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How The Drought Will Reshape California Landscape Architecture

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Today, April 22, 2015, is Earth Day and throughout the day Curbed is going to be bringing you news from the worlds of sustainable design, architecture and general innovation awesomeness.

Faced with a water shortage of historic proportions, California is dealing with a resource crisis that's asking a West Coast accustomed to expansive growth and endless possibility to go against character and make do with less. The last time going dry has caused this much consternation was during Prohibition. And while the effects of conservation crusades and Governor Brown's across-the-board cut in water usage loom over many industries, one sure to be radically altered by the new normal is landscape architecture. Curbed spoke with four leading landscape architects to find out how their profession needs to adapt to a challenge with the potential to reshape the industry. As Charles Anderson of Werk in LA put it, "If there weren't constraints, big things wouldn't happen. If it wasn't difficult, amazing things wouldn't happen."

Brennan Cox, GROUNDWORKS Office (San Francisco, California)
"I'm thinking about it every day. It's really affecting our business as landscape architects. Is it an existential crisis? It could be on the verge of that. We're working on some residential projects where water is going to be reduced by 25% or more, and it comes down to, is it even worth doing?"

"Using native, drought tolerant plants is something landscape architects have been practicing for 10-15 years. We have always thought we should treat water as an important resource, and that's only been reinforced since we don't know what the future holds. We work across the entire spectrum, doing public and institutional work, and on every one of our projects, we're doing all drought-tolerant native plants. As landscape architects, we're uniquely situated to sit between the people who love plants and the civil engineers, and now, there's economic justification to push for more stormwater and rainwater collection systems."

"The biggest demand for water is during a plant's establishment period. Plants need a lot of water to get their roots wet and get in the ground. That's the interesting thing in my view. It's not so much the existing landscapes that are under threat, but it's the new ones going in. It'll be interesting to see what Facebook's Menlo Park building or the Steve Jobs donut in Cupertino will look like. In my view, those renderings are fantasy. But they have more money than they know what to do with. Could Apple buy a desalination plant and put it on their property or ship tanks of water in from other parts of the country? It'll be interesting to see how the tech industry will adapt."

The rest of your required reading on Earth Day:
Why Doesn't the World Have More Wooden Skyscrapers?
For Medics in Rural Burundi, Vivid, Solar-Powered Housing
Here Now, an Eco-Friendly Home That's Remote-ControlledThis Off-Grid Home in Senegal Was Built from the Soil It Sits On

Charles Anderson, Werk (Los Angeles, California)
"There's always been a water problem here. It makes sense that where rainfall is precious, you don't put in plants that would suffer during the dry time, or require great expense to be replaced. When people move to a desert, they want to create the fantasy to bring people from the Midwest and east coast. Since we have such magnificent weather without many limitations, you can do so many things. It's a movie set in terms of landscaping. You can grow anything here, but you need water."

"The beauty of native plants isn't exploited here yet. It's time for that to happen. I come off as Mr. Native Nature guy. I'm not that, I'm a hardcore artist wanting to create authenticity where I work. I want to look back at native plants and how they fit in. The sycamore tree is very adaptable, it can survive the drought. Native oaks are very drought tolerant. You can use Toyon as a baby shrub. Chuparosa's are beautiful. Landscapes have to move towards succulent plants that are native to California. And the definition of native can get much wider than the California Basin. Plants from Oregon to Mexico and even South America could grow well here. We can give Southern California a real identity."

"I call my philosophy big nature. Think of a bonsai. It doesn't take up a lot of room, but it make a statement and when you see it, it defines the landscape. You have to formulate landscapes in an artful way, create natural corridors for water to move and reuse runoff. It's an art form that I think isn't being practiced enough."

Gary Lai, HDR (Los Angeles, California)
"Lawns are low-hanging fruit. The reason we put in turf is purely for aesthetic reason. Turf is the number one irrigated crop in the country. We should cut it as a default. Isn't it time we talked about the California aesthetic? We should do what's appropriate for the area, not English country gardens. That where you get the Disneyland mentality."

"We need to stop closing the loop. Conservation will extend our supply, but we need to talk about recycled water. It's dismissed as "crap-to-tap," but it will extend out supply. You have to talk about desalinization. The water that naturally falls from the sky in California is supposed to support 3 million people, and now we're at 38 million. You have to talk about an increased supply. We don't want to just talk about that, since it'll be a crutch, but it needs to be part of the conversation."

"As landscape architects, we should be at the forefront of the conversation about conservation, working with municipalities, irrigation companies and developers. I think landscape architects missed the boat on conservation as a profession and association. Think of AIA pushing LEED into the forefront. The American Society of Landscape Architects got in late with the Sustainable SITES Initiative [sort of a landscaping LEED]. We should be at the forefront because knowing how to deal with the drought is a great business opportunity. I think it's change or die, and this drought is scaring everybody. If you're still putting in your lawn and agapanthus, I think you're in trouble, that's the bottom line."

William Wenk, Wenk Associates (Denver, Colorado)
"We still use the old models for landscape design. That is slowly changing nationwide, and you're starting to see new modes of park other than, say, blue grass carpets. Go back to parks by Olmsted, Central Park — they're wonderful and I don't mean to criticize them, but we need to not use turf as a default. It's hard to change because of ingrained practices and the public expectations. The challenge here is to demonstrate there are alternatives, especially considering what millennials are looking for. They're pretty green."

"There are wonderful examples of landscape design that uses native materials that aren't just gravel. I think of Christy Ten Eyck, who has done wonderful work in Phoenix. Use native plants and bridge the gap between native design, horticulture and native landscapes."

"There are issues of water conservation and supply everywhere. The setting and scale are different, but the issues are the same. Water is going to be a scarce commodity."