Science museums have long been battlegrounds between science education on the one hand, and fundraising and development on the other, but there was a moment about 20 years ago when it suddenly became very easy to tell if a museum's development department had seized power: If that museum hosted a Jurassic-Park inspired exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs. The admittedly appealing robot dinos were of dubious educational value, and actual exhibits were often elbowed out of the way to make room for them, but they sure brought in the paying customers -- and swelled receipts at the museum gift shops.
I couldn't help but think of those animatronic museum dinosaurs this week. A coming exhibit at the California Science Center in Exposition Park has been in the news for remaking the face of South L.A., forcing a clearcut of as many as 400 mature street trees between LAX and the museum, to make room for what could be described as the mother of all technological dinosaurs: the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
On October 12, Endeavour will land at LAX to be towed about 12 miles through the streets of Inglewood and South Los Angeles to Exposition Park. The shuttle is big -- 58 feet tall, 78 feet wide and 184 feet long -- and the streets along the route won't allow the shuttle passage, even though they're some of L.A.'s widest thoroughfares, unless a number of mature street trees come down. So the street trees are coming down.
View Mission 26: The Big Endeavour in a larger map
Unsurprisingly, this has a few people upset. A lot of the city's street trees are in poor shape and bear replacing. That's no particular reflection on their care: a street tree's life is a tough one, what with vandals and dog-urine-soaked soil and random vehicular assaults. But some of the trees being taken down appear to be healthy, mature specimens, as witness what appears to be a perfectly healthy (if appallingly pruned) Ficus nitida being killed on Manchester in this L.A. Times photo.
More on EndeavourWatch an Early Report on the Route by "SoCal Connected"
Footage: Building the Space Shuttle Endeavour
Inglewood Resident Erin Aubry Kaplan on the Tree Cutting
According to an editorial in today's L.A. Times, the California Science Center might dispute my statement that reforestation will take a long time. The museum is apparently saying the replanted trees will "rival the originals in size" in two to five years. This statement is, on the face of it, rather breathtakingly wrong -- unless the museum plans to replace each 50-foot tree with a 47-foot tree. There are trees that grow fast enough that a nursery tree in a 15-gallon container could reach full street-tree size in less than a decade. You do not, however, want those lining your streets, unless you like tree limbs raining down on your parked cars after every storm. Fast-growing trees are fragile. Tree species more suitable to street planting will grow much more slowly than that, especially given the nearly inevitable year or two of transplant shock and consequent slower growth.
One hopes the Times misquoted the museum. If not, whether the museum's claims about how fast the new trees will grow come from a desire to manage PR or just basic botanical ignorance, they're not the kind of statements that inspire trust in the institution's ability to convey accurate scientific information to the public.
Street trees are not an unqualified good thing. Los Angeles isn't wet enough to support a lot of trees without irrigation. As Char Miller ably pointed out here on KCET.org last year, much of the tree-planting impulse in Los Angeles stems from an inappropriate desire to remake the city into a simulacrum of the humid east.
And indeed, a very large number of street trees in Los Angeles shouldn't have been planted as street trees in Los Angeles. Crape myrtles, a thirsty flowering tree native to Asia, make up a significant percentage of L.A.'s street trees, as do Liquidambar, or sweet gum, native to the perpetually sodden hills of North Carolina. No one with any sense would ever plant either as an L.A. street tree, especially given the latter's habit of breaking up sidewalks.
Even some drought-tolerant trees do damage to infrastructure: the above-linked Times editorial suggests the city of Inglewood is happy to say goodbye to the Ficus nitida along the route for just that reason. You can sensibly argue about configuring sidewalks to allow trees to grow, and that's a good long-term conversation to have, but it's little help to the person in the wheelchair trying to get to the bus stop over sidewalk slabs tilted at a 45° angle. The Times says that at least 20 of the trees being cut needed to be put out of their misery anyway, and that seems a reasonable statement.
But as nuanced and complicated as the issue of street trees undoubtedly is, there's something galling in the fact that the issue has even come up. It's one of those animatronic dinosaur things: I find myself wondering whether the California Science Center's goal is fostering science education, especially in some of Southern California's less affluent communities, or simply getting people into the museum so they can provide upbeat visitation reports to funders -- and to fill the cash registers in the gift shop.
Why am I wondering this? Because street trees are science education. Yes, they perform all those important and slightly pedestrian services that groups like TreePeople rightly laud: they cool the neighborhood they're in, they shade buildings that wold otherwise need air conditioning, they clean up some kinds of pollution, they reduce stormwater runoff and sequester carbon and increase property values.
But they also provide crucial services that can't be entered so easily into a spreadsheet. They also sit in places where there is little else remaining of the natural world. Whether they're native or exotic, irrigated or droughty, pruned or rampant, they give urban kids something to look at that isn't concrete or metal. Some of them flower, attracting pollinating insects. Some of them provide edible fruit. All of them offer a place to sit for birds and squirrels.
Exposure to science is crucial for kids, and kids in south L.A. don't get nearly enough. The presence of the Endeavour in Exposition Park may well inspire a few Inglewood kids to chase careers in physics and engineering. That would be a very good thing, and if the California Science Center curates its shuttle exhibit thoughtfully, rather than just adding it as a theme park attraction, the Endeavour may literally change a kid's future. Honestly, I look forward to visiting it myself -- and to buying the souvenir T-shirt.
But science is more than technology. Science is the study of the natural world, and for many urban kids -- especially in park-shy Los Angeles -- street trees are what the natural world is. Cutting them down hurts those kids by taking away one of their last remaining connections to the natural world. What about the biologists that might have been inspired by having a living science exhibit outside their bedroom window? For that matter, what about the gardeners and arborists that might have been so inspired? Those are scientific professions as well, and they're a lot more accessible to those of us without the sense to choose affluent parents.
And if you don't think that class bit is important, and if you don't think access to street trees is a privilege that people with a bit more economic power guard zealously, then ask yourself this: if the California Science Center was next to UCLA instead of USC, would we even be having this discussion? Would we be talking about how fast Beverly Hills' and Culver City's camphor trees and jacarandas will grow back?
At least the animatronic dinosaur craze only displaced other science education opportunities within the walls of the museums that fell for it. Those dinosaurs didn't actually go rampaging outside the museum walls, destroying opportunities for free, lifelong science education in neighboring communities. The California Science Center has some wonderful education programs, and the fact that its permanent exhibits are free is a boon to the local community that cannot be praised enough.
But science education can't just take place on the museum grounds. Science is all around us. The California Science Center went to a lot of expense to create a permanent exhibit detailing the challenges to the natural world in Los Angeles. Ironic that two years later they'd add to those challenges.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.