Texture and the modern urban landscape

San Gabriel Boulevard

To many, Los Angeles contains some of the ugliest commercial boulevards in the world (perhaps rivaled only by those of Phoenix or Las Vegas (outside the Strip, mind you)). They stretch out for miles and miles, are egregiously wide, and tend to contain a jumbled hodgepodge of low-rise strip-commerical development coupled with above-ground powerlines and freeway-style streetlights. They exhibit a kind of coarse, jagged, oftentimes harsh texture that has become almost synonomous with the city itself. It is in part this harsh and jagged texture that people are responding to when they say the boulevards are ugly.

Recent streetscape efforts aimed at retexurizing the crummy commerical strip are well-intentioned in their efforts to insert some consistency within the clutter. Enter the evenly spaced, more pedestrian-friendly street lamps, design guidelines for buildings and signage, street furniture, and street trees. Such is what is proposed for San Gabriel Boulevard in San Gabriel.

Vintage signage on Main Street, Alhambra

However, the question arises as to whether efforts at smoothing out the coarseness of the commercial strip do little more than make things a little bit “less ugly” while in the process simultaneously eliminating some of the kitschy whimsy that characterizes the boulevard in the first place. And are urban designers simply attempting to make things “pretty” rather than fundamentally transform how people move through the city on a day-to-day level (re: reconfiguring streets and transportation to allow for walking, bicycling, scooter-riding, etc.)? Some of the greatest streets to walk through are not the prettiest to look at, and some of the prettiest streetscapes still give one little reason to walk down that particular street. A meaningful approach to urban design needs to hone the core reasons why we aren’t walking in the first place. Aesthetics are part of it, but the puzzle is much more vast and complex than mere window treatment.

Plant of the week

For an electric-blue swath of color, coupled with a feathery texture, nothing does it better than Helictotrichon sempervirens / Blue Oat Grass. Hardy down to Zone 4a, this grass is tough, drought-tolerant, and, as always, low on fuss. And, for people who have been frustrated with the short lifespan of Festuca glauca, Blue Oat Grass makes the perfect, long-lived alternative. The key to success with this grass is good drainage and sun. Amend the soil with organic matter and a cactus-like mix when planting and you should have good luck. This is a cool-season grass and thus will grow in spring and fall (or winter and spring in the Southwest) but will go dormant during the hot summer months. Just prior to the growing season, cut the grass back to about an inch above the ground to encourage fresh new growth; otherwise, the plant can become overwhelmed with dead blades. For those in Minnesota, stop by the Zenith Avenue and Wooddale Avenue landscapes this spring to see Blue Oat Grass in all its glory.

From carspace to farmspace

Dig-it-yourself plots its next moves in a parking lot

Over the past 80 years we have done a bang-up job of transforming our cities from places for us to places for our vehicles. In Los Angeles (and in the Southern California region in general), particularly high on-site parking requirements have resulted in many a demolition of pedestrian-friendly builidings, and in massive seas of asphalt – much of which is completely underutilized. A serious rethink of both parking standards and uses for exisiting parking lots is in order – particularly for low-cost uses that aren’t subject to the fickleness of the ever-unpredictable real estate market.

One such potential re-use is to transform parking space into urban farmspace. While at first glance this seems like rather a pie-in-the-sky idea, it has begun to gain some serious traction. In an earlier post, PRAIRIEFORM checked in on Dig-it-yourself’s J-Dog, who, starting this spring, will be growing fresh produce for one of Downtown Chicago’s most delectable restaurants. Well, she won’t be growing the produce in her own backyard. Nope, all growing will take place on-site, in the restaurant’s parking lot. How’s that for closing the rural-farm -> urban-dinner-plate loop?

Stay tuned for further explorations into the adaptive reuse of underutilized parking lots. This is the future, in a very real way.

Man is not a bird; grass is not a hedge

Badly hacked up Pennisetum setaceum

Maintenance is that not-so-glamorous part of landscape design that no one wants to think about, but it is perhaps the most important part of the entire design process. Shown above is what remains of what just two years ago was an exquisite-looking, brand-spankin’-new landscape (no, not designed or orchestrated by PRAIRIEFORM, mind you). The dying, brownish clumps you see in front are what remains of the Pennisetum setaceum (aka Purple Fountain Grass), which the hired gardeners attempt to sculpt into a hedge every week. The accent is on “attempt,” as grasses simply cannot be hedged. The designer in charge of this landscape never bothered to let the subsequent gardeners know this.

Pennisetum setaceum in its proper, unhedged glory

Above is shown the normal form of this particular Pennisetum. Flowy, wispy, cascading, full of movement and slow evolution across the seasons. It is because of those qualities that PRAIRIEFORM favors grasses so much in its designs. It is also because grasses are by and large quite low maintenance. Aside from a little water here and there, and a good dose of sun, grasses can be left to their own devices for much of the year. Only once annually do they need to be pruned, which entails little more than a cut-to-the-ground chop before their growing season begins. That’s it. Had the owner or designer of the above landscape known this, they could have saved quite a bit of money in maintenance costs, and could have spared everyone the eyesore.

PRAIRIEFORM works either with your existing gardener to ensure that they maintain the newly design landscape properly, or offers you recommendations for gardeners who are knowledgable about specific plants and their care – including grassses. The end result is a landscape that endures, evolves, and grows up into something beautiful, the way it was intended to in the first place.