Seeds of Urban Forest Plan take root

Walt Warriner, the City of Santa Monica’s Community Forest and Public Landscape superintendent, sees the arboreal landscape of a community as an essential part of how citizens perceive and experience the world around them. “The trees are the community. People see them, they live with them, they walk under them every day,” said Warriner. “Sociologically, people become very attached to their trees.”

As the deadline for the completion of Santa Monica’s Urban Forest Master Plan is draws closer, citizens are running out of opportunities to offer their input on a plan that will affect the next fifty years of tree planting and maintenance in the city.

This Wednesday’s meeting of the Urban Master Plan Task Force, plus a few more public meetings scheduled throughout the month of November, will allow for a final few alterations to be made before the document’s final draft is presented to City Council on December 13.

The plan, which has been in the works since October 2009, seeks to broaden the scope of tree species found in the Santa Monica area, as well as to increase the amount of attention given to the renewal and care of our “urban forest,” and will serve as an update to the plan that has been in use since 2000, called the Community Forest Management Plan.

“We have an aging forest; we have trees that are old and starting to decline, and we had no replacement plan in place,” said Warriner. “Some of our policies were outdated, so what we needed to do was to bring some of our policies in line with new and current industry standards, and we needed to designate the appropriate species of trees for all the various street segments throughout the city.”

The first draft of the plan, which the Task Force officially approved at their October 5 meeting, takes a comprehensive look at the factors that affect tree growth in Santa Monica, including varying microclimates, the shape of urban growth spaces, and the spread of topographies and soils. It also lists environmentally appropriate replacement trees on a street-by-street basis.

The plan claims that 30 percent of Santa Monica’s trees are planted in inappropriate places, and that these poorly located trees can result in “damage to streets, sidewalks or utilities that ultimately increase maintenance costs.”

The initiative also seeks to increase the amount of canopy growth in trees, which it claims can reduce pollution, lessen the heat island effect (the tendency of metropolitan areas to be warmer then surrounding rural ones) and decrease the need for air conditioning and heating.

Warriner expects that this plan will save money not only for individual residents, but for local businesses too. He said the new trees would make shopping areas more visually appealing, and that they will eventually increase the city’s carbon credit allowance.

“We’re working with the U.S. Forest Service to plant a thousand trees that we’ll record the growth of over a hundred-year period of time, and over that hundred year period of time, the city will report to the U.S. Forest Service the growth of the trees,” he said. “The U.S. Forest Service then extrapolates that number over the entire forest, and we will start to develop carbon credits that can be traded out on the open market. So that’s the big picture economic benefit of the urban forest.”

Warriner said that a majority of the financial backing for the project is slated to come from city funding, but there is opportunity for citizens to aid in external funding through the GIVE Santa Monica program.

“If people want to donate money in memory of a loved one or in memorial of somebody, they can donate money to GIVE Santa Monica,” he said. “We take that money and add it to our annual tree planting program, and we plant trees for them.”

Community outreach has been a major focus of the project. Since 2010, there have been a number of community workshops, surveys, and opportunities for residents to involve themselves in meetings.

According to Warriner, the community’s response has been fairly strong.

“We sent postcards to every resident in the city, and we got probably seven hundred some odd emails back about the proposed plan,” Warriner said.

The public is welcome to voice their opinions in the plan’s polishing phase.

There will be two more open meetings of the Task Force, one on October 26 and one on the November 8. The plan will then circulate through the Landmarks Commission, the Recreation and Parks Commission, and lastly the Task Force on the Environment for review and approval.

Citizens are welcome to attend those meetings, and a schedule can be found online.

“This is a long range plan—it’s a fifty year plan. It’s going to outlive me,” he said. “The forest program becomes bigger then one person. The forest is part of the city.”

Wednesday’s meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium of the Main Library.