Photos by Gary Lai

To many in the public and the A/E industry, the aesthetics of our infrastructure is considered an extraneous consideration. According to this pragmatic point-of-view, a bridge’s purpose is solely to move people from one side to the other, with innovation being defined by improvements in the speed and/or cost in which it’s built. A “beautiful” bridge is too subjective and not quantifiable, making the measure of success too tricky to gauge, and therefore too risky of a decision to make.

In the mid-2000’s, officials and engineers tried to use this argument for the replacement of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, proposing a simple freeway-type overpass replacement. The ensuing firestorm from the public caused an almost decade-long delay costing millions of dollars for studies.

The eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, May 29, 2008. Photo by Brewdog (CC BY-SA 3.0)

People do value aesthetics, so much they are willing to spend money and consume products in pursuit of achieving some semblance of what they consider beautiful. Billions of dollars are spent on paint, paneling, and plants. Aesthetics are important because people think it’s important, and every project we do is for the betterment of people. It is really that simple.

From a landscape perspective, turf is the number one irrigated crop in the United States, even though it has no intrinsic practical value other than sports. I remember overhearing two engineers lamenting how they could never give up their lawns, even though they knew they were wasting water, while waiting for a conference call to start. Even though they intellectually knew the Northern European pastoral landscape imported into the US in the late 19th century is not sustainable here in California, they still could not bring themselves to deviate from the cultural and aesthetic norm. The English pastoral landscape motif is a deeply ingrained cultural and mental construct representing the wealth and success of the English ruling class that we’ve long admired. But, taking a step back, one must recognize it is a ridiculous idea: Californians wrapping Downton Abbey-ish landscapes around our high-tech, energy efficient, 21st century buildings and homes. Why don’t we create our own Californian 21st century aesthetic?

According to the National Resource Defense Council and the Pacific Institute,  commercial, municipal, and residential landscapes combined represent 41% of all urban water use in California. That amounts to roughly 4 million acre feet a year, or 1,303,405,708,000 gallons total. The EPA estimates 50% of all water wasted in the US is due to poorly managed and maintained irrigation systems. My back-of-the-napkin math calculates the wasted amount could service as many as 10 million more people in California, meeting the projected population growth of the next 15 years. In other words, simple adjustments to our irrigation controllers by knowledgeable professionals could save enough water to serve our growing population for the next 15 years without any improvements to our storage or infrastructure. Talk about low-hanging fruit.

What can each of us do?
1. Communicate to your design professionals the importance of the landscape as an integral aspect of your house or project.
2. Reconsider the turf aesthetic and replace it with California-friendly plants.
3. Value the expertise of a knowledgeable landscape maintenance professional, or become self-sufficiently knowledgeable with irrigation controllers and put improvements into practice.

Our population is expected to grow somewhere between 50 to 60 million people by 2050. Current climate models show a 10-15% decrease in the amount of rain California will receive. Now is the time for us to pick the low-hanging fruit.

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