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Edible City: Privileging Tree Aesthetics Misses Opportunity to Feed Our Urban Food Supply

Moreon Bay fig | iStock/IVANVIEITO

Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA, with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The second storyline considers how Los Angeles has inadvertently become a sanctuary city for non-native animal species that are sometimes endangered in their native habitats. Find more Urban Ark stories here.

The majestic Moreton Bay fig trees at UCLA’s Dickson Court are among the most impressive trees on campus: their enormous size, dark green leaves, and buttress roots give the green space around them structure and character. But the first time my shoes hit the sticky mess on the walkway underneath them, I started to wonder why trees like these were planted there. The gooey crushed fruit has to be scraped up regularly from the pavement. When I tried to remove the fig mush from my shoes later that day, I couldn't help thinking that guava or apple trees would provide more edible fruit and less of a mess for people to walk through.

The landscape of Los Angeles, of course, has been completely transformed by humans. The city is home to an enormous variety of introduced species of flora and fauna, including the Moreton Bay fig trees, which are native to Australia and were brought to Southern California in the 19th century along with eucalyptus. Today, at least they feed some bird species in L.A.

The same can’t be said of the Weeping Fig, another tree species on campus. Wayne Dollase, an emeritus professor in UCLA's Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, has dedicated much of his spare time to cataloging and mapping the plant species on campus. He says while birds in the Weeping Fig's native Asia consider the figs a delicious treat, American birds don't see the appeal. These fig trees don’t provide food for humans either. But they are beautiful. 

An enormous number of trees and shrubs in Los Angeles have been planted primarily for aesthetic reasons over the last century. By privileging aesthetics over ecology and material needs, we may be missing an important opportunity for improving our urban environment and food supply. 

Screen shot of Endless Orchard map indicating where the public can access free fruit trees. | Fallen Fruit
Screen shot of Endless Orchard map indicating where the public can access free fruit trees. | Fallen Fruit

Fallen Fruit is one of the organizations working to make the Los Angeles’ treescape more functional for all species. Their website describes them as an organization invested in creating public art projects and planting trees to “change the texture (and flavor) of your neighborhood.” They draw attention to the need for more publicly accessible fresh produce in large cities and map where the public can find fruit trees in L.A. neighborhoods. The website, abundantly decorated with colorful images of fruit, is meant to appeal to people in food deserts. At the same time, it evokes romantic notions of an "endless orchard" extending all over the world.

This idea of an infinite public orchard resembles Ron Finley’s idea of creating food forests through guerilla gardening in inner-city food deserts. Finley is a community activist based in South Los Angeles and a self-proclaimed “gangsta gardener.” Both of these projects work on making the minimal green spaces of L.A.’s urban centers functional for its human populations in more ways than they currently do.

Romantic ideals notwithstanding, the realities of L.A.’s treescape are, alas, governed by legal regulations. But those, too, are changing. In 2015, the Los Angeles City Council approved Ordinance No. 183474, allowing residents to plant fruits and vegetables in public parkways between the sidewalk and the street in residential zones. This decision came after years of advocacy by individuals and nonprofit organizations around the city. Even so, it still does not include plants that will grow into trees, as those require a permit that costs at least $400. As of now, the list of trees approved for planting in public rights-of-way under the L.A. City Urban Forestry Division is quite limited and does not include many trees with edible fruits, with the exception of date palms. In the same vein, the 2015 ordinance includes language about “shade or ornamental trees,” but not fruit trees.

The effort to make space for fresh produce in public spaces has faced not just legal pushback, but also cultural obstacles. In part, this opposition may be motivated by residents' fears that publicly accessible fruit will attract unwelcome visitors, including homeless people whose presence is often rejected by neighbors. I’ve heard people say they would be uncomfortable harvesting fruit in a parkway or even in a park for reasons that they struggled to articulate at first: some of them worried about looking like trespassers or thieves, while others were concerned about pollutants and food contamination. I've also found myself questioning the safety of a parkway tree until I saw someone else grab some of the citrus fruit and stuff them in his pockets. As city dwellers, we usually assume that food must be sanctioned as edible by a vendor or government authority in order to qualify as legitimate, and this conditions the ways in which we imagine our urban treescape.

Still, others see no problem in harvesting fruits around the city, including those on overhanging branches of trees planted on private property. They point out that freshly harvested roadside fruits are not as likely to be covered in industrial grade fertilizers and pesticides as store-bought ones, especially after a good wash. And, of course, they are free.

Driving through Inglewood recently, I came across a family with their minivan parked by a fence, hazard lights blinking, while a woman and two teenagers picked oranges from the overhanging branches of a tree. 

Urban orange tree against white wall. | iStock/JJFarquitectos
Urban orange tree against white wall. | iStock/JJFarquitectos

What would the city look like if we considered the food potential of the trees we plant in our city, in addition to their functionality as ornament, erosion control and shade? We might begin with a change in attitude towards roadside fruit trees. Humans have already irreversibly altered the landscape of Los Angeles. We have the opportunity now to create the urban habitats of the future. How? By planting trees. Recent struggles to supply urban food deserts with access to fresh produce have turned this opportunity into a responsibility to re-envision our tree cover, which could be designed to sustain and nourish human and nonhuman populations alike. 

They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. And the second best time? Now. The trees we plant today for the future should not just be a matter of aesthetics. While beauty is important, so are the other benefits that trees provide for people and other living beings. 

Top image: Moreton Bay fig | iStock/IVANVIEITO

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