July 2010

A recently installed wildflower meadow at Old Rough, Kirkby Knowsley, by Landlife

There has been much ado of late over wildflower meadows, prairie restorations, and the conversion of existing turfgrass lawns into less-resource-consumptive cousins. The rustic visual allure of the wildflower meadow is infectious, and its promise of using fewer natural resources – not the least of which being water – and ability to attract wildlife, make the meadow a seductive alternative to conventional turf grass. Even colleges and universities with their traditional quadrangle layout are reconsidering just how that quad is rendered green. Despite the seeming allure of the restored meadow or prairie, we need to take a look at what lies underneath and behind the end product.

It should be remembered that we are creating these meadows and prairies in a modern world of botanical hitchhikers and transplants, many of which can outcompete the dear meadow and prairie species we want to see flourish. While weeding out these invaders may be manageable on a small scale, the task becomes increasingly complex as the scale expands. Duke University recently ripped out large portions of its lawn and replaced them with “native meadows.” While the intial installation showed promise, over time weeds moved in, and the ever-increasing complexity of the planting areas and the task of discerning what was a weed and what was not proved too complicated for maintenance crews. The meadows were subsequently ripped out and replaced with turf and trees once again. Yes, it can, and should, be argued that maintenance crews need to be retrained to be able to identify new and unwanted landscape denizens vs. the species originally intended for the space. However, the amount of resources in both time and money required to do so are more than what many institutions are willing to pay.

The lovely Highline, a meadow/prairie planting with a multi-million-dollar annual maintenance budget

Then there is the simple issue of year-round visual appeal. Peak bloom time for wildflower meadows and native prairies tends to be in mid- to late summer. Outside of this period, the meadow or prairie can appear unkempt to many an eye accustomed to a more conventional landscape aesthetic. Additionally, as time wears on, the ratio between grasses and flowering perennials tends to shift towards significantly more grasses than perennials, thereby limiting the show of botanical fireworks most featured in photos of these retorations.

Aesthetic concerns aside, what we are most interested in tackling vis-a-vis the discussion over native meadows, prairies, and the wilder-looking landscape, is the question of whether we are in effect creating ecologically friendly islands of hyper-maintenance and skill amidst a sea of resource-consumptive lawns and landscapes that require minimal skill to maintain. Our attempt in asking this question is not an effort to pooh-pooh the idea of the native meadow and the restored prairie, but rather an attempt to understand how these restorations and installations can be replicated at a large, macro-scale without requiring inordinate amounts of labor and skill to maintain. There are countless examples of low-water and native landscapes that simply become overgrown and neglected due to poor and unskilled maintenance. If we are going to have any hope of seeing wilder landscapes become a part of the urban landscape on a macro level, we are going to need to move beyond the pure propaganda that native = low-maintenance, and figure out how to devise approaches to maintenance that are equally as efficient as they are effective. Perhaps the humble proposal of a nationwide program of weed identification is a place to begin.

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A view of Beth Chatto’s gravel garden, courtesy of the BBC

At first glance, Beth Chatto’s Drought-Resistant Planting Through the Year, may appear skimpy on photos, and heavy on text, and thus not worthy of picking up. This, however, would be a mistake. This is a landscape book that is meant to be read, not simply flipped through. Chatto’s prose thoroughly plants the reader in her garden and takes that reader on a journey across the seasons in the driest region of the UK, Essex. Her interest is selecting a plant palatte that requires no water, but whose aggregate visual effect is lasting, enduring, and constantly evolving. Even for those who do not live in a Mediterranean-type landscape, the seasonal approach she takes to landscape design is instructive and indispensible. We love this book.

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Mega-right-hand turn lane on Grand Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles

Los Angeles is perhaps one of the only major cities left in the US that continues to practice road-widening with aplomb. While other cities begin to move away from the faulty logic that new, multi-family housing in the inner city equates more traffic which necessitates a wider road and a narrower sidewalk, Los Angeles has shown itself to think this logic perfectly sound and uncontestable. On the one hand, the city has, by virtue of many of the projects it has recently approved, been encouraging more people to move back to the city and to live in multi-family housing, from which they can presumably walk to various amenities and services, and take transit to work. However, in the same breath, the city will proceed to narrow the sidewalk in front of the new multi-family project, cut down any existing street trees, and widen the road. This is the physical manifestation of a thoroughly mixed-message: Give up your yard and space outside the city so that you can come live in the city in a smaller space with no yard that overlooks a freeway-style street, on whose sidewalks no one is encouraged to walk.

Temporarily narrow street noticeably devoid of traffic, Downtown Los Angeles

There are many assumptions to uncover in the faulty reasoning behind this approach. Perhaps more egregious than the assumption that new multi-family housing suddenly induces traffic congestion is the assumption that we should be planning for minimizing traffic in the first place. As we recently reported in a post on New Orleans’ famed neutral grounds, there is little correlation between traffic congestion and a slow economy; in fact, quite the opposite is proving to be true: the world’s most successful cities also contain horrible traffic congestion. These same cities have also begun realizing that their strength and allure lie in the quality of life they can offer to their citizens, not to their vehicles. In Los Angeles, we still have a vehicle-pampering problem, and given the ongoing track record of road-widenings, this penchant for pampering isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Grand Avenue south of 11 Street, with widened sidewalk and street trees

Nonetheless, some glimmers of modern intelligence have begun working their way up through the asphalt. The city has recently revised its downtown street standards, so as to prevent the kind of inane road-widenings shown in the top photo of Grand Avenue and its mega-right-hand turn lane, and so as to favor the more pedestrian-friendly streets, such as this small stretch of Grand Avenue in South Park, shown above. Let us hope that this trend continues and spills out beyond the boundaries of Downtown and into the vast swath of contrete, and asphalt that is greater Los Angeles.

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