A living memorial: King Boulevard, twenty years later, a model for climate resilience action

A treeless and stark King Blvd. twenty years agoPictured at left is a treeless and stark Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in Los Angeles, twenty years ago last week.

This photo was taken just before TreePeople helped organize a huge tree-planting event in honor of the great civil rights leader.  Volunteers at 1990 King Blvd. eventThe result is perhaps the largest living monument to Dr. King...but even more important, the fact that the trees are alive, thriving and beautiful today is a monument to one of Dr. King's key tenets:  sustained community engagement and action

Trees and urban forests are essential for mitigating and adapting to climate change, yet so many urban trees die in less than seven years that this story provides a pathway for successfully scaling up nationwide --so trees live to protect and enhance the communities in which they are planted.

On January 15, 1990 thousands of people, from the neighborhood, and from all over Southern California, came out to honor King by planting hundreds of trees along the entire length of King Boulevard in South Los Angeles -- seven miles in a single day.

The idea came from a citizen forester named Eudora Russell, who for years had dreamed of turning King Boulevard into a fitting memoral to its namesake. As discussed in chapter four of my book The Simple Act of Planting a Tree, she petitioned the city with the idea but got no response, so came to TreePeople.

Citizen forestry is about building relationships within neighborhoods and reknitting the fabric of our communities. Yes, planting trees is a part of it, but it's never just about planting trees. The goal is to re-establish connections. Too often with large-scale programs, the point becomes about a number of trees in the ground, or even of disposing of trees. Trying to achieve a number goal does not produce satisfaction, and does not produce goodness in the commmunity.

I like to say that it takes five years to plant a tree. To plant trees on King Boulevard actually took much longer -- ten years, in fact. Aside from walking from door to door for months before the planting to enroll every willing neighbor and community organization, along with city agencies, Mayor Tom Bradley, four city council offices, and the financial sponsorship of the Gas Company, the long-term follow up was even more important. Every month for ten years TreePeople staff came out with trucks, tools and supplies, and the neighborhood volunteers came out in support, and together we watered and weeded and tended to the hundreds of Canary Island Pines.

But it was worth it. The King Boulevard living monument can now even be seen from space. The photo below shows the same location as the photo at the top. It was taken last year. 

 MLK Blvd. (same location) 2009

Viewing these trees and their impact can provide inspiration and hope as we face up to the task of responding to climate change.  If you want to be inspired, take a virtual drive via Google Maps...and try to imagine what it looked like before the planting of this beautiful greenery (once you're viewing the map, click on the arrow to "drive" along the street):  http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=3732+W+Martin+Luther+King+Jr+Blvd,+Los+Angeles,+CA+90008&sll=33.995943,-118.454748&sspn=0.009269,0.01929&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=3732+W+Martin+Luther+King+Jr+Blvd,+Los+Angeles,+California+90008&ll=34.012827,-118.338675&spn=0.018534,0.038581&z=15&layer=c&cbll=34.013008,-118.339007&panoid=ddJLBWq-3YH74fQee92uVg&cbp=12,295.87,,0,5.