CityWatch, Jan 19, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 6
LANDSCAPING IN LA - As the threat of a water crisis looms on the horizon, the City of LA finds itself immobilized, tethered by garden hoses and irrigation systems to an unsustainable municipal lifestyle that costs money, wastes water, and sets a poor example.
Consider the unintended consequences of the recent Occupy LA encampment surrounding City Hall that killed the turf lawn, prompting Emily Green of the LA Times to declare it a “positive achievement” that provides LA’s leadership with an opportunity to “walk the talk” of a water-wise commitment.
Many cities use the landscaping and maintenance of their municipal property as a teaching opportunity, showcasing drought resistant options to the traditional turf lawn that is neither native nor sustainable.
LA’s City Council, on the other hand, has spent more time debating lawn-watering strategies in the midst of municipal water rationing than it has on setting a citywide standard that would wean the City of LA from its dependency on sprinklers and fertilizer.
In the wake of the Occupy LA “restoration” of City Hall Park’s open space, LA’s Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP) has taken its “restoration” responsibilities on the road, engaging “a large cross section of City professionals and officials, renowned landscape professionals, and the public to solicit a variety of input, concerns, and suggestions.”
RAP has advanced three proposals that range from a traditional “putting green” gestalt to a design that incorporates permeable sidewalks, water reclamation, drought resistant ground cover and decomposed granite paths.
Missing from the dialogue is an option that liberates City Hall from the need to install an irrigation system. It’s not as if the City of LA is a stranger to the notion of irrigation-free landscape design and maintenance.
The City of LA owns and operates the 110 year-old South Seas House as a community center and RAP maintains its beautiful Xeroscape front yard without relying on an irrigation system, resulting in a beautiful demonstration of alternatives to the traditional turf lawn and a dependency on water.
The City of LA is also home to the Charles F. Lummis Home and Garden, an acre of drought tolerant and native plant landscaping that demonstrates our ability to give up the garden hose habit in favor of low maintenance designs that incorporate water reclamation elements.
The fact that the City of LA actually maintains public space landscaping that is free of the need to install and maintain wasteful irrigation systems has not impeded its commitment to labor intensive landscaping choices that squander a dwindling natural resource.
LA’s new Fire Station #82 is being build on Hollywood Boulevard, a huge training facility that has approximately 500 square feet of streetside landscaping, requiring 134 sprinkler heads. The complexity of a system such as this belies the environmental and budget realities of the City of LA.
In fact, LA has a strong track record of designing and building facilities while neglecting to budget for ongoing maintenance, a pattern of failure that has prompted downtown residents to “adopt” the lawn surrounding the LAPD’s $600 million headquarters.
Now is the time for the City of LA to step back and to look at the barren lawn of City Hall Park as an opportunity to set a standard, to connect traditional turf lawn landscapers with training that prepares them for the future, to demonstrate to Angelenos water conservation techniques that are beautiful and low-maintenance.
Los Angeles is home to the Theodore Payne Foundation, an organization that conducts a year round education center in an effort to promote the use of California native plants and wild flowers. TPF has a presence on the streets of LA, appearing at Park(ing) Day LA events and Farmers Markets to demonstrate the advantages of landscaping that is pleasing to the eye while providing a water conservation solution.
Surrounding communities, such as Santa Monica, San Fernando, and Manhattan Beach all operate municipal facilities that are free of a dependence on extravagant irrigation systems and maintenance commitments, also serving as a teaching opportunity that encourages the community to engage in water conservation efforts.
Covina’s library is surrounded by a 3,300 square foot water-wise Native Plant Demonstration Garden that replaced the turf lawn and now captures run-off water for its irrigation needs.
The Crescenta Valley Water District Demonstration Garden offers ideas for replacing turf with California Friendly plants and serves for a promotion for its policy of offering rebate money to residents who remove turf grass from their yards.
Santa Clarita’s Castaic Lake Water Agency Conservatory Garden features 350 low-water-using plant varieties and 1,500 roses, along with instructional signage and classes to help gardeners be water-wise.
LA’s own Pierce College features the S. Mark Taper Botanical Garden, 1.9 acres of plants from the seven major worldwide Mediterranean climate zones, all suitable for Southern California’s climate.
Meanwhile, the City of LA struggles with an artificial dichotomy between what is functional and what is sustainable, a battle that relies on the assumption that City Hall’s full roster of public events all require a turf lawn landscape.
It simply isn’t true and there is a groundswell of advocacy in favor of exploring the full range of sustainable options. Community leaders, such as Sherri Akers and Melissa Stoller of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Green Committee, have formally asked the City of LA to seize this opportunity and to surround City Hall with sustainable landscaping.
The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, long active in community sourced solutions to land use, sustainability, and open space issues, has also jumped in with a commitment to help design and maintain a sustainable City Hall Park landscape.
Why then the drama?
Does the City of LA own a warehouse of water sprinkler equipment that must be used up before it can conceive of giving up its water-wasteful habits?
Does the City of LA have an endorsement deal with Toro, one that requires the city to keep riding lawnmowers active in all 15 council districts in order to qualify for compensation?
The time is now for the City of LA to think beyond the putting green, to give up the turf lawn, and to embrace this opportunity as the fork in the road, the one that the next generation will look back at as the defining moment when the City of LA began to actually walk the talk.