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Thinking Like a Forest: Cities as Living Systems

A conversation with Andy Lipkis and Spherical
Thinking Like a Forest: Cities as Living Systems

The concluding presentation in the Texas Tech Humanities Center 2020-2021 FORESTS theme celebrated Earth Day by asking urban forestry pioneer Andy Lipkis, what does it mean to live in a city and think like a forest?

By demonstrating how to simulate forest watershed ecosystems, Lipkis’s life work has transformed the design of water and waste infrastructures to better hold urban ecosystems intact. Lipkis’s transformative encounter with trees as a teenager led to a 50-year effort to revive the ecosystems of Los Angeles through his creation of TreePeople, a global leader in adapting cities for sustainable living. Along with his current collaborators, regenerative designers Dawn Danby and David McConville, Lipkis discussed how ecological principles based on symbiotic relations are informing their work to re-imagine urban landscapes as living systems.


  • Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, has worked for decades to reimagine cities as integrated ecosystems and watersheds. He has consulted with cities globally on implementing green infrastructure to build resilience.
  • Cities can be seen as permeable and interconnected systems, not just concrete jungles. Understanding cities' original ecology as forests or other biomes helps redesign them to be more ecologically functional.
  • Modeling tools can show the costs and benefits of integrating green infrastructure across city departments and agencies. This convinced Los Angeles officials to implement Lipkus' urban watershed plan.
  • Community involvement is critical - residents caring for trees on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in LA have kept them alive for over 20 years. Relationships are as important as technical solutions.
  • Cities like LA can become water independent by capturing rainfall, cleaning contaminated aquifers, and recycling wastewater instead of importing water. This would save billions in energy costs.
  • Looking at urban systems through the lens of forests and their interconnectivity and symbiosis provides hope and solutions for restoring balance. We must rethink human relationships to the more-than-human world.

Andy Lipkis is a pioneer in the movements for urban and community forestry and urban watershed management. Starting as a teenager to organize for the rehabilitation of smog- and fire-damaged trees and forests, Lipkis founded TreePeople and served as its president from 1973 to 2019. In that role he has consulted for cities around the world engaging their communities to confront climate threats with green infrastructure projects. Retiring from TreePeople in 2019, Lipkis has now launched Accelerating Resilience LA. to guide communities and local governments in Los Angeles in their efforts to equitably accelerate climate resilience.

Dawn Danby and David McConville are the proprietors of Spherical, an integrative research and design studio in Oakland, CA. They are co-founders of Gaian Systems: The Planetary Cognition Lab and are currently working on the Accelerating Resilience LA project with Andy Lipkis.