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In Santa Barbara, severe drought is forcing residents to rethink landscape tradition

When it comes to trees, what will win—sustainability or tradition?

Skyline of city by the beach, with ceramic tiled buildings in the foreground.
Santa Barbara is a coastal California city with a Mediterranean climate.
Getty Images

Along Santa Barbara’s Anapamu Street sit 56 trees on life support. Each tree has its own irricade, a traffic blockade that has been modified into a watering can, which supplies it with 125 gallons of water every 12 hours.

For over a century, these Italian stone pines have formed a leafy canopy over this drive, enshrining them in local legend—and they shouldn’t need watering. But Santa Barbara remains one of the last California counties consumed by severe drought; four of the pines died before the Parks and Recreation Department intervened.

Tim Downey, Santa Barbara’s urban forest superintendent, installed the irricades because of the pines’ history, though other parts of the city’s landscaping tradition have given way to more drought-friendly protocols, like boycotting water-intensive species.

“I’m kind of a realist,” he says. “I deal with things as they’re presented to me, and adapt as needed.” The question is, how adaptable is Santa Barbara? The stone pines are one example of the residents’ attachment to their landscaping history, which has been cultivated for over 100 years to provide lush conditions uncharacteristic of California cities.

Shifting toward more sustainable plant life in times of deep drought seems easy. But when it’s time to put the spade in the ground, tradition holds Santa Barbara tightly.

The city had been mapping trees before the stone pines arrived, and Downey says the 450 species he monitors form a greater tree density than the neighboring Los Padres National Forest. For years, the Parks Department’s goal has been to plant 600 saplings of all kinds each year, or two trees for every one removed.

For Ph.D. candidate Andrew McCumber, who studies Santa Barbara’s landscaping, this initiative is telling. “It shows how consciously the city is manufacturing a certain natural experience,” he says.

That tradition was cut short by drought. In 2014, the city stopped its ambitious tree-planting program because Downey needed to devote resources to individual trees struggling in the new environment. In the case of the Anapamu pines, Downey’s supplies still couldn’t cover the cost. A local historical society stepped in and paid $14,560 for the irricades.

For the few trees the city does plant, drought tolerance is now a high priority. The city council approving new landscaping has opted for climate-friendly plants, like Mexican fan palms, over ones that provide shade and take lots of water. These tropical options are essential to the vacation look Santa Barbara sells, McCumber points out—but they aren’t native to California.

When a city is reaching the extremes of its natural climate, native plants make a difference. “There’s hardly a problem in a landscape that a native plant isn’t the answer for,” says Betsy Collins, the director of horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden.

The private nonprofit explicitly advocates for native Californian plants. When the city asked the organization to redesign a drought-tolerant plant pamphlet, the garden staff noticed it was 75 percent exotic and invasive species. They rewrote it with native ones.

Native plants always come up in conversation with individual customers, too, says Collins: “I’ve seen it ebb and flow and, cynically, droughts are the best time for us to get our message out.” It’s hard to avoid the topic when visitors with parched lawns are standing amid the botanical garden’s thriving variety.

Still, many shoppers opt for eucalyptus trees, which Californians consider a state symbol, over fire-resistant native trees that are better for local wildlife. But the blue gum is an invasive species—and highly flammable. “Like dried Christmas trees on a stalk,” according to Collins.

Even for those who take the botanical garden’s advice, native plant love is often temporary. Collins has seen properties planted with natives get torn up and replaced with lawns once water restrictions were lifted. If things are going to shift permanently to native options, residents need to change what they consider beautiful. “That’s part of [the garden’s] sustainability message,” she says. “This is where we live; embrace it.”

Other city organizations are starting to do just that. Santa Barbara Beautiful gives landscaping grants to the city, local companies, and individuals. Since the 1980s, its awards banquet has honored the best climate-appropriate designs each year. And in this drought, its budget for sapling support has gone toward local art projects instead. “We still want to contribute to community and make it a vibrant, beautiful place,” says David Gress, the horticulture committee chair.

At the same time, the organization initiated a reimbursement program for individuals who want to plant new trees, with no restrictions on species. Gress replaced his yard with a rock garden decades ago. But when it comes to city trees, “we don’t have the authority to dictate which trees are planted. We are just supportive of tree-planting efforts.”

For Downey, the city’s urban forest superintendent, individual citizens have everything to say about the trees. “I don’t deal with trees; I deal with people,” he says. His work is informed by residents calling to say a tree looks sickly and asking for it to be watered or chopped down. The Anapamu pines were worth saving not just because they’re old, but because they’re irreplaceable.

Santa Barbara is heading into its driest year in a century, and the irricades will continue sitting with the pines. If Santa Barbarans decide to give up the watering cans—and their tree tradition—all they have to do is call Downey. Whether or not those phone calls will come in remains to be seen.