A Sustainable Urban Forest Takes Root in Santa Monica

ca_innov_series_icon_283x204EDF’s Innovators series profiles companies and people across California with bold solutions to reduce carbon pollution and help the state meet the goal of AB 32. Each addition to the series will profile a different solution, focused on the development of new technology and ideas.

Across the globe, trees in urban centers provide more than just curb appeal – they improve the quality of life and provide critical services like better air quality, reduced climate pollution, decreased urban heat and lengthened roadway life. These benefits amount to significant economic value– the USDA estimates that the 3.8 billion trees in U.S. urban forests represent a green infrastructure investment valued at $2.4 trillion.

According to Tree City USA and the Arbor Day Foundation, there are more than 3,400 communities, home to over 135 million Americans, which have community forest programs. Chances are, if you live in a major city, there is an urban forest program caring for the trees in your community.

Who: Public Landscape Division, Public Works Department, City of Santa Monica, California.

What: Santa Monica has planted over 1,000 trees and is piloting an advanced urban forest tree inventory and maintenance work order enterprise system. Their new software covers tree selection, planting and monitoring and enables Santa Monica to account for carbon sequestered in public trees.

Where: Santa Monica, California

Why: Santa Monica can improve its overall Urban Forest management while contributing to a healthier, climate smart city.

Unfortunately, maintaining the quality and cost-effectiveness of urban forest programs has remained a challenge for many towns and cities, as budgets and personnel are often stretched thin.  As a result, according to a 2013 report by the USDA, many of California’s municipal forest programs need improvement, and in fact, some are failing.

Enter Santa Monica, California, a modest-sized city of 8 square miles and home to approximately 90,000 residents. Located just west of Los Angeles on the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica is home to surfing, celebrity hide-aways, and perhaps some of the more forward-thinking environmental policies in the state.

Like many other cities, Santa Monica has a tree maintenance program, but it is their advanced management system that sets them apart. To reduce long-term program costs, increase the benefits the city gets from each tree it plants, and track carbon pollution reductions associated with the city forest, Santa Monica is piloting the most sophisticated Urban Forest monitoring program in the state, and possibly anywhere.

"This isn't about blindly planting thousands and thousands of trees, it's about creating a program and making sure these trees stay healthy and can maximize their environmental benefits,” says Erin Hamant of the City of Santa Monica.

Santa Monica Canopy Coverage Map Available in full here on page 27

Santa Monica Canopy Coverage Map
Available in full here on page 27

In conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, Hamant has lists of pre-identified native and non-native trees that grow best in the Santa Monica area. Additionally, Santa Monica is in the process of piloting a state-of-the-art tree inventory and maintenance work order enterprise system to know where all public trees are located.  The enterprise system will allow the city to track work orders for tree planting, tree removal, watering, and pruning, and to develop reports that investigate the health, age, and environmental benefits, helping to maximize urban forest planning.

Why has Santa Monica taken on a project to fundamentally change the way their urban trees are tracked and cared for? The answer lies partially within AB 32. Guided by a grant the City was awarded by the Air Quality Management District and the provisions in the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Urban Forest Project Protocol, Santa Monica planted over 1,000 trees across the city in 2011 and 2012 – looking to get carbon credits. To meet the state’s high standards, the city had to develop a way to account for the carbon stored in its urban forest, and prove overall urban forest funds to maintain a baseline number of healthy trees, on top of tracking net tree gain.

“One of the major benefits of developing these carbon credits is that we are also developing a program to manage all of our trees better and more cost effectively.” Hamant continued, “We likely wouldn’t have attempted our Urban Forest GHG project if AB 32 didn’t allow us to participate in California’s Cap-and-Trade Program through counting the carbon sequestered by public trees. Santa Monica is a great city to pilot CARB’s [urban forest] protocol and see if we can make it work.”

With their pilot program, Santa Monica could make urban forest history—and California is paying attention. “Santa Monica clearly understands and is responding to the threat of climate change to its community and to the planet,” says Gary Gero, president of the Climate Action Reserve—the non-profit offset registry which developed the Urban Forest protocol. “Their environmental leadership, including their innovative urban forestry program, is yet another example of how they are helping all of us achieve our AB 32 goals.”

Please note that EDF has a standing corporate donation policy and we accept no funding from companies or organizations featured in this series. Furthermore, the EDF California Innovators Series is in no way an official endorsement of the people or organizations featured, or their business models and practices.

Read more from our California Innovators series here.

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