How Can We Fix Our Public Landscaping?


Yesterday Kelly blogged about the appalling landscaping in front of an Los Angeles Department of Water and Power facility. When Kelly first showed me the photo of that purple gravel and artificial turf I thought it might be some kind of conceptual art project.

Unfortunately, this poor attempt at a drought tolerant landscape is just another example of an attitude of indifference towards public space that’s all too prevalent in Los Angeles and many other cities. Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog has done a great job covering the many ways this indifference manifests in big piles of trash on LA’s sidewalks and horrible conditions for bus commuters.

This indifference is also apparent in the lackluster landscaping of most of our public spaces. This egregious LADWP “garden” is the last straw for me. It’s time we do something about it.

Two California based organizations come to mind: Daily Acts in Petaluma and the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Daily Acts has landscaped public spaces such as libraries and schools as well as private homes. These gardens provide an example that others can follow. The Ecology Center has a spectacular garden that shows do simple water harvesting to create a beautiful landscape with drought tolerant plants that attracts beneficial wildlife.

We need similar organizations in Los Angeles. We have an immense pool of talent here that could fix that terrible purple gravel and artificial turf atrocity and go on to do so much more. Who’s in?

And to those of you reading this elsewhere in the word, feel free to leave a comment about how you changed your public space for the better.

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  1. Culver City Public Works building on Jefferson just northeast of Duquesne serves as an example of using public space for that teachable moment: a cistern, drip system and native plant garden. Culver City Hall, mostly surrounded by plaza, water features and low water use planters; however Transition Culver City (TCC) advocates lawn removal on the east side of the building. TCC and Flowtown films produced a short video about adapting public parkways for water filtration and capture, and as enhanced community space.

  2. I’m Mexican. I think my peeps are on to something here re drought and curb appeal–what’s wrong with dirt?

    I understand having dirt for the front and back yards might bring property values down, but really that’s the most water friendly strategy–worked for the pre-European aboriginals here, Chumash, Tongvas & Paiutes.

    BUT I’m also a budding urban homesteader and would love to re-use my frontyard to grow fruits and veggies. Didn’t you guys feature a guy (some Indian guy who worked in the tech industry and went back home to farm his yards instead) who lived near JPL?

    I work for the city (clerk at Bldg & Safety), and most of us here want to lateral over to DWP because they have the big bucks, my dream is to eventually get transfered to their DWP Mammoth office, that or Lone Pine.

    The point is DWP’s budget is legendary, so another side to this issue is where is the money going to?

    • I’ve also wondered where all of LA DWP’s money is going — not to garden designers, that’s for sure.

      And I know that packed earth yards have their advantages, and are used all over the world, though they are looked down upon by lawn traditionalists. Personally, I’d prefer to mulch the yard and try to capture the rain as it comes–it would run off the packed dirt. Mulch also keeps the dust down.

      I’m not sure which post you’re talking about — I’ll ask Erik and see if he remembers.

    • That site provides lists of plants, something I would find very helpful if I were living under low water conditions. The first link is gone, but the other two are amazing in the information about plants and their water needs that is provided.

    • Indeed! I grew up in Colorado, and I remember being very well educated about drought as a youngster, and learning the word xeriscape there many years ago.

  3. I think you just hit on something that is abundantly challanging to address because public space is supposed to be used by all and wonderful (think parks) but culturally, we’ve all been trained we’re not supposed to mess with it (think park litter signs).
    I’m going to grossly generalize here and say that Public space is seen by everyone, but owned by ‘no one’ in particular….and so (like a communist era housing project) a public space that is heavily trafficked has the potential to turn to slum pretty quick. Or in the case of your water dept landscape – be turned into something quite alian due to….well I’m not entirely sure. Beaurocracy? Lowest bidder contracts? Complete lack of understanding on how nature works? Desperation to maintain the status quo during the crappening of the drought? All of the above?
    I think, and again, this is rough ponderings that I haven’t researched or tried to act on myself: that in order to reclaim public space, to beautify it, to implement a design on it that turns it into ‘useful’ space you have to find out 1) who owns the land 2) what particular regulations govern the land 3) who is willing to help you take the responsibility of restoring for and caring for that land and 4) teach the community that anything planted on that land is theirs to enjoy, but not necessarily to take.
    I know a lady who started a community garden and planted fruit trees on an empty lot, only to have the trees stolen out of the lot 2 days after planting. Teaching the community to share, shoulder responsibility, and enjoy the land – that, in my mind, is probably the biggest challange. Because people are tricksy (as gollum might say) and our culture is more one of take what is yours, not as much share what you have with your neighbor.
    So I think this is a great subject. A timely subject. A permaculture subject even (care of people, care of earth). But also a challanging subject because it involves taking personal and communal responsibility for land that might be typically thought of as something you get to use for free, but not actually have to deal with.

    • I think you’ve described the problem exactly. We’ve got to have a buy-in from the community and a sense that this space belongs to us all. It won’t be easy but I think it’s possible. There is a transience to Los Angeles and a kind of low civic self-esteem that will have to be overcome first. I’m hopeful and see the signs of a reversal in attitude, but there’s a lot of work ahead.

  4. The most frustrating for me is seeing someone hose off their AstroTurf. So aggravating.

  5. The guerilla gardening movement comes to mind. Maybe you could poke holes in their turf and plant some flowers. At least the turf would act like a weed barrier! 🙂

    • A great idea. Maybe with the remaining artificial turf we can make a guerrilla miniature golf course.

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