The palm tree, an iconic hallmark of Los Angeles, might not be around to paint pictures of the city as one with sunny strolls down endless lines of the sky-high trees for long. While palm trees have characterized and adorned the City of Angels for decades past, pictures and films may be the only relic of the glorious past of the city’s palm trees.

Specialists have identified a bug, known as the South American palm weevil, and a fungus, known as Fusariam, that have been killing palm trees around the sunny southern California city. There is no official count of the current number of palm trees in the Los Angeles area since no count has been documented since the early 1990s. However, the LA Times cited 75,000 as the official count of palm trees in 1990 – a number that will only dwindle in coming decades.

And while the South American palm weevil and Fusariam are the main culprits causing the death of these beloved trees, old age has also been killing them off. 

The palm tree has been a staple of the city since the early 20th century, originally appearing in the landscape of southern California as ornaments planted by Franciscan missionaries. But in light of the challenges that climate change and rapid urbanization place on Los Angeles, maintaining the image of the city can no longer be the sole reason to keep the trees as a part of LA’s urban fabric.

In light of climbing temperatures, the city authority of Los Angeles has said that it does not plan on replanting the palm trees. Program director of City Plants, Elizabeth Skrzat, said“Palms are decorative and iconic, but Los Angeles is facing more and more heatwaves, so it’s important that we plant trees that provide adequate shade to protect people and cool the city down.” The city expects to see an increment of 3 or 4 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature increase in coming years.

San Francisco original palm tree

Two Franciscan missionaries standing in front of some of LA’s first palm trees.

The decision is in line with recent trends to adopt a sustainable approach to city landscaping and building. In Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, a primary school for disadvantaged children in the slum of Kibera was turned into what its architects call a “productive public space.” The school was built with materials extracted from local resources and was geared towards creating a sustainable, innovative facility while preserving the identity of the school’s students and the slum itself.

In response to similar challenges elsewhere, urban planners are addressing the changes wrought by climate change in innovative and resourceful ways. For example, the Gulf island nation of Bahrain plans on unveiling a new seawall that will prevent the walkway around the island nation from flooding while resorting to turbines at the bottom of the seawall to generate enough electricity to power 50 houses. In China, plans to continue building the country’s “Great Green Wall – an effort to stop man-made desertification in the Gobi Desert by planting scores of trees.

When it comes to LA’s palm tree debacle, the challenge is whether a balance can be struck in which the preservation of our cities’ identities works in tandem with maximizing their utility. In other words, can we find a way to keep LA’s palm trees without contributing to water scarcity in Southern California and simultaneously providing shade for people in light of rising temperatures?

The conversation around how the palm tree is part and parcel of the identity of Los Angeles is crucial in understanding how we can respond to climate change in the 21st century of urban transformation. From the looks of it, we may see the last of LA’s palm trees dotting the sidewalks of Beverly Hills in the coming years, since the city’s authority seems adamant on moving forward with their plan. And while a palm-less Los Angeles may alter the city’s identity, it would not necessarily be an outright erasure of it, but perhaps an indication that the city is both resourceful and agile in the face of climate change.

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