By Margaret T. Simpson
El Monte, CA (July 28, 2010)- The city of El Monte is changing the health of its residents by changing the landscape. With the help of its nonprofit partner Amigos de los Rios (Friends of the Rivers) and 740 new trees, El Monte is creating an urban forest to remedy its unique environmental and health challenges.
“The City of El Monte has wholeheartedly launched into a vision of an urban forestry plan,” said Claire Robinson, managing director of Altadena-based Amigos and the Tree Power Project. Tree Power is a key component of the city’s new Health and Wellness Initiative that promotes safe, open spaces and a pedestrian-centered community. In September, Amigos will begin siting and planting California sycamores and coast live oaks on the city’s most heavily-trafficked streets.
Community input in the project has been essential from the beginning. A grant funded a partial inventory of existing trees, and residents were hired and trained to use a GPS indicator to identify tree species, measure height and record diameter. In a city where 37 percent of households earn less than $25,000 per year, finding jobs, even if temporary, was an added benefit of the project.
Children’s workshops helped Amigos involve families in the Tree Power project. “Many kids have helped,” said El Monte resident Maria Torres, a student at Rio Hondo Community College. “They seemed excited about it.” Torres worked with local children to draw pictures of their favorite trees and plants and identify existing trees. “The city was very supportive of hiring local families to do the index,” said Robinson. “It was a very unusual, special partnership that the city allowed.”
Robinson, an architect and urban planner who has taught at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design, said trees are essential to mitigate the high levels of pollution from excess freeway and street traffic, local industry, quarries and an EPA Superfund site. Two interstate freeways (I-10 and I-605) bisect the city; more than 9,000 vehicles per hour pass through El Monte on the I-10 alone. Almost 70 percent El Monte’s surface is hardscape: impermeable roadways, sidewalks and concrete that channel contaminated runoff and cause flooding in winter storms. These unshaded areas also concentrate heat during summer months when temperatures range from 90 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Thirty percent of El Monte’s residents lack cars, and pedestrians walk daily through “asphalt belts” that provide no barriers to traffic and lack aesthetic appeal to encourage recreational walking and exercise.
A 2003 study by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services revealed that over 65 percent of El Monte’s population is overweight or obese and 34 percent of residents feel the city is unsafe and lacks easy access to recreation resources and parks. “Children and students are really facing challenges getting to school,” said Robinson. “Trees were the number one component that would make them feel they have a safe route. They’re a buffer between traffic, they create shade, they’re friendly.”
Tree canopies absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants and convert carbon into oxygen. Trees also provide shade that can lower ambient temperatures of hardscape areas. A tree’s root system absorbs runoff, lessens flooding and stabilizes moisture in the soil. “We’re trying programs that take back the sidewalks, take back our arterials and provide green spaces within a very built-up community,” said Alexander Chan, planning services manager for El Monte.
“We’re at the nexus of all these problems,” he said. “This is one way to create a solution through natural systems.” Because El Monte lacks adequate outdoor spaces, said Chan, planting new trees will help alleviate some of the chronic conditions that affect the residents and add an aesthetic element that is lacking in many of the city’s commercial and residential areas. “The entire city is park-poor,” he said. “The accepted standard is three acres per parkland per every three residents; what we currently have is below 0.5 acres.”
In addition to the tree planting, Amigos will install 15 permanent outdoor kiosks to monitor tree temperature and weather and serve as public education centers about the urban forest concept. Funding for the Tree Power project is provided by the Air Quality Management District, CalTrans and the California Department of Forestry with additional matching grants from the El Monte City Council and Von’s Credit Union.
Local high school students will be hired to survey and plant the trees. Amigos will provide training in habitat maintenance and tree installation; this is consistent with its vision to bring income and marketable skills to the community. Robinson is optimistic about the outcome of Tree Power. She believes a sustainable urban forest is not only possible but essential to the city’s future. “Given the economic environment, trees might seem a luxury,” she said. “But we’re coming to understand they’re a necessity.”