Whatever the accomplishments of Occupy L.A. when it finally decamps — or gets evicted — from around City Hall, one positive achievement is already clear: It has killed the lawn.
The Times’ editorial board has harrumphed about the taxpayer expense of replacing one of downtown’s “rare green spaces,” and it worries that the “majestic figs” are at risk. Last week, the Department of Recreation and Parks sent an aggrieved letter to the mayor about signs nailed to trees, broken sprinkler heads and compacted soil. The nails and compacted soil are unfortunate. But really, Rec and Parks is missing the point. Occupy L.A. has given City Hall the chance to walk its talk.
For more than two years, the mayor and the City Council have been preaching water conservation. Yet since they instituted a citywide sprinkler ordinance in 2009, and even started paying single-family homes a buck a square foot to rip out lawns, by the Department of Water and Power’s own estimate 54% of the water used by single-family homes still goes outside. The government is almost as profligate: 41% of its water is outdoor use. Much of this goes to lawns.
Los Angeles cannot be expected to improve these numbers unless the mayor and the City Council lead by example. Other cities, such as Austin, Texas, understand this. In 2004, Austin responded to chronic overuse of the local aquifer by surrounding its City Hall with native gardens irrigated by a rain-catchment system.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles has left a plan for re-landscaping City Hall with a similarly progressive garden stuck somewhere between the bureaus of sanitation and engineering. City officials will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the plan, but word in the landscape design community is that it is stalled because of lack of funds.
This insistence that we cling to a wasteful model because conservation is too expensive doesn’t scan. Whatever hard times the city faces, the real deficit isn’t money. It’s skill. The inertia isn’t budgetary. It’s cultural.
Until Occupy L.A. smothered it last month, lawn remained around Los Angeles City Hall in part because that’s what Rec and Parks knows how to tend. To have a garden that celebrates our Mediterranean climate the way Austin’s salutes Texas prairie, Rec and Parks staff would need to learn how to weed instead of mow, mulch instead of blow and maintain drip irrigation instead of sprinklers.
Since the largely drought-tolerant sweeps of palo verde trees, succulents and desert palms went in near City Hall around police headquarters in 2009, lead landscape architect Scott Baker has become so demoralized by Rec and Parks maintenance that he sounds halfway between heartbroken and bitter. Asked what might be done around City Hall, he said, “I don’t think that this city deserves any great green spaces until they can figure out ahead of time how to maintain it.”
Thanks to Occupy L.A., Los Angeles will have the perfect place to learn. Stephen Billings, landscape architect behind the year-old gardens around the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, managed the wide use of native trees and grasses only by working from inception with the facilities staff of Cal State Northridge. As Billings sees it, the teaching gardens around City Hall could be temporary until grounds staff were skilled enough to maintain a suitably stately model. “It’s a new time,” he said. “It’s about learning. It’s not about keeping up appearances.”
The beauty of turning City Hall into a test garden is that its lessons could then be shared around the city. For example, if felling the non-native figs around City Hall is a non-starter for sentimental reasons, we should at least be irrigating the magnificent old trees with drip instead of lawn sprinklers — a move that would reduce trimming needs by slowing the trees’ growth.
Even strategic use of turf could be preserved, though it should be the hardiest variety irrigated in the smartest ways requiring the least frequent grooming. Rather than lawn on the northeast side of City Hall (which has been wet enough in past years to grow mushrooms) and sweeping down the berm on the other flank, there should be hardy and fragrant natives that can survive with little water and no mowing or blowing.
This training ground for city gardeners would also have to be highly functional public space. How it should function for protesters, dog walkers, office workers, farmers markets and the like has been addressed by at least 10 failed plans by “some of the best urban thinkers,” said Mark Rios, landscape architect of the four-block-long, multimillion-dollar Civic Park under construction across Spring Street from City Hall. Rios hopes that Civic Park will take pressure off City Hall’s gardens to be all things to all people.
Melinda Taylor, designer of the 2003 garden at Walt Disney Concert Hall, thinks a new City Hall garden would need assembly spaces, shade, bike racks and clean toilets. Poignantly, her greatest emphasis was that it should be “jaw-droppingly lovely.”
Whatever the functional and aesthetic choices, to fix City Hall Park, “funding must be identified,” as Rec and Parks wrote to the mayor. Indeed, but instead of calculating the cost of re-sodding, we should be investing in a water-wise test garden. The perfect place to find funds would be in sharp increases for top-tier water users — the horticultural equivalent of L.A.'s 1%.
It comes down to this: If homeowners must abandon gratuitous shows of lawn, City Hall should too. If homeowners must learn to tend and appreciate native plant gardens, so should City Hall — and Rec and Parks. When Occupy L.A. decamps, what’s left behind won’t be a pretty sight. But it could be the best thing that’s happened in City Hall Park in a very long time.
Emily Green writes the Dry Garden for The Times. She is completing a book on water in the Great Basin Desert. Her website is chanceofrain.com.