Can our landscapes model a vibrant future? Not according to the LA DWP.

dwp landscaping

California is suffering from drought. In Los Angeles, we’ve experienced back to back two of the driest winters on record (winter is our rainy season). Last year’s rainfall total was under 6 inches. The governor has asked California residents to cut their water use by 20%.  Apparently, we’ve only managed to cut it by 5%.

There’s a strange sense of unreality about the drought. I think that’s because we’re just not feeling it in the cities. Our water is cheap, the taps are running, food prices aren’t terribly affected– yet.  So we keep washing our cars and hosing off the sidewalks and topping off our swimming pools and, of course, we water our lawns.

Lawns are a big liability in this region. I think they may not be such a crime in milder, wetter places where they grow happily (though there’s no getting around the fact that they are a sterile monoculture, not helpful to wildlife). But turf has no business whatsoever in the American southwest. It just doesn’t want to grow in this climate–which is why it’s always doing its level best to die. Here, our lawns live on life support.

There has been some movement toward lawn-free yards in the past several years, but the movement seems stalled. I’d expect to see more lawns being ripped out recently due to the drought, but I haven’t seen much activity in that direction, despite the fact the Department of Water and Power will actually pay Angelinos to remove their turf.

We hold onto our lawns, I think, because it is so hard to think beyond the lawn.

The average property owner is not a landscaper, nor a plant expert, and they have lots of other things to think about. The default setting of a lawn plus a few shrubs up around the house foundation takes no thought, causes no problems with the neighbors and is easily maintained by inexpensive gardening services. What’s not to love, really? And why not hold on to our lawns, because the drought will pass and we’ll be back to normal.

Asking people to re-imagine their yards is asking a lot. Yet it may be vital.

This drought may not end. Los Angeles and all of the southwest are looking at a hotter, drier present and future due to climate change. And regardless of water availability it would be a great service to nature, to our embattled birds and bees and small critters, to make our yards beautiful, changeable, welcoming sanctuaries. It would also be a gift to our own souls. Yards can be healing spaces.

To re-imagine our yards, we need to see examples of yards which work on a different paradigm, and we need to see so many of them that they become part of our shared visual vocabulary.

dwp landscaping

Sorry about the dim photo–the sun was setting–but I think it gives the general idea.

This brings me to the new landscaping at our local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) distributing station. I believe it used to have a typical sickly lawn in front of it, but last time I was in the neighborhood I saw it had been rejiggered to be a low water use landscape. And that’s good…really…a great idea, guys.  But…

The new landscape is mostly artificial turf, with a few swathes of D.G. and a strip of purple gravel mulch running along the foundation, and that gravel is studded with strangely trampled looking agave-ish plants, and a couple of random bougainvillea.

What goes on here? What is in your head, DWP? And how much did you pay for this redesign?

The artificial turf is particularly insidious because it seems to be a placeholder for better days when we can all go back to watering our lawns into emerald brilliance. We need to say goodbye to the lawn for good, write it off like a bad boyfriend.

And the purple gravel… I just don’t know what to say.

Note that the design consists of a lawn and foundation plantings. It’s the same old uninspired model, repeated on the institutional scale.

I suspect this landscaping will have some fans because it is “tidy” and “low maintenance.” True. It is also devoid of life and actively hostile to nature. Landscapes speak. This one denies our relationship with the natural world and declares any actual engagement with nature to be too much trouble. No doubt they’d replace those sickly plants with synthetics if they didn’t suspect they’d all get stolen in the night.

This is not the kind of model we need, DWP.

Next time you change up your landscaping, consider consulting one or more of the many brilliant plant people and designers in this city. Call us if you need numbers.

Consider using permeable surfaces and contoured landscaping to capture every drop of our rare rainfall and send it down to the thirsty soil. Show us how to use native and Mediterranean plants to make lush landscapes that call in the pollinators. Help us create landscapes we want to walk through and live in. Model this kind of smart landscaping for us, please.

Water-wise and ugly do not have to be synonymous.

dwp3

Some of the views remind me of something that might appear in an LA art installation. Which, all in all, is not praise.

The High Cost of Golf

Though I’m partial to my Xtracycle cargo bike, once in a while I’ll rent a pickup truck to haul some big items. Yesterday it was time to get a bunch of straw bales to use as bedding for the chickens. While driving by a public golf course on the way to the feed store, the windshield suddenly shattered startling me and my passenger, Ari of Islands of LA, who had come along to help out. Instictively, we ducked thinking that someone was shooting at us. Though my heart was racing, I soon realized the culprit: a errent golf ball sent hurdling over the fence by some anonymous, impossible to trace Tiger Woods wannabe. We circled back to the club house to file a report with the manager of the course and begin the long tedious process of settling the insurance claims.

So what does this have to do with urban homesteading? A lot. It’s time for another anti-golf rant. Here are my problems with golf (especially municipal golf courses):

1. The colossal mis-allocation of land. Wouldn’t a lot more people benefit from a large community garden instead of a golf course? Most people in Los Angeles and many other big cities live in apartments and don’t have any space to grow their own food. Meanwhile, waiting lists for plots in community gardens grow longer for lack of space. Most neighborhoods, of course, have no community garden at all. According to the City of Los Angeles’ 2006-07 budget, city run golf courses account for 1,500 acres of LA’s meager 8,520 acres of developed park land, meaning that 17% of park land is devoted to wealthy, middle-aged men with a taste for polo shirts and plaid pants.

2. Unfair subsidies. That errant ball came from a course owned, paid for and maintained by the City of Los Angeles. I’m sure the municipal courses bring in revenue (the city budget reports $18,000,000 from golf course use fees), but I doubt this offsets their costs (I was unable to find the cost of golf facilities in the same budget–coincidence?). I suspect we all pay for these city golf courses through our taxes. The city of Los Angeles operates the largest municipal golf course system in the United States according to the Mayor’s 2008-2009 budget. I love sports, participate in a few and believe that recreational facilities should be subsidized. But I also believe in a return on that investment. We should subsidize recreational facilities that encouraging physical activity, health and well being. Investing in initiatives and facilities that get people to exercise pay for themselves in the long run in reduced health care costs and a healthier, happier population. But is golf the kind of exercise we should subsidize? No way. Especially since on many courses, including some municipal courses in Los Angeles, players are required to drive a golf cart to speed play and increase the number of people who can use the course at any given time. I also believe in democracy. I say let’s put it to a vote: should the city fund golf courses or soccer fields? I suspect, in Los Angeles, soccer fields would win by a landslide.

3. Water. We’ve got a many year long draught here in the southwestern U.S. that shows no signs of letting up soon. Modest water rationing requirements are in effect, but that municipal golf course green I was forced to visit looked, well, very green. The amount of water used to irrigate the world’s golf courses could support 4.7 billion people at the U.N.’s daily minimum according to the Worldwatch Institute. Let’s not even get into the deleterious effect of herbicides. And while we’re on the topic of water I’ll point out that the two city running paths I use have no drinking fountains.

4. Golf kills. If I had been on my bike or going for a run I could have been killed by that ball. The supreme irony is that the stretch of road on which my rented pickup truck’s windshield was shattered is the same spot where the Department of Water and Power puts on a lame, drive-through Christmas light show that is, in effect, a city sponsored multi-month traffic jam. They ban bikes during this period because they say it isn’t safe. My friends Stephen and Enci have pointed out to our city officials that banning bikes on a city street is a violation of the state vehicle code that defines bicycles as vehicles. So far the light show, despite opposition from neighbors and the Sierra Club is poised to continue this winter. But I digress. Let’s just say that I’ll think twice before I ride down this street on a bike again, and it won’t be because of the light show.

The Griffith Park municipal course, from whence that windshield smashing golf ball originated, is the birthplace of the municipal golf course system in the U.S. It’s well past time for government subsidized golf to end. Let’s tear up those courses and go for a run, play some soccer, create wildlife habitat and plant some food.

Yet Another Lawn Rant

As if there weren’t enough reasons not to have a lawn, especially in the dry parts of the world where we live, let’s add another: gruesome accidents. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that over 117,000 folks in the United States made trips to the emergency room in 2007 because of lawn mowers.

We’ve witnessed first hand the power of lawn mowers. A neighbor of ours had his windshield shattered by a rock propelled by a mower blade. As the Orthopedic Surgeons note, “The energy transferred by a typical lawn mower blade is equivalent to being shot in the hand with a .357 Magnum pistol. A lawn mower can eject a piece of metal or wood up to 100 miles per hour.”

And manual push mowers? Surprisingly they resulted in 7,159 emergency room visits.

So remove the lawn. How? Two words for ya: sheet mulch.

Casting out the lawn

One technique for learning to draw is to study the negative space, the empty space around the subject you’re trying to capture. Doing so shortcuts our mind’s tendency to distort and stereotype the subject, say a building or a face. Draw the negative space, and you’ll be more likely to realistically capture the outline of your subject rather than ending up with the stick figures and child-like representations our mind naturally tends to portray.

In our cities negative space, the open spaces between buildings, consists of vast seas of parking and empty, unused lawns. We all tend to filter out these spaces, failing to comprehend their size and ubiquitousness. Thankfully there’s a growing awareness that our city’s negative spaces are in fact negative, that they contribute to blight, profligate use of resources and our general unhappiness.

But a consciousness shift is underway led by forward thinking folks like the parishioners of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in West Los Angeles who have teamed up with the non-profit organization Urban Farming to rip up their entire 1,200 square foot south lawn to plant vegetables for the congregation and the LAX Food Pantry. From their press release:

“Holy Nativity is a strong community center with focus on faith, hope, diversity, community and environment. The new Community Garden garden provides solutions to the issues of food insecurity, access to fresh produce, education on healthy eating, greening the environment, rising food costs and the importance of donating to those in need. Urban Farming and Holy Nativity, along with the project’s partners, will have a celebration event on Sunday, June 8. This garden is a partner in the Urban Farming campaign, “INCLUDE FOOD™ when planting and landscaping”.

During World War II, twenty million people planted “victory gardens” at their homes. They grew 40% of America’s produce. We did it then, we can do it again.”

Kudos to Holy Nativity and Urban Farming for this initiative and we hope the idea spreads to other churches, synagogues an mosques across the land–I wish I could attend the opening, but I’ll be assisting with the Bike Coalition’s annual River Ride fundraiser (not to late to sign up for that LA cyclists!). To those who can make it to Holy Nativity, the festivities run from 2 t0 5 p.m. this Sunday June 8th. Holy Nativity is located at:

6700 W 83rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(310) 670-4777

I had wanted to make a clever biblical reference at the beginning of this post and suggest that now, in 2008, Jesus would rip up the lawn, with the same fervor that he chased away the inappropriate money changers who did business in the temple. Dusting off the bible, however, I discovered that Jesus also shooed off some livestock during that episode. But with our increasing food troubles, I’d like to think that today, in addition to the vegetables, Jesus would welcome livestock back to the church grounds (cathedrals were used in the Middle Ages as barns, after all).

For more info and photos, see Holy Nativity’s Community Garden page.