Snapshot on Sustainability: I don’t want to visit a heat island

Sometimes I hear about an idea and I get an image in my mind – often the wrong image. The first time I heard about ‘the heat island effect,’ it was a cool-crisp (by LA standards) kind of day and I started daydreaming of mai tais and wondering how a warm island could be a bad thing. Hey, that’s what jumping into that clear water is for!

Jokes aside, I realize that the heat island effect reflects the characteristics of the environment retaining heat from solar energy, making our urban settings hotter than surrounding areas. When I was getting my master’s degree at Loyola Marymount University, Dr. Romolini was creating maps of tree coverage across LA County, looking for patterns and opportunity to improve the livability of our city. Planting trees has a host of benefits: trees not only make an area more attractive, but they create shade, sequester carbon, increase evapotranspiration, reduce erosion, absorb pollutants that can bring on asthma attacks… and wouldn’t you know it, the percent of tree canopy coverage is consistent with the socioeconomic level of a community – but it doesn’t have to be. We can make a difference and many already are.

From Lot to Spot Stanford Avalon Community Garden

Trees have an awesomeness all their own, so when I spoke with From Lot To Spot (FLTS) about their tree canopy and garden project along 103rd Street in Watts, I was excited about transforming vacant lots and treeless parkways into green space, creating pervious surfaces to retain and capture water. What makes this project especially cool is FLTS understands that green spaces become blighted if they aren’t used and there are many social reasons why this can occur. Green spaces need to be an answer to the call of the community, and to do this requires authentic engagement from locals.

FLTS has engaged the surrounding schools in the many aspects of the project. Imagine the high school students who are integral in researching natives and selecting the right trees for the location, helping to plant them, and then care for them long into the future. I am imagining families returning to the area, showing their children the trees they planted themselves. There’s pride and ownership in that.

Long Beach Water Department demonstration garden replaces lawn with native plants, conserving water and energy in the process

What communities need is to see examples of what is possible. That’s where the Lawn-to-Garden Community Transformation Program from Long Beach Water Department (LBWD) is making huge strides. LBWD understands that conservation is a lifestyle choice and changing a homeowner’s aesthetic about their front lawn might need a nudge to realize the full potential of water conservation options. The current program has been a big success, replacing 3.5million square feet of lawn since 2010, but the program has been limited to those who can invest upfront and be reimbursed later. Now they want to create demonstration gardens using local talent, highlighting low cost and low maintenance garden choices that retain water, provide flood control, and use native plants to create shade. By creating partnerships with local organizations, homeowners can get free landscape design plans and cost offsets for implementing these plans. Barrier removed – problem solved.

USGBC-LA created an annual Legacy Project. a grant from USGBC-LA members to a project aiming to support under-served communities in our region. Imagine what you could do by lending your support to these and other initiatives like them! We are creating our legacy every day with what we are and are not doing. What will your legacy be? How will your organization be remembered?

Thank you to Maya Henderson, Maria de Leon and Krista Roger for our conversations that lead to this piece. To learn about this year’s Legacy project, please click here.

I’m curious what you think and I hope you will join me in lending your talents to such transformational projects. And in the meantime, join the conversation by contacting me directly at or leaving your thoughts in the comment box below.

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