Infrastructure for the 21st century

21st Century Infrastructure logoI'm delighted to welcome you to my corner of the TreePeople universe and site. It's been thirty-eight years since I started this "project" we now call TreePeople. I'm boggled how it's grown up, and amazed and grateful for the continued outpouring of support and partnership from individuals, businesses, agencies and non-profits that has fueled our achievements.

TreePeople started by planting smog-resistant seedlings in local forests. We wanted to help our forests recover from air pollution from the city and from devastating fires. But after several years of planting, we realized our work was essentially putting band-aids on damage that started in the city. To really heal the forests, we needed people in the city to care more deeply. To do that, we engaged them in planting trees in their neighborhoods.

After decades of this work, people know us as tree planters. So they often are surprised and sometimes disturbed to learn that TreePeople has gone very deeply into water and infrastructure issues. Sometimes they even say we have the wrong name! I respectfully disagree.

But it's a fair question. Why have we made this leap into infrastructure?

In the decades of engaging hundreds of thousands of southern Californians to take action for their local environment, we've learned that trees and forests are our region's most basic life support infrastructure. Trees and native plants, and the soil underneath them, provide water supply, flood protection, air filtration, and shelter from heat. But as our city grew, this native green infrastructure was replaced by "grey" -- engineered structures, pipes, paving and machines. We've now come to see that these intended solutions often unwittingly caused new problems, including air and water pollution, water shortages, and public health nightmares. They're even contributing to climate change.

Frustratingly, the billions of dollars spent each year to operate and shore up grey infrastructure turns out to have the effect of a glass ceiling, continually lowering the quality of life in our neighborhoods, and undoing the heroic and generous efforts of volunteers, activists, and neighbors trying to make things better. The way to break that glass ceiling is to update our infrastructure so it works with nature and natural systems. To do so, we must engage all the elements of our city's ecosystem -- communities, nature, government, and business -- to work together to develop and nurture new solutions.

That's easily said, but there are huge barriers in our path. To break down those barriers, TreePeople, along with other partners, recently brought together a group of leaders, unprecedented in their diversity, for a high energy day of collaboration. Even though this is a process that has just begun, I want to share it with you. You can get a glimpse of our aim and our present-day work at 21st Century Infrastructure Workshop.