Tree Advocate in Action: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

By Jane Braxton Little
Los Angeles (June 1, 2007)- On the morning of his first day in office as mayor of the City of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa planted a tree. Then he joined hundreds of city residents to water, mulch and prune 30 gold medallion trees (Cassia leptophylla) in the West Adams neighborhood. This inaugural event was Mayor Villaraigosa’s way of demonstrating his commitment to make Los Angeles the cleanest and most eco-friendly city in the United States.

“The dirtiest big city in America has the opportunity to be the greenest,” he says.
The mayor’s goal is to make an environmental model of the metropolis known for smog, freeways, and its concrete-lined namesake river. Since taking office in July 2005, he has tackled air and water pollution, expanded city parks and public transit systems, and launched a waste-to-energy program.
The heart of Villaraigosa’s environmental campaign is Million Trees LA, an ambitious initiative that aims to plant one million trees throughout the city during his four-year term. Over 5,000 new trees were already in the ground by the time he marked his first 100 days in office.
The mayor has tapped TreePeople, North East Trees, the Hollywood/Los Angeles Beautification Team, and other urban forest organizations to work with city departments to involve residents in neighborhood projects. Leaders of this public-private partnership believe the infusion of trees will not only create new beauty but also awareness of the power of urban forests to absorb carbon, cool heat islands, and reduce skin cancer. “It’s a great vision. This mayor is willing to be bold,” says Andy Lipkis, founder and president of TreePeople, which organized the West Adams event.
And Villaraigosa understands that a key to success is engaging the public, Lipkis says: “He knows that urban trees don’t live without engaged communities participating in selecting them, watching over them, and caring for them — and holding city officials accountable for their commitments to them.”
The mayor’s passion for tree planting grew out of his childhood in the City Terrace neighborhood of East LA, a place that still has few trees, says Paula Daniels, commissioner for the city’s Board of Public Works and chair of Million Trees LA. As California State Assembly Speaker, Villaraigosa oversaw passage of landmark legislation in 1998/99 that included the largest urban neighborhood parks measure in America. As a city councilman elected in 2003, he created the largest passive park on the eastside of Los Angeles.
His Million Trees LA initiative is Villaraigosa’s most daunting undertaking yet. An analysis of LA’s forest canopy found less than 20 percent of the city covered by trees, with some neighborhoods having as little as five percent.
To accomplish his goal, the mayor is working with every city department that owns property where trees could be planted, including many offices that have never focused on tree planting. It’s part of an institutional change in the city bureaucracy that includes the appointment of Nancy Sutley to serve as LA’s first deputy mayor for energy and the environment, a position Villaraigosa created. “We’re unpaving paradise. This will only happen with the participation of everyone,” says Daniels, one of the mayor’s many appointees with a background in environmental activities.
Villaraigosa enjoys widespread support for Million Trees LA despite questions about procuring that many trees, realistic accomplishments in a four-year timeframe, and the $70 million price tag. Funding is in the works through existing municipal programs and private contributions, says Daniels: “We know this will take several years. We’re using the momentum of the mayor’s leadership to establish a legacy that will benefit Los Angeles for generations to come.”
No one doubts Mayor Villaraigosa’s dedication to the environment, particularly the urban forest. Trees are an entry point to his conservation agenda, a way for people to take responsibility for a piece of green in Los Angeles, says Larry Smith, executive director of North East Trees: “He’s the most committed environmental mayor we’ve ever had.”
For more information, visit California ReLeaf.