keep wetting down the plants and the house. He has a fire hose, pump, and a swimming pool, so he felt safe in staying. I was not pleased, but after over 30 years with someone you know when they are not going to budge, so I said goodby.

Ash fall on my car Saturday morning
Ash fall on my car Saturday morning

I moved with the cat and daughter to a friend who lives just south of Farnsworth. I went back to give my husband a key I had accidentally taken, and to my surprise I got through. Since then, however, they’ve not been letting people in to my neighborhood at the north west end of Altadena.

Today has been very stressful as I’ve been driving around looking for vantage points and periodically testing the evacuation by seeing how far north we can get. The answer is not far. The fires are now directly above my house and have crested the ridge. The aftermath of a fire as large as this, so close to the urban fringe, will have enormous impacts for years to come. Many will be calling for “reseeding” the hillsides to prevent the inevitable mud flows. People hate to “do nothing,” but in this case doing nothing is probably the best thing to do, at least with regards to recovery of the native vegetation. With very steep slopes, even hand work will be unsafe. And so-called native see mixes usually have flowers from parts of California far away from here. In addition, those seed mixes inevitably have weed seeds mixed in.

View of the fire Saturday afternoon, looking west from Chaney Trail
View of the fire Saturday afternoon, looking west from Chaney Trail

More later. To close, here are more photos from the fire.

Multiple fires above Loma Alta Road on Saturday afternoon
Multiple fires above Loma Alta Road on Saturday afternoon
Smoke fills the sky Sunday morning. Here comes the sun.
Smoke fills the sky Sunday morning. Here comes the sun.
The fires on Brown Mountain, Saturday night
The fires on Brown Mountain, Saturday night

Sustainable Design and the City

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of participating as a team member on an American Institute of Architects Sustainability Design Assessment Team. The AIA says that the SDAT process “brings together multidisciplinary teams of professionals from across the country to provide a road map for communities seeking to improve their sustainability—as defined by a community’s ability to meet the needs of today without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This is a broad brush assessment that results in a series of recommendations based on a rapid assessment by the team.

The SDAT community assessment that I participated in was southeastern Tennessee, centered on Chattanooga. The team spent two twelve-hour days (with preparation beforehand) questioning, listening, and touring with members of the community. The third 12-hr day consisted of the team members sitting down with our information and impressions to put together a presentation of our recommendations, which we delivered in an open meeting at the University of Tennessee from about 6:30 to 8:30 pm. At least one mayor in the region attended our presentation and we were covered by two local newspapers. The next day we flew home, with the assignment to write up our recommendations, which the AIA staff then melds into a coherent report for the community. The hope is that our recommendations are useful enough to allow the community to affect the desired change.

Why SE Tennessee? A major challenge for the region is the coming of Volkswagen, which is building a $1 billion car manufacturing facility on a large piece of land outside town. VW will directly employ 2,000 people, with another 9,000 or so in associated jobs. We were told they were looking at a projected increase in population of roughly 80,000 over the next 10 years. This is not a very large increase from the viewpoint of a large metropolitan region like Los Angeles, but for SE Tennessee, a largely low density region with a current population of 450,000, this is major.

The issues were all summed up in one phrase we heard over and over again – “We don’t want to become Atlanta.” The local weekly, the Chattanooga Pulse, says they don’t want to be “Chatlanta.” How many times have those of us Los Angelenos heard that refrain from cities that don’t want to be us?

So what are the problems of Atlanta that people want no part of? Traffic, for one. This is a region in which at rush hour on a major artery a flock of ducks could cross the street with no problem. And yet you can see the future, as locals resist regional planning and much of the development in the last decade has taken place in unincorporated County areas that have almost no zoning codes and even less enforcement. Sprawling suburban and subrural development results in developments designed 100% for car traffic.

What makes this region so interesting, however, is Chattanooga’s commitment to sustainability. In 2006, Mayor Ron Littlefield signed the U.S. Council of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and by 2009 a citizen’s commission had written a climate action plan. Chattanooga Green is a City-endorsed organization to ensure implementation. Reading their implementation plan, I almost wondered why they called in the AIA SDAT for help.

This is a community that thinks big, however, and thinks systematically. When Chattanooga won the VW manufacturing plant, they started asking what they could do to maintain and improve quality of life in the region. They were looking for all the resources that could help them to maintain quality of life.

The SE Tennessee position paper, submitted in application for the SDAT grant, is a comprehensive list of their concerns:

“To us, sustainable growth would address community issues as they relate to quality of life and quality of growth for the region including:

– continuing to allow food to be grown locally,

– cleaning surface water and recharge storm water runoff,

– water conservation due to recent regional drought conditions,

– providing for multiple mass transportation options,

– reducing air pollutants,

– creating convenient and cost effective recycling solutions,

– defining appropriate building zones,

– planning for open space and parkland,

– and promoting energy efficiency.”

There is almost nothing on that list that doesn’t apply to any metropolitan area. Of interest to me, is how these goals for sustainability play out in my adopted town, Los Angeles (as in the metropolitan area), and the communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

It turns out that Los Angeles has an SDAT grant, too, and will experience the SDAT process in the near future. The application was spearheaded by the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, which has a sustainability committee. You can join in or follow the process by getting on their list. I will be covering this process as I reflect more on my experience in SE Tennessee and sustainability in the Los Angeles Basin.

The Parable of the Yeast, a Story about Economics and Sustainability

Once upon a time there was a student with a packet of yeast, a box of sugar, and an Erlenmeyer flask. The student was instructed to put the package of yeast into the flask, add a measured amount of sugar, fill it up with water, top with a balloon, and put the whole thing in a warm incubator. The student was instructed to observe and measure, writing down numbers in a notebook, and then to make sense of the results.

The student (a naïve young thing who had never made bread) was amazed to observe the whole concoction get cloudy and bubbly. The balloon expanded with gas. In a few days, the liquid cleared, leaving a scummy mess on the inner surfaces of the flask.

Now imagine that our student actually had been instructed to make up several flasks, with varying amounts of sugar or different temperatures, and to take measurements each day. The student counted the yeast, measured the amount of sugar, and sampled the gas in the balloon. The student measured specific gravity and dipped a piece of pH paper into the liquid. The student discovered that sugar was necessary for the yeast to grow and that the gas was carbon dioxide. The student found that there is an optimal temperature for the growth of yeast and that yeast consumes the sugar and generates alcohol and CO2. And the student found that when the liquid cleared up, the yeast colony had died.

Our student, if she is a good student, has learned some important biological principles and hopefully did well on her assignment. Her teacher probably extended the lesson to help the student draw some conclusions about the importance of environment – about how food is a limiting factor and how waste products, like alcohol and CO2, poison the environment.  But she likely learned nothing about how this experiment relates to human societies because biologists don’t teach about economics (and economists don’t teach about biology).

Not only do economists not teach their students about biology, most (but not all) don’t believe biology has anything to teach them about economics. Mainstream U.S. economic theory posits that human growth cannot be limited by scarcity or toxicity because we are so smart that we will be able to invent, engineer, or bioengineer our way out of any problem. Not only that, but they believe the market is self-correcting and when resources get scarce, prices will go up and people will find substitutes. What the economists forgot to consider were two important facts:  resources are in fact limited and we can outstrip our ability to manage certain waste products.

Our planet looks a bit like the yeast colony today. More and more people are starving and the amount of CO2 has gotten to a critical level which is wreaking havoc on our climate, mucking up the ideal conditions for human life on this planet.

What does the parable of the yeast say to us about sustainability? The basic definition of sustainability is living today in such a way as to not compromise the ability of future generations to exist. Sustainability is popularly pictured as a three legged stool or a Venn diagram with a balance between economics, society, and environment. The parable of the yeast suggests that sustainability is a nested set of conditions, with economics serving the society which exists within the environment.

My thinking was stimulated by an essay entitled “Bigger Isn’t Better,” by Peter A. Victor, an economist at York University in Canada. 

Dr. Victor says “Ecological economists understand economies to be subsystems of the earth ecosystem, sustained by a flow of materials and energy from and back to the larger system in which they are embedded. It is understandable that when these flows were small relative to the earth they could be ignored, as they have been in much of mainstream economics. Economists are not alone in treating the economy as a self-contained, free standing system largely independent of its environmental setting. It is a widely held view that environmental protection is just one among multiple competing interests to be traded off against the economy.

“And anyway, this mainstream perspective teaches that if resource and environmental constraints are encountered, scarcities will be signaled by increases in prices that will induce a variety of beneficial changes in behaviour and technology. Should this system of scarcity-price-response fail then economists can estimate “shadow” prices which can be imposed directly through taxes or used indirectly through policies based on cost-benefit analysis to fix the problem.

“To ecological economists, this is an inadequate response to the myriad problems of resource depletion, environmental contamination and habitat destruction confronting humanity in the 21st century. They question the pursuit of endless economic growth and contemplate a very different kind of future.”

If the paradigm of the economy equals growth is failing us today, is the solution to change the paradigm to one in which the economy equals sustainability? If we want to learn from the Parable of the Yeast, the answer must be yes.

Sustainable Los Angeles?

The vision of the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council says that by 2025 “the Los Angeles region has become a model of sustainable urban watershed management.” This vision is the conclusion of a long list of criteria of sustainability that were adopted in 1996 and reaffirmed in 2008 by the Board of Directors of the Watershed Council. You can read the complete vision statement on the Watershed Council’s website. It is a very ambitious vision.

Let’s set aside for a moment the deadline of 2025. Does sustainability even make sense for an urban region like Los Angeles? Are the criteria for sustainability achievable? And there is that deadline. I’m sure in 1996 it seemed comfortably far away, but the future is rushing towards us. No one knows what the world will be like in 2025, but we can imagine. I’ve read plenty of dystopias, thank you, and I would prefer to work towards utopia, even if I believe it to be unrealistic. I grew up watching Star Trek, afterall.

This blog, then, is a place to explore the idea of sustainability in an urban city – who, what, where, when, and especially how.