Posts by Calvin R. Abe, FASLA

All Photos: Calvin Abe

All Photos: Calvin Abe

Metaphorically speaking, our country has clouds overhead. We, as a nation, are facing  an existential dilemma on many fronts, including environmental challenges, political choices, demographic shifts, social justice concerns, and economic sustainability. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to see how our lives will be impacted by the choices we make as a country.

Antelope Valley -487


As I get older I have the distinct advantage of seeing how the past has impacted our daily lives today. Let’s hope our country will ultimately see an enlightened view of the world and its citizens.

These photos are part of a diptych from my visits to Folsom Lake, a large reservoir near Sacramento. I’ve been monitoring the lake’s water level for the last year. With the winter and spring rains in the last few months, the lake is nearly full.

At one time Mormon Island was home to 2,500 residents, hosting four motels, seven saloons and a school. In 1955 the town was erased from existence after Folsom Lake was filled.

At one time Mormon Island was home to 2,500 residents, hosting four motels, seven saloons and a school. In 1955 the town was erased from existence after Folsom Lake was filled.

What I found interesting is the rediscovery of a forgotten mining town at the bottom of the lake called Mormon Town. With the lake nearly full, this bit of history is once again a forgotten memory…




I know this month’s AHBE Lab theme has focused upon urban wildlife, but I want to share something more personal. It was during breakfast last week, while considering this month’s topic, when I looked out our window and noticed my my wife’s bird cages and our two birds perched within. While observing the two birds, I thought to myself, “Is this an example of urban wildlife?”

I looked outside my window and saw birds chirping in our tree. I wondered, “Why aren’t our birds considered part of the urban wildlife ecology?”

Looking into it further I discovered that 3.1% of America’s households own a pet bird. With over 3.6 million bird owners in this county, each caring for 2.3 birds per household, that adds up to a total of around 8.3 million birdies nationally. That is a lot of birds living within our cities! The idea also brought me to the conclusion we should create a new sub-category of urban wildlife to account for these type of formerly wild animal populations living amongst us in and around our homes.


Mona, our Parrotlet.

Let me introduce you to our two birds. First, there is Mona. She is a Parrotlet, or as some people call them, a Pocket Parrot, or even Forpus coelestis if you want to get scientific. Mona has been with us for over 7 years, coming from Pomona, California where she was hand-raised. Her ancestors are originally from South America near Peru.


Buddy, the Parakeet.

Then we have Buddy, who is a Parakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus budgerigar). Although Buddy’s family roots are Australian, we first came upon Buddy at our favorite pet shop, Omar’s in Santa Monica. Like most of us whose ancestors came from elsewhere, both Mona and Buddy are also immigrants distant from their native ecologies.

I realized that the only difference between our birds and the birds hanging out in our backyard tree is that we’ve named this pair, they live with us, and that Mona and Buddy have become part of our family (at least in our mind). However, I know they’re still wild at heart, because all I have to do (heaven forbid) is open my front door and watch our family members fly out the door. Whether they’ll decide to fly back in through door at the end of the day is still wildly debatable.

El Niño Southern Oscillation - via Wikipedia

El Niño Southern Oscillation – via Wikipedia

Perspective #1 – “Fear”: Climatologists are forecasting a strong El Niño year. It’s everywhere in the news, and whenever there is a climate anomaly these days we all say, “it must be the El Niño” effect. Recently, I’ve been in client meetings when I’ve heard the words, “it’s an El Niño year”. I see concern and fear on everyone’s face. I think this has to do with the cost of construction delays. The washing out of Interstate 5 a month ago only exacerbates this concern. People are wondering, “What am I supposed to do when the storm hits and it washes out my planting beds?” I smile and hold my tongue, all the while thinking to myself, “I guess you’ll need to replant it”.

Perspective #2 – “I am not responsible”: I feel a sense of misguided relief amongst some Angelenos who mistakenly believe the predicted rainfall will solve our statewide drought (or at least will eliminate the possibility of additional draconian water restriction ordered by the governor or local leadership). I also get the sense from talking to everyday people that this rainy year will relieve them of having to continue their water restriction in their homes. I can hear people saying, “Maybe I don’t have to feel guilty about having a green lawn or I won’t need to recycle my bath water, or maybe now I can wash my car in the driveway again”.

Perspective #3 – “Lessons of a Sustainable World”: California’s drought is a great lesson on sustainability. Personally, it has forced me to shift my day-to-day lifestyle in ways that I was not accustomed to prior. Initially I complained under my breath, but I realize now it’s been a rewarding and insightful experience. I thought I lived sustainably before the drought (e.g. I tend a drought-tolerant garden, drive a Prius, recycle everything possible, etc.), but this extended dry period has made me reflect on how unsustainable I truly am.

Living in Los Angeles and in our post-industrial infrastructure certainly doesn’t make it any easier. Who likes driving on the freeway or having to drive to a local store in traffic to get eggs? So on a personal level I found the drought a great teacher. As an urban designer the drought has reframed and opened the possibility to rethink how we should be designing of our cities. What were once novel ideas about urban green infrastructure before the drought, I now believe should now be required.

For example, I believe that all of our residential, commercial, and institutional storm water run-off should be required to stored, reuse, and recycled their water. This water can obviously be used for landscapes, but it should be used for other functions such as toilets. Why not? The State Water Board has mandated that we clean our storm water before it leaves a site, but I don’t’ think it goes far enough. I’ve read that 25% of Israel’s water comes from recycled and treated sewer water. That’s not bad as a start. I believe there is plenty of policy room in Los Angeles to be much more sustainable.

So let’s not use the “it’s an El Niño year” as an excuse for falling back onto our old ways. Let’s use El Niño to be the catalyst for a better and more sustainable city and world.