Cities, like forests, are complex organisms with systems that can provide, capture and reuse life-nourishing resources. By applying lessons found in nature, Andy Lipkis is enabling citizens to manage urban ecosystems effectively and sustainably.
The New Idea
Andy’s idea is to apply integrated resource management to urban ecosystems, and ultimately train citizens to sustain their urban habitats. He is applying a collaborative approach to planning and managing natural resources that conserves human and financial costs, and achieves long-term solutions. At age fifteen, Andy organized a band of teenagers in Los Angeles who were committed to restoring southern California’s pollution-damaged terrain. This grew into an organization that became known as TreePeople after the doubters who originally scoffed at “those tree people” but eventually came around to believe, as Andy does, that cities are really “urban forests.” Just as trees are the “life support system” that inspired Andy’s early work, he now sees forests as synonymous with watershed management, and ecosystem-based water infrastructure as the gateway to changing whole urban ecosystems.
While Andy’s work remains rooted in TreePeople, he is launching Functioning Community Forests with a broader mission: to retrofit cities for sustainability. This initiative inspires and equips urban dwellers to help nature heal their cities. Andy is working to enable cities to establish green, life-enhancing infrastructure based on trees and tree-mimicking technologies that solve multiple problems at once, including conserving, cleaning and storing water, mitigating water and air pollution, and mitigating and adapting to climate change. To do this, he galvanizes citizens, policymakers, public agencies, and community organizations in united efforts to transform cities into generators of health, resiliency and abundance. Andy is working to help people see that the way they use and dispose of natural resources affects the economy, crime, social development and quality of life. Functioning Community Forests also demonstrates that citizens can make their cities livable and sustainable by managing them as ecosystems.
Andy sees that in the course of retrofitting urban ecosystems, people can and will create the livable communities and green collar jobs they seek. He is on the forefront of a new civil rights movement, solving environmental challenges in ways that create sustainable “green collar” jobs for the unemployed and underemployed.
Cities worldwide are primary contributors to global warming, producing approximately seventy-five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is causing increased water shortages in cities as well as flooding from higher intensity storms. Because urban areas were designed without understanding how ecosystems function, we have disrupted or broken the natural systems and cycles that prevented pollution and waste accumulation in the past. The largely unplanned growth of most urban areas creates unintended consequences for their residents and their infrastructure. Public works agencies often operate at cross purposes. In Los Angeles, for example, one agency spends hundreds of millions of dollars importing water while another spends a similarly large amount disposing of rainfall runoff from over-paved streets (7.6 billion gallons from each inch of rain that falls on the city). A fragmented system works against the public interest, with agencies protecting turf and budgets while squandering human and financial resources by treating water and air pollution, green waste, energy consumption and health conditions as separate concerns. Cities around the world have similarly wasteful, counter-productive systems.
In emergency situations, people, policymakers and public/private entities come together to cooperate. During national disasters and threats to national security, legislative mandates require the integrated operation of disparate government agencies. But there is no such mandate in the case of urban infrastructure and the environment. No one is connecting the dots to envision ways to retrofit entire cities to address looming resource crises.
Policymakers make choices based largely on what their constituents want. But on complex matters like watershed management, urban residents are ill-prepared to advocate for their interests. Confused by conflicting messages, they lack the environmental literacy required to discern, much less press for, the necessary changes and funds. This leaves a vacuum into which special interests move: Funds are diverted to building dams and desalinization plants that are costly and unsustainable, and yield few jobs. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to spend $300B on non-sustainable water programs. Scientists warn that we don’t have years to wage a successful advocacy campaign. Most agree we must act now. Meanwhile, policymakers make costly, piecemeal choices while the people stand helplessly by. Andy recoils at messages that tell people “they can make a difference” because they are making a difference every day. But they don’t see the impact of their choices on the finite resources of their shared habitat.
A leader in the emerging field of integrated resource management, Andy plans to convert cities into sustainable generators of natural abundance by combining community-based urban forestry with urban watershed management. Functioning Community Forests (FCF) combines green infrastructure, including trees and tree-mimicking technologies, with integrated agency management and extensive community engagement. When cities function as forests, they work in concert with nature’s cycles of flood, drought and waste. The National Research Council recognizes urban watershed management as a “laboratory for testing…new institutional, technical and cultural strategies for achieving… sustainability.” Governments can reap tremendous savings through an integrated management approach, and invest those savings in manufacturing, installing and maintaining an eco-friendly infrastructure that benefits the environment, wellness, and quality of life. Andy is leading a shift in ecosystem management similar to the shift in disaster management seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
For years, Andy worked with urban infrastructure agencies that were attempting to fix pieces of the ecosystem, only to find that the lack of cooperation and communication among them impeded viable solutions. However, every ten years every U.S. city has to prepare a water plan. So, with Andy’s involvement, Los Angeles conducted a feasibility study to determine whether they could integrate the three big agencies—water supply, waste-water treatment, and water run off. The City contracted with two water engineering firms that helped pull together different constituencies and public agencies. They asked Andy to join the team that produced the first comprehensive integrated water resource plan for a major urban area. But when the planning ended, the participants had no system to support the ongoing collaboration and funding required for implementing the plan. So Andy began advocating for a kind of command center to maintain ongoing communications and cooperation among agencies, community leaders, and volunteers. This is now an integral part of the FCF model.
Andy describes his strategy as a hybrid involving information technology, participatory processes, and integrated financial and human resources. By designing computer programs to model, synthesize and calculate “what the human brain can only intuit,” he enables ordinary people to manage complex systems. For example, Andy is developing mapping software to create the feedback mechanisms that citizens need to engage with their infrastructure agencies and hold their elected leaders and government accountable.
To begin addressing a major challenge, Andy brings together the best minds from a variety of disciplines in a design collaboration. He uses a cost-benefit analysis to show corporate, elected, and agency leaders that it’s in their interest to participate. Solutions reached through this process reflect the views of all relevant parties. To date, Andy and TreePeople have worked with agency partners to build six demonstration sites in L.A. County, delivering dramatic and lasting human and environmental benefits. Storm water management practices such as swales, cisterns, and strategically planted trees yield improve water quality, reduce the risk of flooding, lessen the need for imported water, reduce impact on (and from) climate change and increase the supply of local groundwater.
One of TreePeople’s demonstration projects was a single family home retrofitted with a cistern to collect and purify rainwater. To simulate a heavy rainstorm, TreePeople dumped four thousand gallons onto the property in fifteen minutes. None of the water left the property. This awakened government officials to the implications of urban watershed management, and led to a watershed retrofit on a much larger scale: the Sun Valley Watershed project. As a result, the L.A. County Flood Control District and L.A. City’s Stormwater Management Division—two of the largest public works agencies in the U.S—not only joined forces, but changed their names to Watershed Management and Watershed Protection respectively.
The Sun Valley Watershed Project addresses one of the region’s most intractable flooding problems. This project is transforming a 4.4 square mile low-income neighborhood by capturing, filtering, and storing winter rainfall for use in dry periods. When complete, this $200M project is expected to yield $300M in benefits, including water that goes back to the local aquifer instead of to the ocean as polluted runoff. It is creating acres of recreational space, stopping the chronic flooding that sweeps away life and property, and saving the city millions of dollars.
Of the remaining three demonstrations projects, two are public school campuses that have been retrofitted to provide water supply and flood control benefits, and one is an educational at the TreePeople Center for Community Forestry. For every inch of rain that falls in Los Angeles, these demonstration projects capture 1.6 million gallons of water.
These dramatic applications of integrated resource design, as well as consultations with and keynote presentations to associations of engineers, elected officials, scientific and lay audiences, have convinced people at home and abroad that Andy’s vision can work. He has tested the model with success in Seattle. With proof of concept and enough good science, he is rolling out and codifying the entire model, and completing some missing pieces, including a remote-controlled cistern for dense urban areas. (The prototype cistern is slated for manufacture.) In 2008, TreePeople gave Andy a green light to take his work national, and committed to making FCF a top priority. Andy began work on a book to share his learnings and raise new revenue, and is seeking seek support from sources informed by his prior success.
Andy is actively spreading the vision of the Functioning Community Forest as a viable path both in Los Angeles and on a national level. He is working with a consortium of public, private sector, and scientific leaders that is providing strategic support, while TreePeople is ensuring successful implementation at the regional level. His activities include launching a public education campaign to mobilize agencies, citizens and resources, building on relationships with academic institutions and national networks such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to influence the national conversation, advocating for state and federal funding to support widespread adoption of the model, and bringing his technological innovations up to scale. As the Functioning Community Forest approach spreads, Andy sees local community colleges as the sites for training programs for related green collar jobs, and engineering schools and professional associations to provide higher level training, with ultimately Green Infrastructure Training Academies in the one hundred largest U.S. cities. When integrated watershed management practices go to scale, Andy anticipates a profound drop in the CO2 generated by water-related processes, more carbon sequestered by trees, more people in green collar jobs, and cities better-prepared for droughts and floods. Citizens will find cause for hope, and “life support” will be an integral part of every city’s responsibility.
Andy’s birthplace and home, Los Angeles, presented challenges that became his lifelong mission. Throughout his childhood, he remembers that it “hurt to breathe” the smog-filled air. His family made him feel that all dreams were possible, taking his ideas seriously by asking how he’d make them work. Ill-suited to the constraints of formal education, Andy found an academic home at a new high school with a community service orientation. Andy loved gardening so much that he thought he was perhaps meant to be a farmer. The first book he chose for himself was the biography of Luther Burbank, who cross-pollinated plants to create hybrids. That could be a metaphor for Andy’s work today.
Raised in the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam (heal the world), Andy, then age twelve, and a friend set up a neighborhood recycling center. For several years he went to summer camp in the mountains that he describes as a “cauldron of social justice.” At fifteen, just months after the first Earth Day, the campers learned that pollution was killing the trees. They responded by replacing a dying forest with a meadow and planting smog-resistant trees. That experience changed his life. Andy’s counselor told him to re-create the spirit, community, and action of camp in his daily life in the city. He took that advice to heart and immediately began working to engage urban youth in fighting pollution and planting trees. At Sonoma State College, when he started keeping a journal for an independent study program, his master plan “just flowed out,” and TreePeople was born. He left college to pursue his vision.
Andy discovered that tree planting could re-knit the fabric of community. When TreePeople volunteers acted like heroes, planting trees for other people’s benefit, too many of the trees died. But when they trained people to lead their own neighborhood group, instead of 90 percent of trees dying, 95 percent of their trees survived. Since then, Andy and TreePeople have inspired the people of Los Angeles to connect with and take personal responsibility for the urban forest in which they live, and learn how to let nature heal our cities. These first “citizen foresters”—who planted one million trees before the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles—launched a worldwide movement.
Andy has an almost visceral desire to alleviate needless suffering, an understanding of nature as both our guide and our responsibility, and the ability to imagine bold solutions and win over nonbelievers. In a mind-opening experience, Andy learned that, contrary to what politicians tell us, people hunger to find common ground. At age eighteen, he went to a meeting of timber industry executives, thinking he was going into an enemy camp. Instead, he found that they were decent, well-meaning people. He learned that dividing people into “us versus them” diverts our energy into battles instead of solutions and healing. Ever since, Andy has found solutions by bringing people with widely diverse viewpoints into a setting conducive to shared problem-solving.
Andy’s life work is centered on community, economic, and environmental development. He helped the state Climate Registry steering committee design urban forestry protocols, is serving as a strategic advisor to the Mayor’s Climate Action Plan, and co-founded Green L.A., a collaboration of sixty environmental organizations working to make L.A. a safe, sustainable city. His friends and mentors include ecologist John Todd and environmental and industrial designer Paul Hawken. His achievements reflect his intellect and humanity, but competing demands have divided his attention. A recent sabbatical clarified the path forward: To devote fulltime to creating Functioning Community Forests, knowing that people can and will care for their urban ecosystem as they would a shade-giving, fruit-bearing tree on which they, their family and their neighbors rely for sustenance and well-being.