‘Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean’

 Ryunosuke Satoro, Japanese writer and poet


Want to be inspired? Then how about a visit to the award-winning TreePeople conservation charity nestling high on a ridge in Coldwater Canyon Park in the very heart of Los Angeles.


Here you’ll see how we can all make a difference in a world that faces towering challenges topped by climate change, environmental degradation, rampant materialism, social injustice and a crisis of the human spirit.


Born out of the efforts of a teenager more than 40 years ago, TreePeople has provided a spark of care and concern that has led to the planting of more than two million trees by more than three million people, most of them Angelenos from the City of Angels spead out below.


That teenager is practical visionary Andy Lipkis who was recently described by the mayor of Los Angeles as one of the city’s most important change agents.


Recognising that trees are vital to any city’s wellbeing, he and others began planting trees back in 1973 when he was just 18. The logic was simple: a healthy tree canopy cools and protects as it reduces the build-up of heat from sidewalks and buildings, slows the runoff of water by absorbing it into the ground, and helps combat flooding, pollution and soil erosion. It also provides food for people and habitat for wildlife.


Trees make the air breathable, streets walkable and schoolyards playable – and there’s the added benefit of community building when people come together to plant and care for trees, to harvest rain and renew depleted landscapes. The result is a greener, shadier, cleaner and more water resilient future that nourishes spiritually and emotionally.


Government officials now acknowledge that the city infrastructure systems designed to protect public health and safety and other needs were built for a climate that no longer exists, leaving city dwellers increasingly vulnerable to flooding, water shortages and life-threatening extreme heat and fires. This means that community building and urban greening becomes the new green infrastructure most quickly deployed to provide needed protections and save lives.


Walking Water coordinator Kate Bunney observed that the heat rising off city sidewalks and concrete surrounds everywhere felt hotter and more punishing than what we’d experienced with similar temperatures in the desert.


The irony is that some areas of LA, and usually the more affluent ones, have up to 22 percent tree cover, making them cooler and more pleasant, while in many disadvantaged neighbourhoods tree canopy cover is down to 6 percent or less. This means it is hotter and life more stressful there with the cumulative impacts of the growing environmental injustice story linked to higher incidents of chronic disease and mortality, along with dramatically increased risks of skin cancer.


For the Walking Water pilgrims one of many highlights was the chance to leave the concrete behind during a two-night stopover at TreePeople where we pitched our tents on site and joined leading water activists and decision-makers in discussions. We also had the chance to join a Drought Solutions Tour that is offered free of charge to visitors.


It takes only a few minutes and has often been life-changing not only for visiting youth groups, but for engineers who have never before seen the implications of current water practices and future potentials presented so simply and holistically.


The tour starts by stepping through a section of stormwater piping at the entrance to a garden, where a fine mist of simulated rain immediately focusses attention.


We walk alongside a mini man-made stream and three worlds are presented: what happens in nature, how that changes when the same space is urbanised with central control, and finally how we can mimic the principles of natural systems to retrofit or adapt the current urbanised model.


The old story of centralised control allows rainwater to flush into the street, picking up pollution and carrying it on a channelised journey to the ocean, contributing to some of the most polluted beaches in California.


The TreePeople vision could make the city vastly more water resilient while reducing dependence on imported water.


It’s simple and logical: harvest rainwater. And collaborate with others to help heal the environment and enhance the lives of individuals, communities and ecosystems. It’s a journey from the head to the heart.


The demonstration site shows how easy it is to do by using a system of downpipes to capture rain from the roof, sending some into a rain barrel or storage tank, while overflow is diverted to a rock-filled depression called a bioswale that allows rainwater to slow down and infiltrate the ground. Permeable pavements reduce runoff and the risk of flooding, while a detention basin acts as a sunken garden to collect rainwater and allow it to seep into the ground, refilling the aquifer. The border is a raised berm that features only indigenous plants that sip water sparingly.


Another important contributor is a layer of mulch that helps cool the soil and keep it moist during dry weather, while adding valuable nutrients to the soil as the organic matter decomposes and encourages worms and other beneficial organisms.


It’s not rocket science and almost anybody can recreate some or all of these features at home in the city and suburbs.


And this is just the beginning. Working quietly behind the scenes, TreePeople has been playing a pioneering role in bringing together the LA Department of Water and Power, the City’s Bureau of Sanitation and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in a groundbreaking coalition of agency partners.


They’ve joined forces in the Greater LA Water Collaborative and created the LAStormCatcher Project. It’s a 21st century pilot scheme where six homes were retrofitted with large tanks and rain gardens to demonstrate how Angelenos can make a sizable difference by capturing storm water at home.


Andy insists: “The communities of Los Angeles can achieve a climate-resilient future and be better protected from flooding and drought.”


The LAStormCatcher initiative features hi-tech cloud-based monitoring to enable government agencies and the public to partner in recharging the local water supply, reducing polluted runoff and averting the risk of flooding. Changing climate realities demand a new approach to water management and the latest technology is rich with promise.


It equips homeowners and agencies to monitor rain forecasts and direct water to where it is most needed, whether to replenish groundwater supplies, reduce polluted runoff, lower flood risk or to irrigate gardens and landscapes.


The latest studies reveal that 1.2-million of the 1.5-million residential properties in LA County are viable to capture water from their roofs.


The implications are exciting and a recent study by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (the Stormwater Capture Master Plan), supports TreePeople’s predictions that almost half of the city’s water needs could me met with harvested rainwater. And a further study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) asserts that a dedicated policy of rainwater capture, coupled with reusing, reducing and recycling, plus cleaning up its groundwater aquifers, could enable LA to meet 100 percent of its needs with locally sourced water.


Sheila Kuel, the LA County Supervisor, stresses: “It’s not just that we have to act now, but we really have an opportunity if we work together.”


Andy adds: “LA can be a role model thanks to the global impact of its media, its remarkable ethnic diversity and its place in the world as a trend and style-leader. As we change it here, we change it everywhere.”




Geoff Dalglish