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.


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

Leave a comment


  1. Here in the west valley I’ve watched a trend develop, more and more lawns are treated as seasonal grasslands. I suspect it’s the cost of watering the lawn that has forced the issue, but many, including the lawn directly across from us are ignored with the exception of mowing if needed in the rainy season.

  2. I haven’t the words. But I’ll try.
    This is beyond atrocious, for the reasons you so eloquently listed. LA DWP needs to be leading us towards beautiful, water-wise landscapes, but when they have the opportunity to show an example of a forward-thinking, stylish garden for our dry city they come up with THIS? I am appalled.
    Synthetic lawn is a BAD CHOICE – the carbon footprint is huge and ultimately it is another petroleum product that will end up in a landfill. After exploring the idea of using synthetic lawns in my design work I made a decision that faking it just isn’t my style- lawnless gardens are the way to go. Unfortunately, people with children often demand lawn as a play space so a compromise has to be made – but my default is always to go lawn free. The use of the synthetic lawn by the DWP is worse than the aesthetic missteps of the ugly gravel and the badly chosen and placed plants, because they are still promoting the swath of rich emerald green that truly has no place in our climate. How distressing to see this! Who is advising them? Who DESIGNED this? I am close to having my head come to a point over this. It is badness in so many ways! Thank you for exposing this travesty!!!

    • Interesting side note regarding the fake lawn. I’m hearing from people in Vegas and other hotter climates then ours that have installed these fake lawns only to rip them out sooner then later. The material in these fake lawns accumulate a great deal of heat and kids or dogs will burn the bottoms of feet having walked on the “lawn”.

    • @Winnetka: This is true. My mom in AZ says her fake turf gets too hot for her dogs sometimes. The next step, I suppose, is to install a cooling system which runs beneath the plastic turf to keep it “grass temperature.” Anyone want to invest on this idea with me?

      @Ivette: I think you found the words! Thanks for sharing my incredulity.

  3. Just wow. Shaking my damn head.

    I do want to sing the praises of the Joshua Tree Water District which has an incredibly beautiful demonstration garden with 5 different gardens, a wash and a wildlife habitat open to the public:

    If you’re ever up that way, it’s worth the trip to stop by.

  4. M’kay, looking for guidance here. I have a 15,000 square foot lot. I removed the front lawn and it is now a graywater-irrigated foodscape of a modest sort. The pool has been here for 50 years and ain’t going away. 6 citrus trees around the pool are also graywater irrigated. 1500 square feet of back lawn was replaced with a stone patio 7 years ago (it drains toward trees, so when we pressure wash it every few months most of the water is captured.) I still have 4000 square feet of lawn in the far back yard, ringed with fruit trees. My justification for watering the lawn is that it also irrigates the trees. I will be removing another 500 square feet of lawn (from behind the trees) as soon as I can find some free urbanite near me (CSULB area, if anyone has some). But I can’t remove any more unless I can figure out a low-water landscape that our free-range chickens can enjoy without destroying it. I’ve let mine in the front yard from time to time (grasshopper control patrol), but they make a horrid mess in the mulch, and go after gravel and bare dirt like dogs in a fresh flower bed. They coexists quite nicely with thick, tough lawn. Anybody have links to landscapes that don’t need much water that will not bring out a chicken’s voracious digging instinct?

    • My chickens can rip up my St. Augustine grass. Thankfully, there is lots of lawn and by ignoring any one spot for two days, it recovers very nicely. They also love to eat St. Augustine grass. I just forgive them for some of the messes they make. They look so happy digging holes and dust bathing.

    • Jessica, I think you are already doing a whole lot to save water, and your yard sounds great. I don’t think we have to be absolute or judgmental about removing lawns, and in your situation a lawn may be the best answer. Chickens are destructive, and if they can’t dig up your tough turf, then maybe that’s the best way to go in your situation. I agree, you don’t want to live in a dusty moonscape.

      The only alternative I can think of is to replace some of the turf with chicken forage plants — and honestly, I’ve never done this, so I don’t know how it will hold up to their abuse — but it seems sensible to make that space and that water work for you more, and it would if it grew stuff for the chickens to eat, thus lessening your feed bills and maybe improving their diets.This is what I mean by chicken forage:

      An aside regarding irrigating your lawn and fruit trees together, just fyi: I’ve heard from fruit tree experts that trees which are tied to lawn irrigation develop shallow root systems because of the more frequent, less deep watering that turf requires. This makes them weak. They do better on a separate system, where they can get deeper watering.

    • An old-timer around here made a suggestion to me when he saw me putting in a two-run coop, with plans to let my girls out in one side to eat bugs and grass for a few days and then the other, alternating runs while the recently scratched one recovered. He stated that although my enclosures really are large (maybe 20 X 30), the chickens would scratch them down to bare dirt, destroying all the “pasture” if allowed. He suggested making a large grid-type structure out of lightweight wood (I think he said furring strips?) and protecting the roots of some of the plants with it, letting the girls eat the tops of the plants without digging them all up. This obviously wouldn’t cover their entire run but could protect an island, at least. Then move the grid to the other side with the chickens while the first area recovered. I thought this sounded like way too much trouble, plus was pretty confident that my rotational strategy would work OK. Guess what? Down to bare dirt on both sides. 🙁
      Point is (besides that I was an obnoxious beginner who should have taken old Charlie’s advice) that chickens just dig, it’s part of their chicken-ness. Especially in low water situations, plants in a confined area which are tasty to chickens just don’t recover that quickly. If you are moving them around to fresh pasture frequently and keeping them off the recovering areas, then maybe, but I think the low water part would just be asking too much. But maybe just a few birds (I had 10 at the time) wouldn’t be so bad.

  5. The metropolitan water district had a nice planting of native and drought tolerant plants outside of their Commerce area office on Telegraph, but I think that it was removed. It looked really good for about two years. I think they took “low maintenance” as “completely neglect”, and got fed up with the overgrown nature of the planting. They also planted natives along the riverbed nearby. These are pruned once yearly. They planted native grapes on small retaining walls between the bike path and the river channel. In Downey, the Gas Company Energy Resource Company has some low water use plantings.
    But, I think that getting people to take up the water companies turf removal programs requires more effort through advertisement. A lot of people don’t really know about these programs. Also, it would be helpful if they gave information on where to buy native plants/ low water use. Even if they gave a quick tutorial or visual on layering plant textures and sizes, it might help potential takers to move forward. Or, if they posted pictures of converted lawns for inspiration… But, I don’t know how much the water companies really want to save. Metropolitan asked us to save water a few years ago, then after we did so, they sent us a letter saying that we had been so successful, that they were going to have to raise our prices to make enough money to maintain the system. Go figure.

  6. My part of Texas has been in drought for 3 years now. 4? I lose track. I gave up on watering the grass. Lo and behold, as the grass started to brown and wither, this awesome clover-y stuff started to fill in the gaps. It was lush and green even in the worst part of the drought. It doesn’t grow super high so it doesn’t really need mowing. The chickens will nibble at it. I don’t think it likes full sun, but it does well in shade or partial sun. I think it is called Horseherb. It’s awesome and I wish the rest of my grass would just die so it could take over the whole lawn.

  7. I live in Riverside, CA and we are served by the Western Municipal Water District. They are pretty darn fabulous at helping people go with water-wise planting. They have a GREAT display garden right near my house ( that shows what plants will look like full-grown and filled in, and how incredibly beautiful low-water use landscape can be, not just filled with cactus, rock and fake grass.

    Personally, we have used sections of fake turf for specific areas for dust/dirt abatement (specifically, under the doggie pool and on top of bare dirt), as well as under our chairs/table in the orchard (again, for doggie dust abatement – those guys really stir up some dust when they get to romping). Those areas are partially shaded and so the heat of the fake turf on dog feet is not an issue (as an aside, at the water-wise garden they specifically say that the turf may get too hot for children and pets, so we were aware of this problem before we bought the fake turf). The issue really does seem to about actually “thinking” about the garden spaces and not just defaulting to lawn – once you figure out your landscaping needs, then you can fill it in with the appropriate ground cover (red apple is good – we use it as a ground cover that we *might* need to water once a month. In the summer. Bees love it, too!). Not any one thing will suit everybody, and diversity is good!

    Yup, your water District could really do better, and should.

  8. Would some local landscapers do some demonstration plots there? Around here, traffic islands, strips along the edge of gas stations, and similar plots are often landscaped as an advertisement for these design services. Of course they put up a sign saying who did it and the phone number/website. If a local group could get this off the ground, a press release could be sent out to further publicize the xeriscaping concept.

  9. Pingback: Artificial Turf: Is It Ever a Good Idea? | Root Simple

  10. Pingback: 009 Artificial Turf Wars and Fashion Disasters | Root Simple

Comments are closed.