Is Your Garden a Working Landscape?

Gardens on Elmer Avenue in Sun Valley hold rainwater and recharge the aquifer, replacing what they use…and they are pretty, too. I’ll be talking more about Elmer Avenue in the next few weeks, telling the story of the street from research and conception to implementation.

Bioswale in the Rain

Are You Ready for the New California Landscape?

The Watershed Council is holding its next Sustainable Landscape Seminar this month: Planning and Planting the New California Landscape.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
8:30am – 3:30pm
Metropolitan Water District
700 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA 90012 (Map)

What is the New California Landscape? Come find out and enter into the conversation. Our seminar presenters are:
Bob Perry, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona; Carolyn Schaffer, Resource Specialist for Metropolitan Water District; and Jeff Chamlee, Director of Production, Architerra Design Group. They will share their expertise on the challenges and opportunities of the new California Landscape Ordinance. You don’t want to miss this one day seminar to update your skills and knowledge.
• Learn what California’s Updated Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance means for California Landscapes.
• Understand how new landscape ordinance provisions can be used to influence and engage clients in the design process.
• Practice using guidelines, tables, calculations, and plant factors from Bob Perry’s new book Landscape Plants for California Gardens.
• Share your ideas and vision for the New California Landscape.
Landscape Plants for California Gardens will be available for purchase and Bob Perry will be signing his new book.
Who should attend: Landscape architects and designers, planners, care and maintenance professionals, and students.
Registration: $135 by May 19. $150 after May 19. Continental breakfast and lunch included.

Registration closes noon, Monday, May 24. Register Today!

Making Spaces for Nature and People

One of my staff sent me a link to this story on Treehugger about this innovative solution to the problem of not enough parks. In Istanbul, the Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanical Garden is a botanical garden inside the cloverleaf of a freeway exchange. This mostly privately funded 125-acre garden has over 1,800 plant species under cultivation, an herbarium with over 1,000 species, a children’s garden with programs for youth, and it features geophytes (plants that grow from bulbs), Quercus species (oaks), Turkish endemics, Turkish rare and threatened species, economic, medicinal and aromatic plants, and insectivorous plants.

Can we adapt this idea for greater Los Angeles? Sure there are lots of questions and issues to be explored – especially safe access for people, air quality inside the exchange, and potential impacts of plant roots and water infiltration – but even if we developed the spaces inside interchanges just for nature, we would all benefit from the air and sound filtering effects of all that vegetation.

A quick visit to the internet will show you how many of these spaces we have tucked into the Los Angeles transportation skeleton.  Already some are used for construction project staging, and some have developed purposes (self-storage facilities, CHP stations, etc), indicating that at least in some places the issue of people access has been considered and approved.  It seems that some which have pedestrian access (by design or accident) might be a great place to tuck away a pocket park.  And the ones that have no easy access might prove very useful for habitat restoration projects. Here’s one exchange in El Monte that I pass by frequently. What better could we do with this land?

Sustainable Design and the City

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of participating as a team member on an American Institute of Architects Sustainability Design Assessment Team. The AIA says that the SDAT process “brings together multidisciplinary teams of professionals from across the country to provide a road map for communities seeking to improve their sustainability—as defined by a community’s ability to meet the needs of today without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This is a broad brush assessment that results in a series of recommendations based on a rapid assessment by the team.

The SDAT community assessment that I participated in was southeastern Tennessee, centered on Chattanooga. The team spent two twelve-hour days (with preparation beforehand) questioning, listening, and touring with members of the community. The third 12-hr day consisted of the team members sitting down with our information and impressions to put together a presentation of our recommendations, which we delivered in an open meeting at the University of Tennessee from about 6:30 to 8:30 pm. At least one mayor in the region attended our presentation and we were covered by two local newspapers. The next day we flew home, with the assignment to write up our recommendations, which the AIA staff then melds into a coherent report for the community. The hope is that our recommendations are useful enough to allow the community to affect the desired change.

Why SE Tennessee? A major challenge for the region is the coming of Volkswagen, which is building a $1 billion car manufacturing facility on a large piece of land outside town. VW will directly employ 2,000 people, with another 9,000 or so in associated jobs. We were told they were looking at a projected increase in population of roughly 80,000 over the next 10 years. This is not a very large increase from the viewpoint of a large metropolitan region like Los Angeles, but for SE Tennessee, a largely low density region with a current population of 450,000, this is major.

The issues were all summed up in one phrase we heard over and over again – “We don’t want to become Atlanta.” The local weekly, the Chattanooga Pulse, says they don’t want to be “Chatlanta.” How many times have those of us Los Angelenos heard that refrain from cities that don’t want to be us?

So what are the problems of Atlanta that people want no part of? Traffic, for one. This is a region in which at rush hour on a major artery a flock of ducks could cross the street with no problem. And yet you can see the future, as locals resist regional planning and much of the development in the last decade has taken place in unincorporated County areas that have almost no zoning codes and even less enforcement. Sprawling suburban and subrural development results in developments designed 100% for car traffic.

What makes this region so interesting, however, is Chattanooga’s commitment to sustainability. In 2006, Mayor Ron Littlefield signed the U.S. Council of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and by 2009 a citizen’s commission had written a climate action plan. Chattanooga Green is a City-endorsed organization to ensure implementation. Reading their implementation plan, I almost wondered why they called in the AIA SDAT for help.

This is a community that thinks big, however, and thinks systematically. When Chattanooga won the VW manufacturing plant, they started asking what they could do to maintain and improve quality of life in the region. They were looking for all the resources that could help them to maintain quality of life.

The SE Tennessee position paper, submitted in application for the SDAT grant, is a comprehensive list of their concerns:

“To us, sustainable growth would address community issues as they relate to quality of life and quality of growth for the region including:

– continuing to allow food to be grown locally,

– cleaning surface water and recharge storm water runoff,

– water conservation due to recent regional drought conditions,

– providing for multiple mass transportation options,

– reducing air pollutants,

– creating convenient and cost effective recycling solutions,

– defining appropriate building zones,

– planning for open space and parkland,

– and promoting energy efficiency.”

There is almost nothing on that list that doesn’t apply to any metropolitan area. Of interest to me, is how these goals for sustainability play out in my adopted town, Los Angeles (as in the metropolitan area), and the communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

It turns out that Los Angeles has an SDAT grant, too, and will experience the SDAT process in the near future. The application was spearheaded by the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, which has a sustainability committee. You can join in or follow the process by getting on their list. I will be covering this process as I reflect more on my experience in SE Tennessee and sustainability in the Los Angeles Basin.

The Parable of the Yeast, a Story about Economics and Sustainability

Once upon a time there was a student with a packet of yeast, a box of sugar, and an Erlenmeyer flask. The student was instructed to put the package of yeast into the flask, add a measured amount of sugar, fill it up with water, top with a balloon, and put the whole thing in a warm incubator. The student was instructed to observe and measure, writing down numbers in a notebook, and then to make sense of the results.

The student (a naïve young thing who had never made bread) was amazed to observe the whole concoction get cloudy and bubbly. The balloon expanded with gas. In a few days, the liquid cleared, leaving a scummy mess on the inner surfaces of the flask.

Now imagine that our student actually had been instructed to make up several flasks, with varying amounts of sugar or different temperatures, and to take measurements each day. The student counted the yeast, measured the amount of sugar, and sampled the gas in the balloon. The student measured specific gravity and dipped a piece of pH paper into the liquid. The student discovered that sugar was necessary for the yeast to grow and that the gas was carbon dioxide. The student found that there is an optimal temperature for the growth of yeast and that yeast consumes the sugar and generates alcohol and CO2. And the student found that when the liquid cleared up, the yeast colony had died.

Our student, if she is a good student, has learned some important biological principles and hopefully did well on her assignment. Her teacher probably extended the lesson to help the student draw some conclusions about the importance of environment – about how food is a limiting factor and how waste products, like alcohol and CO2, poison the environment.  But she likely learned nothing about how this experiment relates to human societies because biologists don’t teach about economics (and economists don’t teach about biology).

Not only do economists not teach their students about biology, most (but not all) don’t believe biology has anything to teach them about economics. Mainstream U.S. economic theory posits that human growth cannot be limited by scarcity or toxicity because we are so smart that we will be able to invent, engineer, or bioengineer our way out of any problem. Not only that, but they believe the market is self-correcting and when resources get scarce, prices will go up and people will find substitutes. What the economists forgot to consider were two important facts:  resources are in fact limited and we can outstrip our ability to manage certain waste products.

Our planet looks a bit like the yeast colony today. More and more people are starving and the amount of CO2 has gotten to a critical level which is wreaking havoc on our climate, mucking up the ideal conditions for human life on this planet.

What does the parable of the yeast say to us about sustainability? The basic definition of sustainability is living today in such a way as to not compromise the ability of future generations to exist. Sustainability is popularly pictured as a three legged stool or a Venn diagram with a balance between economics, society, and environment. The parable of the yeast suggests that sustainability is a nested set of conditions, with economics serving the society which exists within the environment.

My thinking was stimulated by an essay entitled “Bigger Isn’t Better,” by Peter A. Victor, an economist at York University in Canada. 

Dr. Victor says “Ecological economists understand economies to be subsystems of the earth ecosystem, sustained by a flow of materials and energy from and back to the larger system in which they are embedded. It is understandable that when these flows were small relative to the earth they could be ignored, as they have been in much of mainstream economics. Economists are not alone in treating the economy as a self-contained, free standing system largely independent of its environmental setting. It is a widely held view that environmental protection is just one among multiple competing interests to be traded off against the economy.

“And anyway, this mainstream perspective teaches that if resource and environmental constraints are encountered, scarcities will be signaled by increases in prices that will induce a variety of beneficial changes in behaviour and technology. Should this system of scarcity-price-response fail then economists can estimate “shadow” prices which can be imposed directly through taxes or used indirectly through policies based on cost-benefit analysis to fix the problem.

“To ecological economists, this is an inadequate response to the myriad problems of resource depletion, environmental contamination and habitat destruction confronting humanity in the 21st century. They question the pursuit of endless economic growth and contemplate a very different kind of future.”

If the paradigm of the economy equals growth is failing us today, is the solution to change the paradigm to one in which the economy equals sustainability? If we want to learn from the Parable of the Yeast, the answer must be yes.

Sustainable Los Angeles?

The vision of the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council says that by 2025 “the Los Angeles region has become a model of sustainable urban watershed management.” This vision is the conclusion of a long list of criteria of sustainability that were adopted in 1996 and reaffirmed in 2008 by the Board of Directors of the Watershed Council. You can read the complete vision statement on the Watershed Council’s website. It is a very ambitious vision.

Let’s set aside for a moment the deadline of 2025. Does sustainability even make sense for an urban region like Los Angeles? Are the criteria for sustainability achievable? And there is that deadline. I’m sure in 1996 it seemed comfortably far away, but the future is rushing towards us. No one knows what the world will be like in 2025, but we can imagine. I’ve read plenty of dystopias, thank you, and I would prefer to work towards utopia, even if I believe it to be unrealistic. I grew up watching Star Trek, afterall.

This blog, then, is a place to explore the idea of sustainability in an urban city – who, what, where, when, and especially how.