Freeways as landscape

Solar Serpent, by Måns Tham

The modern freeway system has left an indelible mark on our cities and neighborhoods, and that mark is generally not viewed as an altogether positive one. However, rather than wish freeways out of existence (which is not likely to happen), there are ways in which we can treat these linear strips of massive infrastructure as multi-functional spaces of sustainable energy production. And sometimes it takes an outsider to see what a great untapped resource LA’s freeways could become. Swedish archtect Måns Tham sees the Los Angeles freeways as a space of infinite possibility – in his case, the possibility of energy production. His Solar Serpent in Paradise project envisions the Los Angeles freeways clad in a shelter and network of 1000s of solar panels, thereby transforming what was once merely a transportation network into a multifunctional web of transporation and energy production. Additionally, the panels would double as sun shades and sound barriers, thereby reducing the need for air conditioning in vehicles, and reducing the sound impact on adjacent neighborhoods.

While we are still left with a host of urban design challenges that have not – and perhaps never will – be erased from the introduction of such massive infrastructure into existing urban neighborhoods – Mr. Tham’s proposal is perhaps the most ingenious re-think of freeways PRAIRIEFORM has seen yet.

Plant of the week

Penstemon parryi

Penstemon is a tough-as-nails but showy perennial that comes in a huge range of cultivars and native types, allowing folks in regions as cold as Zone 4a to appreciate their often electric-colored blooms. The plant foliage tends to remain somewhat low to the ground while its flowers grow on taller spikes that shoot up from the base of the plant. As such, you can plant Penstemon mixed in with mid-height grasses and catch flashes of color peaking out through the waving blades.

The above-shown variety, Penstemon parryi, is only cold hardy down to Zone 9 and is thus one for the warmer Western garden. Below is shown Penstemon barbatus ‘Prairie Dusk,’ a cultivar hybridized for its early blooms and cold hardiness (Zone 4a). Minnesotans and other folks of the Great Tundra can also check out Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink,’ Penstemon barbatus ‘Prairie Fire,’ and Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker’s Red’ – which was the 1996 Perennial Plant of the Year.

These drought-tolerant plants prefer well-draining soil, a good dose of sun, and a little benign neglect once established (too much care and water will make them unhappy botanical campers). You can cut back spent flower stems to encourage year-round blooming in Western zones. This can also be done with the cold hardy Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink” up in Zone 4.

Shades of green

The number of landscapes in Tucson that consist only of low-water and desert species is impressive. Increasingly gone are the days of a Kelly green lawn and a few (depressing) Hawthorne shrubs hugging the house or building. The same unfortunately cannot be said of the LA Region. While the new Los Angeles Water Ordinance is a step in the right direction, the Southern California Region has a long, long ways to go in regards to water conservation and landscapes. The prevailing theme is still the Bermuda Grass lawn, and perennial borders consisting primarily of water-thirsty perennials borrowed from East Coast and English landscapes. In short, Kelly Green still dominates the landscape discourse.

Potted Agave at the Tohono Chul Botanical Garden

While PRAIRIEFORM is ever-weary of the dogmatic “must-plant-native” approach (particularly in regions where the native plant palate is limiting at best), a serious, collective landscape rethink is in order. There is a wide, wide world of low-water plants out there that can look full and lush virtually year-round, and can survive on very, very little water. A trip to the Sonoran Desert and Tucson and a visit to any of the numerous desert and low-water landscapes that exist here is a perfect start to see just how possible it is.

The great water harvest

It is little news that the desert Southwest is running low on water these days. More and more people moving in, shrinking aquifers, and a drier Colorado River – all of these factors have lead to real concerns about the future of water in the region. As a response, the City of Tucson has adopted one of the more progressive laws with regards to water conservation, or, in their case, to water harvesting. As of June 1, 2010, all new commercial development plans submitted to the City must include a water harvesting plan, which must outline how the site will harvest rainwater to supply 50% of the site’s irrigation needs.

Target has gotten a head start on the whole affair and has retrofitted its Super Target on Oracle Boulevard with water cachement areas (shown above), swales, and a plethora of desert-friendly plants and trees. Not a swath of turf grass is to be seen on the site.

The asphalt parking lot slopes towards permeable planting areas instead of towards storm drains

We are of course still left with the perennial problem of the big box store and the enormous amount of urban surface area and asphalt it requires to begin with – not to mention a whole host of problematic urban design and pedestrian issues this building type creates. . . but that, I am afraid, would open up a whole other can of worms and is perhaps better left for another post, for another day. In the meantime, let us bask in one small baby step towards a mildly greener tomorrow.