Abuzz About the Power of Parkways!

Up until recently, many Angelinos didn’t even know what a parkway was. Often called a planting strip, median, nature space or tree lawn—people were confused about what to call it, much less what to do with this section of our cityscape.

Now all that’s changed. One little LA Times column by Steve Lopez, lots of work from Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson, the dedication of groups like LA Green Grounds, the Urban Ag Working Group, Farmscape, the LA Garden Council, Root Down LA, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Hunger Action Los Angeles, the Wynbrandt Farm, Community Health Councils, St. Johns Well Child & Family Center and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and lots of letters to the Public Works Commissioners from many individuals and groups like TreePeople, resulted in the Los Angeles City Council voting unanimously in favor of temporarily suspending enforcement against edible parkway gardens. All of a sudden there’s a great deal of attention being focused on these little plots of earth.

It seems LA is all abuzz about parkways. Let’s explore how this tiny strip of land (the space between the curb and the sidewalk) can make a huge difference to our urban forest.

First of all, and totally legally (as long as you get the city permit—which is free and easy to do), these spaces are perfect for planting trees. Parkway trees shade cars, raise home values and create a lovely streetscape in business districts that increases profits at local stores and markets. All this from a parkway as little as 3’ wide—wow! TreePeople’s Citizen Forester program has been helping Angelinos maximize these benefits for their LA neighborhoods for over 27 years by helping them plant trees in these strips along city streets.

Next, there are the Parkway Guidelines that are part of the Low Impact Development (LID) Ordinance. Passed in 2010, due in part to TreePeople’s work with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the City of Los Angeles, parkways can now be planted with plants that require less water than grass and consequently, often don’t need water-wasting pop-up sprinklers. Something as simple as growing chamomile or thyme in these spaces means less water consumption and less overspray from sprinklers—which adds up quickly.

What once would have meant a permit for $500, now costs nothing and helps reduce our demand on imported water (and thus our electricity consumption), and keeps our beaches and our river nice and clean (as dry-weather run-off is a major contributor to water pollution).

But that’s really just the start. For the parkway to really take its leading role, it’s time to make way for curb cuts. Currently, the parkway is encased in concrete. One side is sidewalk, the other a curb. Some parkways are completely cemented over, in fact. We need to open this up, add spacious tree wells and plant trees that will grow and thrive. A curb cut can make all the difference.

A curb cut is simply a small opening in the curb that allow water to flow into a bioswale within the parkway as it makes its way down the gutter toward the storm drain. While the idea is small and simple enough, the impact is huge!

During a storm, rain would flow down the gutter, to the first curb cut and then into the parkway, soaking into the earth. As many of the storm events in LA are 1” or less, this is an incredibly low-cost and efficient way to mitigate storm water pollution. The first ¾” of rain after a dry-spell is commonly called a first flush, as it is flushing out all of the collected trash, pollutants and debris. Problem is, it flushes it straight out into our local waterways. Curb cuts allow the storm water to be bio-remediated, which is just a fancy way of saying letting it be cleaned by the action of the earth.

But here’s the cool part, what if Angelinos were able to plant food and native plants (under an expanded LID plant list, of course) in addition to trees and curb cuts? Then, what was once a forgotten, under-utilized space becomes a water and energy-saving, pollution-mitigating, habitat-providing and food-growing machine!

That’s the way the soil, water, trees and plants work on undeveloped land. We can keep many of the natural benefits in our urban areas by using green rather than outdated gray infrastructure. That’s what all of this is really getting at. It’s just not a good use of resources not to use this public space in the most efficient and productive way possible for the public good. And that’s what was at the core of the gardens in parkways issue. It didn’t make sense, so people did something about it.

What’s great about the solution is that it’s so easy. All you need are some of the following: fruit trees, a bioswale, a curb cut, native plants, shade trees and packs of veggie seeds. All of a sudden you have a system that is working to raise property values, build green jobs, combat food deserts and create a city system that works. And all it takes is the power of people!

By Lisa Cahill

Lisa Cahill first began her work with TreePeople as a volunteer Citizen Forester. She currently serves on the board of directors for the reDiscover Center, continues to volunteer as a Citizen Forester, has been on the Mar Vista Green Garden Tour and serves on several green committees at her church and children's schools. She most enjoys working in the garden with her husband, watching her children and vegetables grow.