As an adolescent, Andy Lipkis had to breathe steam each day at his Baldwin Hills home to soothe his lungs. When he learned in 1970 from a U.S. Forest Service report that the smog burning his lungs was also contributing to the destruction of trees in the Los Angeles area, the knowledge planted a seed.
At 15, Lipkis founded TreePeople, a local nonprofit group that in the nearly four decades since has become an innovative leader in the "urban foresting" movement.
On Wednesday, celebrities, politicos, volunteers and donors joined Lipkis as he formally opened his long-envisioned dream: the TreePeople Center for Community Forestry at L.A.'s Coldwater Canyon Park. The four-acre, $10-million campus, where Coldwater Canyon Avenue, Franklin Canyon Drive and Mulholland Drive meet, is aimed at demonstrating to youngsters and adults how they can work together to transform neighborhoods into sustainable ecosystems.
A phalanx of photographers was on hand, perhaps less to usher in the educational center than to train lenses on actress Annette Bening, a fan of and frequent visitor to the Tree- People headquarters, who lent her star power to the event.
"I come to TreePeople Park all the time," she said, adding that she and her friends bring their children and dogs to wander the trails or sometimes "come by ourselves to have a moment of peace."
Also in the photographers' sights was actor Ed Begley Jr., a noted environmentalist who arrived in shorts and a T-shirt, glowing (make that sweating profusely) from his bicycle ride to the park.
Bening, a TreePeople donor, and Lipkis thanked the major funders of the facility, which also features a 4-year-old conference center that the U.S. Green Building Council considers one of the most sustainable buildings on the planet. It features a slanted roof that pours water into a sand pit (for easier percolation and capture); insulation made of denim scraps from factories; and solar shades made of Douglas fir salvaged from the 1920s fire station that was on the site before TreePeople.
In front of the building is an underground cistern, 70 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep, that can store 216,000 gallons of rainwater collected from the buildings and parking lot. There, too, TreePeople is experimenting with ways to reduce asphalt and improve water collection. Most of the parking spaces are covered in gravel, to allow runoff water to trickle into pipes for transfer to the cistern.
Throughout the city, Lipkis said, six demonstration cisterns are showing how rainwater can be captured. The idea, he said, is to eventually wean L.A. off imported water.
"These cisterns around town capture 1.25 million gallons every time it rains an inch," he said. "Since January, we've captured 12 million gallons."
The names of key funders pop up on elements of the new center. The S. Mark Taper Foundation Environmental Learning Center at the entrance is a training classroom for students and adults. Next door is the W.M. Keck Foundation Nursery, for growing native plants to restore damaged local watersheds. A short walk over the cistern is the La Kretz Urban Watershed Garden, named for Morton La Kretz, a property owner and UCLA alumnus.
The garden was cleverly designed to represent, in miniature, an urban landscape, a river and a house with a downspout and a rain barrel. It features hands-on exhibits to teach visitors about harvesting and conserving water.
As visitors -- including L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and Fran Pavley, a former state assemblywoman now running for the state Senate -- toured the facility, a TreePeople instructor playfully sprayed a class of fourth-graders from Toluca Lake Elementary School with a hose. They are among more than 2 million children who have toured the park.
He then told one child to toss some candy wrappers and other trash into a tiny concrete channel, which serves as an abbreviated Los Angeles River. At the other end, the water poured into a catch basin, trash and all.
"Ew," several children and adults said. TreePeople had opened a few more eyes.