Posts by Gary J. Lai

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.






Aerial view of Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, showing greenery, paths, and a pond, surrounded by buildings. Photo by Dronepicr/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0).

During an open house event for a park this weekend, I noticed a gentleman grew disinterested speaking to me while I was responding to his questions when he realized I was “just the landscaper”. Despite AHBE Landscape Architects being the lead firm responsible for designing the park, the man wanted to talk with an architect. The interaction made me realize any talk about the future of the profession of landscape architecture seems premature today, considering how little the general public or even our peers in the A/E industry, know about our profession.

However, all things evolve, even landscape architecture. When landscape architects talk about the future of the profession, we are talking about how landscape architecture has been practiced and perceived over the last 150 years versus how we believe it should be practiced over the next 150 years.

Traditional landscape architecture primarily concentrates on aesthetics – more specifically, the idealized English country garden aesthetic our “Father”, Frederick Law Olmsted, imported to the United States through his design of Central Park in New York City. This pastoral aesthetic has since dominated how Americans build parks, cities, and our own residences across the country. Unfortunately, in our effort to achieve this idealized vision, landscape architects have forced the aesthetic into environmentally incompatible locations. For example, in Southern California we expend a vast amount of resources to maintain a northern European-style landscape comprised of lawn grasses, herbaceous shrubs, flowering northern latitude woody plants, annuals, and bulbs. This type of landscaping requires a great deal of water, fertilizer, specialized equipment, specialized irrigation equipment and a myriad of soil amendments to install and maintain.

Fast forward to 2018 and landscape architectural design has slowly evolved to take into account the amount of effort and resources necessary to maintain our landscapes. We have become more sustainable, and consequently, more deliberate and scientific in our approach to design.

The future of landscape architecture will demand we use our knowledge of living systems to create environments that reduce or eliminate the use of natural resources, while still creating places of value and beauty for humankind. For example, planting a native California landscape locally naturalizes to our climate, expending a fraction of the resources required to maintain the landscape. Native plants would also be regenerative to the local environment by creating habitat for local wildlife. The challenge is getting native plants to survive in our urbanized environments, while also imagining aesthetic value for the public.

For decades, landscape architects have been regarded by the A/E community as a second-tier profession that did not provide essential services for humanity (as my friend likes to say, we are “hair and makeup”). Even though we have always fought for relevancy using ideas of “nature” and “beauty” as essential elements to design, Americans in particular have always thought of buildings, bridges, and roads as more essential. In a way, the criticism carries some truth, noting landscape architects have tended to only represent nature and beauty in an idealized form, regardless of the impact to the surrounding environment. As we run out of resources and push our planet to the edges of human habitation, landscape architects must change to incorporate the natural sciences into our designs. Designing natural/living systems become an essential requirement of our profession. Of course the irony here is the dire circumstances of climate change will push landscape architects to the forefront of the design world, delivering us the legitimacy we have always craved.

Here we go again. It looks like we’re headed for another dry year in Southern California. Two years after the Governor’s grand announcement that the worst drought in 1,200 years was behind us, the total rain for this year stands at just under 5-inches. Our “normal” rainfall for this time of year is supposed to be about 14-inches.

The Northern California snow pack is doing better however, with most of the NorCal counties reporting in at about 70% of normal. This shows that while we won’t have a drought on the order of magnitude of 2015, we will not have enough to meet all our needs this year. We will have to depend on our dwindling local storage supplies and imported water from the California Water Project to make up the difference.

How can you make a difference? Conserve water.

During the “Millennial” drought of 2010 to 2015, my wife and I experimented with different conservation methods, noting how much we could decrease our water usage vs. how arduous the strategy. The average California household uses about 175 gallons of water a day. We were able to get our daily water usage down to 90 gallons! Here’s how we did it, from easiest to most difficult below:

Sweat the small stuff: Small habits add up. Don’t use a hose to clean your driveway and patios. Fill a sink of water to shave or wash the dishes. Turn off the water when you soap your hands and when you brush your teeth. Only turn on the washer or dish washer if they are full. Put a spray nozzle on your hose. These basics won’t cost any money, but saved us about 15% off our water bill.

Buy low-flow appliances: If you can, replacing your toilet, washer and/or dish washer will be the easiest thing to do to conserve without any changes in your lifestyle. Having moved into a new apartment with all new water efficient appliances, I can vouch there is no compromise to cleanliness.

Buy a low flow shower head: In most California households, showers are a big water user. If you have an old shower head, buy a new low-flow one. I switched the head in our old house from a 3 GPM (gallons per minute) to a 1.5 GPM head and didn’t notice any compromise in the shower experience. They now even make heads rated for as low as 1.25 GPM.

Take shorter showers: On average, people take a 13-minute shower. Just cutting a 2-3 minutes off the average time can result in a noticeable decrease in a water bill. If you install a small shut-off valve on your shower head (some heads come with this feature), you can turn off the water briefly when you soap and not compromise the water temperature. My wife and I were able to save a whopping 40% off our water bill using this technique.

Mulch your yard: Many cities let you pick up free mulch from your neighborhood parks. If you mulch your planting beds, your irrigation will be more efficient, and you will need to water the garden less.

Save warm-up shower water for special plants: Beyond the $1.25 for a 5-gallon bucket from Home Depot, this strategy does not require any additional purchases, but it will require some effort. Gathering unused shower warm-up water bucket by bucket is labor intensive, but we were able to keep our favorite weeping peach trees alive during the last drought by not allowing this daily use go to waste.

Get rid of your lawn: The reduction of turf has been the primary goal for Southern California water agencies and cities. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) just allocated $50 million dollars a year for a new program to motivate residential clients to take out their lawns and replace them with drought tolerant planting. Lawn grasses use roughly 1 million gallons per year per acre in Southern California, as opposed to 300,000 gallons per year per acre for drought tolerant planting.

Get a professional to help you program and operate your irrigation controller: The EPA estimates 50% of all water wasted in the United States is due to improperly adjusted irrigation systems. “Smart” irrigation controllers are complex and require plant and soil knowledge to setup; the average landscape maintenance person may not have those skills. Hiring a reputable maintenance company to do the initial setup of a controller, explain its features and review maintenance will improve water efficiency in the long run. This item will require the most knowledge, effort, and money to implement, but will save the most amount of water.

On a related note, AHBE Lab has aback catalog of numerous posts describing all aspects of drought worth revisiting. Happy water savings!

Creative Commons photo by Stephen Zeigler (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I recently attended the California Parks and Recreation Society (CPRS) Conference in Long Beach, and surprisingly found the educational sessions  sparsely attended. That all changed with “Exploring Homelessness in Parks: Strategies for Compassion Co-existence”, a crowded session with over four times more attendees and standing room only. It was during this session I realized landscape architects and the homeless will be inextricably tied together for the foreseeable future, falling onto us to responsibly and compassionately deal with the social, health, and design issues connected with homelessness in our public parks.

Scott Reese, ASLA – leader of the CPRS session and a retired Assistant Director of Parks for City of San Diego – talked about four different approaches cities and park agencies have historically used to deal with the homeless. The following categories are accompanied with my commentary:

  1. “Look the other way”: A “do-nothing” approach. This does nothing to help the homeless, and will chase other park users away.
  2. Regulatory: An approach concentrating solely on passing legislation to keep the homeless out of parks, including establishing “no loitering” or “no sleeping on public land” ordinances. The biggest issue with this approach is it does eliminates any flexibility. If a homeless man is found sleeping in the park, do authorities jail or fine him? Alone, the regulatory approach does nothing.
  3. Seclusion or relocation and disbursement: Law enforcement against the homeless has been used on and off since the Great Depression, simply making homelessness illegal, giving law enforcement officers the authority to arrest, harass, or relocate anyone without a home. Downtown LA’s Skid Row is an example of how LA County use to “dump” their homeless into a central location under the pretense services would be provided there. In reality, the location is completely overwhelmed, and has become the face of homelessness for LA County for the last two decades.
  4. Defensible space: Designs intended to make the homeless uncomfortable and deny them access to the public space are strategies familiar to landscape architects. One can often spot park benches with an additional armrest dividing the middle, a design intended to deter the homeless person from sleeping on it; the new Art’s District Park adjacent to the La Kretz Innovation Center is entirely fenced around its perimeter to restrict access. Besides the sticky legal ramifications of denying access to a public space, design-only solutions have proven ineffective. There is no way to make a park more uncomfortable than living on the streets of Los Angeles. Desperate people find a way to survive.

Creative Commons photo by David Whittaker; (CC0).

The panel discussion concluded with Scott Reese describing two additional strategies:

  1. “Social Justice”: Championed by homeless rights advocates, social justice stresses compassionate intervention that attempts to steer people into shelters or interim housing, as well as public service programs. Lack of funding, shelter shortages, and the overwhelming number of homeless have stifled this strategy.
  2. “Declared Emergency”: When an outbreak of Hepatitis A killed 25 homeless in San Diego County, county officials were prompted to declare a health emergency. The emergency allowed county agencies to freeze local ordinances and regulations, and provide emergency funds to install facilities like portable toilets and hand-washing stations with 24 hour security throughout downtown San Diego. The approach proved to be very effective in the short term.

The simple truth is none of the approaches above will solve homelessness by themselves. As a park professional and designer, I believe we need to treat the homeless like any other park constituent dependent upon the public space for services. This means park agencies and designers need to  integrate services and programmed spaces for the homeless into new and renovated parks. Agencies also need to provide park staff with maintenance and appearance standards to use as the basis for decisions relating to their homeless constituency. This differs from the aforementioned regulatory approach because it provides options for services rather than simply outlawing the activity.

At last count, Los Angeles County has 55,000 people living on its streets, 11,000 of which are children. As a result, our public parks have become the main intersection between the homeless and society at-large. Historically, public parks have always played this role, especially in Los Angeles. The great population boom of the early 1900’s led to an investment in public space, only to be “defended” from homeless families using the parks as camp grounds during the Great Depression. This last decade and the Great Recession it brought pushed homelessness from an intractable problem to crisis levels.

Ironically, the economic recovery has ballooned homelessness even further, with government and private developers unable to solve mounting issues surrounding affordable housing. Even with a massive influx of funds from new tax and bond initiatives, moving 55,000 people off the street will require a generation. As park agencies and landscape architects renovate our city’s aging park infrastructure, we are tasked to consider the homeless as a major user and stakeholder in our park designs guided by the ideals of “compassionate coexistence”.




Creative Commons image by Bjoern von Thuelen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

My sister and I would always laugh at my Mom’s stories because they were all told in circles. Characters and locations she’d mention would disappear suddenly, only to re-appear unexpectedly later. There never seemed to be a point or an end to any of her yarns;  they’d always circle back to the beginning, but always from a different perspective. Her circular storytelling drove us crazy.

My dad on the other hand was all about the linear. As a civil engineer, everything began from point “A” and always ended at point “B”; veering off the straight path to him seemed inefficient and unnecessary. My Dad was the dominant personality in the household, so his kids all aligned with his linear perspective. I’ve always wondered how these two very different personalities got married.

It is only now much later in life I’ve come to appreciate my Mom’s stories. I can now relate to her philosophy and connect it to my own. As a sustainability advocate, I recognize the future as circular rather than linear. The linear perspective now seems staid and old-fashioned.

Sustainability is about circles. Take for example recycling: raw materials are taken from the earth, made into objects, gathered after use, then renewed to make the same object again, or an entirely different one. The raw material is only taken once, and then used over, and over again – an efficient and circular process. Unfortunately, most of our world economy does not operate this way. Items are simply discarded after use, only to be buried, discarded into the sea, or burned.

This idea of a linear economy of consumption originated during the Industrial Revolution when products became easily manufactured and more widely available – a consumerist lifestyle further solidified by the introduction of ultra-resilient and disposable materials like plastic. After World War II the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, became enthralled with the notions of the new and disposability. The Depression-era habits of recycling and saving were considered only for poor countries, with the prosperity of the 20th Century equated with the ability to consume only new things and discard them at will. “Efficiency” was only applied in relation to manufacturing as fast as possible. To this day, Americans use “efficient” primarily in reference to linear processes providing short-term gain. For example: it is efficient to channel storm water down the L.A. River, but it is not efficient to slow water flow to recharge the aquifer.

The irony here is linear thinking rarely leads toward ultimate efficiencies. Businesses are only sustainable as long as natural resource are available. Just look back at the once prosperous industries of American Buffalo hunters or leather/fur manufacturers of the 1850s and one can see the peak and collapse reflecting linear consumption. So-called efficient modern thinking was never really concerned with genuine efficiency beyond immediate profibility. However, the connection between our consumptive, linear thinking and prosperity remains. Many Americans still aspire to buy only new items, used until its novelty has worn off, finally to be thrown away and replaced again with something new. This has become the linear timeline of the American way.

This is all a roundabout way of saying: I don’t laugh at my Mother’s stories any longer. I recognize her circular narratives are told with an appreciation of life’s journey from every perspective. Her stories recognize and appreciate various perspectives, both ultimately more interesting to my Mom than the pursuit of any conclusion. Each of her stories are an adventure comprised of meandering paths, dead-ends, new beginnings, and perpetual change – much like nature, sustainability, and life itself.