Putting a decidedly Los Angeles twist on the legend of Johnny Appleseed, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Saturday launched a program to add 1 million trees to a city known for its freeways and concrete-lined namesake river.
Villaraigosa, flanked by other city officials and celebrities involved in environmental causes, kicked off the Million Trees LA program with a family-friendly ceremony -- and tree giveaway -- at Hazard Park on the city's Eastside.
"Los Angeles, the dirtiest big city in America, has the opportunity to be the greenest," the mayor said, referring to reports that the city has the worst air quality in the nation.
Wearing a white T-shirt displaying the campaign's slogan "Live for Today, Plant for Tomorrow," the mayor thanked the several nonprofit and neighborhood groups that have promised to help with funding, planting or both.
He urged residents to participate by calling the city's 311 information line or by signing on to the program's website at www.milliontreesla.org.
The campaign will continue over the next several years to capitalize on trees' air-cleaning, shade-producing benefits. Organizers, including Board of Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels, whom Villaraigosa asked to spearhead the project, expect about half the trees will be planted on public sites or right-of-ways. They are hoping thousands of residents will add trees -- ones they receive free from the city or some they buy -- to their yards and report the plantings.
A survey by the U.S. Forest Service confirmed that Los Angeles is indeed tree-challenged: On average, just 18% of ground in the city is shaded by trees (the average for cities is 27%). Some parts of the city -- especially impoverished neighborhoods -- have much less. Only 5.32% of Council District 15, which stretches south from Watts through the Harbor Area, is covered by tree canopy.
Villaraigosa, before joining civic leaders and celebrities -- including environmentalists and actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Ed Begley Jr. -- in adding a strapping live oak to the park, said the program is about much more than greening the city.
"It's about taking responsibility," Villaraigosa said, noting that the tree-planting program gives everyone a chance to improve the city and leave it "a greener, better city" for future generations.
Council President Eric Garcetti promised to see that 100,000 trees get planted in his district; Councilman Jose Huizar upped the ante by promising 101,000.
The trees initiative was one of the promises Villaraigosa made during the 2005 mayor's race to contrast himself with his opponent, then-Mayor James K. Hahn.
Upon taking office, Villaraigosa had to find a way to deliver on the promise, with little money to do so. He turned to Daniels, an attorney who had been board president for the environmental group Heal the Bay.
Officials hope to cover the estimated $70-million cost with government grants and private donations. Several nonprofit groups have committed to donate labor.
This is not the first mass tree planting program in the region. Groups such as TreePeople -- which is working with Million Trees LA -- has long distributed trees to willing takers, and the city has embarked on various beautification programs. Some have worked better than others; it's not uncommon to see sidewalks lined with spindly trees that appear to have received little care. The key, Daniels said, is to persuade people to nurture the tree to maturity. The program will use mostly young trees to keep costs down, and they typically suffer the highest mortality rates.
After Saturday's ceremonies, dozens of residents lined up for Chinese flame, California sycamore and other trees, some mere seedlings. Max Mercado, waiting with his son, Jason, 3, was hoping for a jacaranda.
"I want to create some shade for my home," Mercado said.