Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Ficus Saga

For someone coming from big city Europe and living in big city L.A., Santa Monica has a quaint small town/big issues je ne sais quoi.
This time, the brouhaha comes from the ficus trees lining up 2nd and 4th streets on either side of the Santa Monica Promenade. A few months ago, the City proposed to uproot 54 of the 153 trees, and to replace them with ginkgo trees as part of a "beautification project." The rationale was that the ficus trees provide too much shade, with lush foliage that harms business visibility and activity; and that most of the trees are old, sick, with exposed roots that pose a hazard to passers-by. It was a bizarre move from a city which prides itself as a trailblazer in green initiatives.

In good People's Republic fashion, Treesavers, an association dedicated to saving the trees, was promptly set up -- combining street activism with petitions to the Landmarks Commission to have the trees designated as historical and cultural landmarks. Their efforts were officially turned down this month. Unfazed, they decided to sue the city, and commissioned an independent forester study to challenge the city forester's "ficus must go" conclusions. We are now in a foresters' lock-down, and "Activists have publicly threatened to stage a hunger strike, chain themselves to the trunks and hold funerals for any trees removed," says the LAT. More on the ficus saga via the SM Mirror and Curbed LA.

The problem for 2nd and 4th streets is not the ficus trees, but the Promenade swallowing all consumer attention. Rather than waste money replacing low-maintenance, beautiful grown-up trees which provide a pleasant atmosphere with uninspiring ones in a vain effort to boost business, perhaps the City Council should sharpen its pencils and devise plans to improve connections between the Promenade and nearby streets, enticing foot traffic to cross-over. It's the urban design -- not the trees -- stupid.
[update 01/31/08: How Green Was My Valley, Downtown in SM Mirror]
[update 02/29/08: Santa Monica Treesavers Lose Court Battle in Curbed LA]
[update 05/16/08: Santa Monica Cuts Down Fought-Over Trees via LAist]
illustration Curbed LA