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Saturday, February 27, 2010

No seasons in LA? Think, or smell, again

 (image from LA Times)
I was pleased to see a little article from the LA Times about the allure of jasmine (especially their reference to an earlier piece about it as the harbinger of spring in LA) because I have been soaking it in the past three weeks on my walk to work.  One of the true pleasures of living close enough to work to be able to walk (in LA of all places), is getting a chance to engage in the world up close and through all five senses.  You are provided a chance to follow that tried and true advice to stop and smell the flowers.  And, about two minutes into my walk to work, a mature jasmine vine towers over a front fence, permeating the street with its sweet scent.  Or, in the more eloquent words of LA Times staffer Emily Green:
 It might happen tonight. Or tomorrow. But it won't happen gradually. It will come all at once. All over Los Angeles, the first pink buds of jasmine will erupt into sprays of new white flowers. The display will be chaste enough for a wedding arbor -- until nightfall. Then those blameless blossoms will let rip with a decidedly frank perfume, a mix of sweetness and musk that will refuse to be upstaged by any other smell L.A. can throw at it. Exhaust. Fire. Freshly manured lawns. At that moment, the first great swelling of spring will rise over the city in a sudden night fog of jasmine.
It is definitely the most memorable part of my walk in the early morning, and one of the most of my entire day. I look forward to it each morning eagerly, and sorely miss it on those few days I need my car.  Walking past the jasmine each morning also left me intrigued by measurements of seasonality in a climate like Southern California.  How do we mark the seasons in Los Angeles, and stand witness to the passing cycles of nature?  For the rest of the country, we mark it by weather, and obvious visual cues.  Winter is white, cold, dark, snowy, and full of "barren" landscapes.  Spring provides wet rains, warming temperatures, and the leafing out of new growth, while Summer is the bonanza of hot, sun-filled days.  Fall marks the arrival of a chill in the air, and the changing colors of deciduous leafs as they prepare to drop for the winter. But how do we understand the passing of the seasons in a place like Southern California, where seasonal temperature shifts are subtle, and where, due to moderate temps and constant irrigation, our landscape remains largely unchanged to the eye? Where life continues "uninterrupted" by weather? 

Smelling the jasmine every morning left me thinking that perhaps, here, our appreciation for the seasons might be measured by other senses. Perhaps our seasons can be understood by smell, even the smell produced by an exotic plant such as jasmine.  The smell of its new flowers resulting from winter rains and just enough of a chill to shoot out a rich bouquet to attract pollinators.  Perhaps we can remember Spring is coming each year by the smell of jasmine.  Or, as Emily Green added in her great piece about it:
We no longer need jasmine for the historic reasons: to cover up bad smells of open sewers and unbathed bodies. However, in so many other ways, we need jasmine more than ever, first for the romance, but also to pierce our infernal sophistication. Jasmine seduces us back into a state where we are capable of wonder at the pulses of the natural world. Aroused, we are suddenly alerted to the profound mysteries unfolding nightly in our own backyards.

The Lawn Police?

There is an interesting drama unfolding in the City of Orange right now, where a couple faces the possibility of criminal punishment for ripping out their lawn after an anonymous complaint by a neighbor.  KTLA  did a piece on it and the LA Times had a summary of the story this past week:
Click here to find out more!
If you missed the KTLA link from The Times' home page, here's the story: While some cities in Southern California are calling for mandatory water conservation, officials in Orange are taking a family to court because their drought-tolerant lawn alternative is not up to code.

In what sounds eerily similar to the “yard cop” stories Steve Lopez has reported in the past, Quan and Angelina Ha have been going back and forth with the city for more than a year about their lack of lawn. Prompted by one neighbor’s anonymous complaint, the Has were cited for not having 40% of their yard landscaped, per city law.

The couple were contacted after they tore out their lawn and left the yard bare. They have since planted drought-tolerant landscaping, including some lavender, rosemary and native wildflower seeds, which they say are germinating under wood chips. You can see the current landscape on KTLA video here.

The Has have been summoned to court on Tuesday. The maximum penalty: six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Kind of an amazing story regarding our front yards, the public-private interface, and the power of the market and people's attachment to the lawn (or at least traditional front yard aesthetics).  On one hand, codes regarding landscaping serve to promote stable property values (ask any homeowner how the value of their house does when the neighbor next door doesn't care for their yard or property), and a minimum landscape requirement can help prevent dust, blight, and other potential nuisances from a truly barren landscape.  But the fact that someone could go to jail for 6 months and be fined up to $1,000 is unnerving, especially when the change could actually promote a more sustainable landscape.  It is also sad, but perhaps telling, that a neighbor no longer feels comfortable enough to speak to their neighbor about what is happening on their street, but rather feels compelled to place an anonymous tip.  To me the story underscores the strange dynamic at play regarding our front yards where private ownership interfaces with public perception, and in this case possibly public punishment.  In this residential landscape, challenges to the norm of the street are highly frowned upon - perhaps because of a lack of understanding, perhaps because market dynamics create a fear of non-conformance.  Whatever the reason, we are obliged by public perception and oft times regulation to find a commonness and consistency in our aesthetics with our neighbors.  The story begs the question - is this preventing sustainable changes in our lifestyles?  And, is it undermining, rather than promoting, a true community?  

(The Ha Family front yard in Orange.  Image from LA Times.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Santa Monica Palisades Garden Walk Update

(image from The Architect's Newspaper.  All Rights Reserved)
James Corner and Field Operations have won the competition for Santa Monica's future 7-acre Palisades Garden Walk.  Best known for their work on the recently completed High Line project in New York, Field Operations was selected for their landscape expertise and strong work in the public process.  Interestingly, teams did not present any concept designs in their interviews, so the design for the Garden Walk should be a work produced with the citizens of Santa Monica.  As for reaction to the selection, Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the LA Times, had a promising look at the potential for Corner and the project.  Let's hope some of it can be realized over the coming years.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Life Without the Lawn? - Front Yards

Today's post in the running look at "Life Without the Lawn?" is a quick look at alternatives to the front lawn.  Presuming we decide to get rid of the lawn as our front yard, then what replaces it?  What does the front yard, that space where the public and private interface, on our streets become?  Here are some approaches I found in my neighborhood.  While each varies in how successfully it may improve sustainability or aesthetic interest over the typical lawn, what I found most interesting is how each approach feels unique.  Each alternative has  its own personality and a sense of place that enriches the residential landscape through their diversity.  Houses are set apart from one another, as opposed to conforming to a green norm of the lawn,  and begin to reflect the styles, interests, and lifestyle choices of their occupants.      

Venice Walk Streets

I had the chance to wander Venice's "Walk Streets" the other day.  For those not aware of them, Venice's Walk Streets are pedestrian-only enclaves tucked away in the fabric of Venice that harken back to another era.  Basically New-Urbanist before New Urbanism, they are designed as walkways fronting the back side of a double lot (homeowners park in the alley), and create a great pedestrian network connecting Lincoln Boulevard west to Abbot Kinney.  
Locational Map of Walk Streets in Venice
Close-up Diagram of Walk Streets
 They were originally built in the early 1900's as part of Venice founder Abbot Kinney's vision to build a California city modeled after its Italian namesake, and were originally very popular with entertainers and workers at the Venice Pier.  Now they are some of the most expensive real estate locations in the city.  As the LA Times noted in this 2007 real estate profile, median home prices have increased dramatically over the last 18 years.
One afternoon exploring the streets will explain the big draw.  As the LA Times notes, "A walking tour of the district . . . reveals high-density living in relative seclusion from nearby suburban sprawl, a major draw to these unusual streets."  Not only is there a rich mix of architectural styles, but also a unique character within each street and a sense of reprieve and isolation from the traffic noise from nearby major streets.  It would be interesting to see how residents feel about a public thoroughfare (I did notice some security cameras up), but they seem to be great templates for designing an environment for people in a city built for cars.  

 Central Node in middle of Walk Street - each street has a uniquely planted node
Nowita Place Triangle Park

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Modular Herb Garden Wall

(images from Sunset Magazine.  All Rights Reserved)
I stumbled on this the other day in Google images.  This creative wall in Laguna Beach is a simple, but great idea that provides privacy for the homeowners through modular and adjustable container plantings.  Not only can you easily change out your plants, but also adjust the design by shifting the boxes around.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Life Without the Lawn? - Right of Ways

So what exactly does life in Southern California look like without the lawn?  Given that lawn is the ubiquitous ground cover here, what other visual prototypes exist for our front yards and interstitial spaces?  Below are some visual examples of that most interstitial of spaces, the public right of way on residential streets.  Usually covered in lawn with some street trees (we hope), the right of way exists as a public owned entity with no real public use.  So, assuming sustainability concerns pushes the lawn out of Southern California, what other aesthetic options exist?  A quick stroll through my neighborhood produced these non-traditional right of ways.  While not all of these may be great solutions aesthetically or sustainably, it was interesting to think about what the right of way could be beyond a green carpet. 

The Threat of Second-hand Driving

 (image from LA Times.  All Rights Reserved.)
In case you didn't already know that living near a freeway is not the best situation, the LA Times reported on a new study linking increased risk for heart disease for those living within 100 m (or 328 feet) of a freeway.  The main culprit: increased outdoor particulates for those living nearby.  
Los Angeles residents living near freeways experience a hardening of the arteries that leads to heart disease and strokes at twice the rate of those who live farther away, a study has found. The paper is the first to link automobile and truck exhaust to the progression of atherosclerosis — or the thickening of artery walls — in humans. The study was conducted by researchers from USC and UC Berkeley, joined by colleagues in Spain and Switzerland, and was published this week in the journal PloS ONE.

Researchers used ultrasound to measure the wall thickness of the carotid artery in 1,483 people who lived within 100 meters, or 328 feet, of Los Angeles freeways. Taking measurements every six months for three years, they correlated their findings with levels of outdoor particulates -- the toxic dust that spews from tailpipes -- at the residents’ homes. They found that artery wall thickness accelerated annually by 5.5 micrometers — one-twentieth the thickness of a human hair — or more than twice the average progression in study participants.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Fifth Ecology - Los Angeles Beyond Desire

The Fifth Ecology - Los Angeles Beyond Desire project is, in their own words:
An urban planning proposal for the Los Angeles River area in downtown Los Angeles. Developed by the post graduate course "Resources 08: Los Angeles Beyond Desire" at The Royal Collage of Fine Arts, Stockholm Sweden.
Sadly, I missed the actual display of this project downtown last November / December, but there is still a digital version of it online.  The project write-up is an intriguing read that provides a number of highly conceptual, but interesting systemized approaches for rethinking the structure and operation of Los Angeles.  Like many other urban transformation visions, it uses the LA river as the key transformation space for a reclaimed LA.  After perusing it briefly, some of the interesting ideas that stood out to me:
* Dog Tongue Town, which uses biomimicry to define new urban form and block pattern based around water channels mimicing water distribution on a leaf.
* Pocket Public Space, which advocates for returning small chunks of land into public space to infuse LA's density with more open space.  (FYI - some of this is already beginning with creative public / private partnerships in West Hollywood among others)
* Agrimids, or dense, multi-dimensional housing units that produce their own crops through a mix of private gardens, community gardens, and large-scale agricultural terraces incorporated into new building prototypes.
 Below are some images from the project, highlighting the Dog Tongue Town and Agrimid.  

Friday, February 12, 2010

Greywater Action in LA

 (image from The Christian Science Monitor.  All Rights Reserved)
The Christian Science Monitor had a nice article about a seminar by the grassroots advocacy group Greywater Action in LA a few weeks ago.  The 5-day seminar on greywater took place at LA's EcoVillage near Koreatown, and focused on ways to recycle discharge from washing machines, sinks, showers, and tubs for irrigation of outdoor plants.  As the article points out, expect to see even more demand for this information and greywater expertise thanks for California legalizing its use last August.
In the months since California changed the gray-water permit requirements, demand has begun to build statewide, says John Leys of Sherwood Design Engineers in San Francisco, which has clients across the United States as well as abroad.
. . . .
'Ten years ago, we were not seeing any demand for gray-water systems," he says, but now clients of all types are requesting projects that range from simple and inexpensive backyard irrigation retrofits to complex, multipurpose gray-water systems that are part of the design from the beginning.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Scout Regalia

 (image of Outdoor Table Set from Scout Regalia. All Rights Reserved.)
The LA Times highlighted the Echo Park based design group Scout Regalia this past week.  In the designer's own words:
Scout Regalia is a Los Angeles based, multitasking design practice obsessed with the design and fabrication of space, furniture, home products, graphic identities, material processes, and sustainable living. Established in 2006 with Benjamin Luddy and Makoto Mizutani, the design studio is dedicated to supporting local fabricators, and aspires to embody innovation, discipline, and inquisitiveness in all the work that is produced. Embracing both the unassuming and ornamental aspects of design, Scout Regalia celebrates the inherent design of everyday living.
As if I wasn't already sold, among their many design interests are some cool outdoor furniture elements including an Outdoor Table Set and Patio Garden.
Image of Scout Regalia's Patio Garden. All Rights Reserved.

Bimini Slough Ecology Park

(image from LA Creek Freak. All Rights Reserved.)
Great overview from LA Creek Freak on the Bimini Slough Ecology Park, an interesting urban restoration project near Koreatown.  The article provides a nice history and background for the project including how the project came to be, details on its construction, and most importantly, how to get there to check it out.  A small excerpt from the post:
Fast-forward to the late 1990’s, and two non-profits which are located on this block:
  • The Bresee Foundation grew out of the First Church of the Nazarine at 3rd and Juanita. Bresee provides services for youth and their families. In 2001 Bresee opened its community center building at the corner of Bimini and Second.
  • Los Angeles Eco-Village (a project of its parent non-profit the Cooperative Resources and Services ProjectCRSP) purchased two apartment buildings on the north end of Bimini Place. (Creek Freak Joe Linton lives there.)
The Bresee Foundation, under the leadership of Jeff Carr, began to make plans to close a block of Second Street to create a small park. Initial estimates for park construction looked to be about $400,000… until the city requested a $400,000 underground storm drain be built to get rainwater from one end of the park to the other. Carr told eco-village founder Lois Arkin about this, and she brought in the non-profit North East Trees to use that water, instead of getting rid of it. The solution of flowing that water on the surface of the park ends up being cheaper and better than building the infrastructure necessary to put that water in a huge pipe underground.

North East Trees designed a small park that features a creekbed bio-swale running through it. During much of the year, the creek is pretty much dry. When it rains, water from streets runs into the park. Vegetation in the creekbed slows down flowing rainwater. This helps settle pollutants carried by the stormwater. The pollutants settle into the soil and are broken down by microorganisms. In addition, some of the rainwater infiltrates into the soil, recharging our groundwater.

In addition to providing recreation and relief for the community, the park provides multiple watershed management benefits. It improves water quality (and air quality), increases water supply, provides habitat, and reduces risk of flooding. I like to say that we need thousands of parks like this spread throughout our communities, then we will have restored more healthy watershed functions, then we can more easily remove much of the concrete from our rivers and creeks… and daylight many of the creeks that we’ve buried underground.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


 (image from Forage LA.  All rights reserved)
Interesting restaurant initiative out in Silverlake - urban foraging to create a meal. Forage LA is taking things beyond fresh ingredients from a local farmer's market to add in some urban agriculture.  Not only do they offer a number of different goodies everyday for consumption, Forage also puts out a call for backyard produce / urban agriculture to create changing menu items.  Recent Forage calls include: Oranges, Avocados, Herbs, Lemons and Limes.  You might even get your name on the menu, like Sonya's Silver Lake Lemonade. Images of the Lemonade being made are here.