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For the Trees, for the People

February 08, 2003

Andy Lipkis has been planting trees for 30 years, and like the thousands of saplings he's set into dirt all over town (and around the world), he's been branching out.

Lipkis is the founder of TreePeople, the group that has cooled blistering asphalt schoolyards with Valley oaks and landscaped dreary commercial strips with sycamores. TreePeople staffers have taught generations of children and grown-ups to tend the trees they helped plant. Now, with his Center for Community Forestry, Lipkis hopes to train the leaders of his new crusade.

Over the years, TreePeople has shifted focus to renewing the watershed that nurtures the trees and people who have sunk roots in this arid megalopolis. In demonstration projects at a home in South-Central Los Angeles and on schoolyards in Pacoima and Westchester, Lipkis has proved it's possible to use landscaping and underground cisterns to hold rainwater on site and prevent the pollution and erosion that storm runoff causes.

He's learned that bureaucrats sometimes can be as dense as oak and slow-moving as a taproot. School officials and city park managers still build playgrounds and athletic fields on the cheap, pouring acres of asphalt and sowing grass seed and sprinklers without spending a bit more on cooling trees and underground systems that would yield big water and energy savings.

When money for demonstration projects is available, Lipkis has a tough time getting folks at the school district or the Department of Water and Power to coordinate with those in the planning, flood control and recreation departments. Some want to build more creatively, but the "this-is-the-way-we've-always-done-it" rules kill innovation.

Now, with Southern California facing possible cutbacks in Colorado River water, local government agencies have no choice but to treat water as precious. That's where the Center for Community Forestry comes in. TreePeople broke ground for the center last month at the group's Coldwater Canyon headquarters with representatives of two dozen public agencies looking on. Lipkis envisions the center as an intellectual meeting ground for public planners and local residents who want to build schools, parks and shopping centers that are more self-sustaining and environmentally responsible.

TreePeople's new center will lead by example: A giant cistern will store rainwater for reuse. The gardens will teach sustainable landscaping. The building will capture the sun's winter warmth and deflect its summer heat. Lipkis hopes his center will encourage the "environmental healing of a great city." Good goal.

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