Posts by Gary J. Lai

Photo by Scott Lowe (CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo by Scott Lowe (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Just one week into the Trump Era, I find myself grasping for good news – anything positive to hold onto. With this sentiment in mind, I’ve decided to attempt to move beyond my malaise and suggest the following positive things of note (listed in no particular order):

Rain, Oh Glorious Rain:  It’s sure nice to see the wet stuff finally fall from the Southern California sky after an epic drought. Not to be a wet blanket (pun intended), but we still have ways to go before we’ve fully replenished our water supply, with the flooding and mudslides a drag. However, let us rejoice at this winter’s extraordinary rainfall – 216% of normal, to be more exact.


[Mild spoilers ahead]

In the opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s new movie musical, LA LA Land, the sound of honking begin before the visuals start (reality check: no one honks their horns in LA, for fear of being shot). The camera pans across a line of cars stuck in traffic on the 105/110 interchange. For a movie about Los Angeles, this is about as cliche as it gets…yet, also about as accurate as you can get considering we do have the worst traffic in country.

As the camera pans across bored and miserable people baking in the sun and stuck in their cars, it suddenly climbs up above the traffic and zeros in on a specific women who starts to sing the opening number, “Another Day of Sun”. The woman jumps out of her car, convincing her fellow commuters to sing and dance their way across the freeway. As the camera deliriously pans back and forth over and around the freeway, the musical number reaches its climax, upon which everyone promptly gets back into their car and the honking resumes. The word “Winter” appears on the screen.

The audience at the Vista Theater in Los Feliz chuckled in acknowledgment.

Image: Lionsgate

Los Angeles is a city of great complexity and contradictions. As the movie moved onto follow two star-crossed lovers – a struggling jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling and a struggling actor  portrayed by Emma Stone – I realize that director Damien Chazell, more than anyone I know, has a deep understanding of Los Angeles.

As a contextual designer, I strive to understand a place, a site, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country or wherever I need to design. Since the majority of my current work is in Los Angeles, I need to understand Los Angeles. But, LA is a city of contradictions. We are slow to accept change, but obsessively fast to implement change once it is accepted (see: public transportation). We revere aspects of the past, but are also quick to tear down reminders of that past (see: our penchant for destroying historical landmarks).

We convey the Hollywood image to the world, but are really about our blue collar background (did you know that we are one of the largest manufacturing cities in the country?). LA LA Land uses the imagery and cliches of the City of Angels to say something more about the inner truth of this place. At one point Gosling’s character, a native Angeleno, criticizes Los Angeles: “We worship everything, but value nothing.” Even that statement is a cliche, but has truth to it.

LA LA Land plays with these contradictions and layers them throughout its 128 minute playing time. It’s a modern musical shot in 1930’s style. It’s a fanciful drama of Old Hollywood Glamour set in Los Angeles gritty post-industrial neighborhoods – a “City of Stars” that regularly crushes its occupants aspirations and dreams, always precariously edging toward disaster, but maintaining stability somehow.

What’s a designer to do? Like an author striving to write the “Great American Novel”, designers try to create the “Great American Place” – in my case, the “Great LA Place”.

Maybe the key to designing in such a place is to embrace the complexity and contradictions of this city and try to ascertain the deeper meaning. Do we contradict ourselves because we honor and miss the past but recognize the need to move forward and change? Perhaps designing for our real life LA LA Land is really about designing to the vision of what Los Angeles wants to be. Perhaps we need to design for the ideal, the glamour, the image, but make those designs accessible to the reality of the people who live in this city.

As I was walking out of the theater, I overheard the best line of the evening that wasn’t even in the movie. One man standing in line for the restroom asked his friend, “So, did that movie inspire you or make you more desperate?”

Exactly the correct Los Angeles question.

Photo by Aurelio Pérez-Veith

Photo by Aurelio Pérez-Veith

A tiny piece of Los Angeles history disappeared last week.  After 100 years, the Hollywood Independent Church (HIC) conducted its final service on November 19th. HIC’s Reverend John Vargas final service at the historic Japanese American and Hawaiian church was introduced to the sound of conch seashells and a performance of hula dancers.  After the service, we were ushered into a recreation room where we could talk to old friends and enjoy homemade cupcakes and coffee.  Hollywood Independent Church ceased to exist after a long history of love, inclusion, and diversity in the wake of the cruelty and injustice of the Japanese American Internment.

HIC was a victim of generational and demographic shifts in Los Angeles.  It was my wife’s family church, but like many of the congregation, she moved away for college and ended up marrying a non-Southern Californian. When we moved back to Los Angeles about 8 years ago after nearly 20 years of being away, our ties to her church were only held together by the barest of threads.  We donated a little money and got the newsletter, but rarely it to attend service.  We were not alone.

Most of my wife’s peers had moved away to other cities within California, out of state, or even to a new country.  The surrounding neighborhood became more Hispanic and, consequently, more Catholic.  By the end, only a few souls were filling the sanctuary on Sundays. The church, faced with ongoing debt and an aging facility, decided that the only course of action was to sell the land and retire the debt while still having leftover funds to donate to the surrounding churches and community. Fortunately, Silver Lake adjacent property was a boon for the church who achieved all of its goals and more, contributing to some 20-40 charities and churches around Northeast Los Angeles, Glendale, and Burbank.  Anyone involved with HIC would not be surprised by this generosity given its long history of service in Southern California.

Photo by Gary Lai

Photo by Gary Lai

Originally called the Hollywood Japanese Christian Church, HIC was founded in 1916 by a group of Japanese immigrants to promote Christianity and mutual understanding with the communities around Southern California.  With a membership of only 25 people, HIC was able to buy and build their own church on the outskirts of Silver Lake in East Hollywood.  For almost 30 years, HIC continued its mission in Southern California.

On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of the Japan. On February of 1942, Executive Order 9066 was signed, and the bulk of the HIC congregation was forcibly removed from the West Coast. These American citizens were allowed just two suitcases and were forced to leave their land, property, and most of their belongings behind. An accumulation of wealth for a generation was lost to opportunists, war profiteers, and “entrepreneurs” who were more than happy to “confiscate” and seize HIC members’ property as their own. Fortunately, the Pastor and members of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church held onto and cared for HIC’s facility for 4 long years. Those HIC members who could return to Los Angeles faced financial destitution, bigotry, and isolation – but they still had their church.

Photo by Gary Lai

Photo by Gary Lai

Instead falling to bitterness and negativity from the illegal persecution from their own country, the members of HIC decided to continue their mission of healing, inclusion, and love.  They dropped the “Japanese” from their churches title to promote a more diverse population into their ranks. Hawaiians moving to the mainland were immediately drawn to the church and quickly became important leaders, but all nationalities and races were welcomed. HIC joined the Southern California Congregational Conference and would be a founding member of the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC). It would be one of the first churches to support LGBT rights and members would march in the Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood. This tiny church that would never break more than a 100 members operated a food bank, an adult language center, and would participate in the Pacific Island Asian American Ministries of UCC. HIC would never turn its back on its mission and responsibilities.

Ironically, just a few days before HIC’s final service, Mr. Carl Higbie, a President-elect Trump supporter and surrogate, called for using the Japanese American internment as a precedent for Muslim American registration.  Southern California Japanese American leaders have long cited their experiences as a warning to the Muslim American community and have been actively engaging the community with outreach and counseling.

As I said my goodbyes to former Hollywood Independent Church members after being over-sugared and over-caffeinated, I wondered if I could find the strength and resolve to follow the congregation’s example of love over hate, understanding over bigotry, and service over self-enrichment.  I’m not sure I can do it, but I do know that if one tiny sliver of light in the second largest city in the country could do this much good, one tiny individual in this city can try.

Xeriscape garden; Creative Commons photo: Jeremy Levine

Xeriscape garden; Creative Commons photo: Jeremy Levine

Want to do the environmentally responsible thing and install a drought tolerant landscape? The first thing you could do is rip out your lawn and install trees, shrubs and ground cover. Generally, this act alone will save you about a third of your monthly water use. The caveat being is that you must not water your newly planted trees, shrubs, and groundcover the same amount as your newly removed lawn or you will not save any water at all.

However, you must give your new landscape some water to keep it alive and healthy. How much? Therein lies the rub. I don’t know. I have over 25 years experience as a landscape architect and I’m regarded as one of the many experts in exterior water conservation in California, yet I cannot guarantee the water usage of any landscape I design for you.

Why? Because no one really knows.

How can this be? Because the mixed-bed landscape ecosystems – trees, shrubs, and ground cover – from around the world are very complex, and there’s never been any funded field research to determine averages and amounts. The closest thing we have is a study called WUCOLS.

In the early ’90s, the University of California Cooperative Extension and the California Department of Water Resources teamed to create what eventually became the definitive reference for plant water usage in California: the Water Use Classification of Landscape Species study – or WUCOLS for short.

Autumn planting at the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Creative Commons photo: Katie Hetrick

Autumn planting at the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Creative Commons photo: Katie Hetrick

Climate and growing regions, chart from the WUCOLS IV User Manual

Climate and growing regions, chart from the WUCOLS IV User Manual

WUCOLS is comprised of two parts: it’s a formula for calculating plant water use in California with a fairly comprehensive list, rating plants from “very low” to “high” water requirements. In the last 25 years since it was published, WUCOLS has been updated 4 times. The list has become an integral part of the State’s landscape water conservation efforts, as well as an integral part of major sustainable scoring systems like LEED, SITES, and the Living Building Challenge. The study’s authors never imagined their creation would be used to define plant water conservation not only in California, but around the world.

WUCOLS was originally meant to be just a guide. As such, the study is beginning to show signs of not being able to hold up to the scrutiny necessary to be the basis for water conservation laws in the State and around the Country.

This is not to say that the original study was not valid or rigorous. With a limited budget, the authors worked with what they had. They convened with experts from five different bio-regions around the state to evaluate nursery-available plants. They also used existing field studies wherever possible to help guide their evaluations.

Still, most of the plants on the WUCOLS list are rated based on anecdotal evidence rather than true field research data. This has become a problem as most of the water districts and municipalities write into their ordinances requirements that only plants rated by WUCOLS as “very low” and “low” can be planted within their jurisdiction.

In an attempt to finally add a more rigorous data to WUCOLS, the UC Cooperative Extension and the Department of Water Resources has been conducting a survey of 1,500 ornamental landscape sites around the state. They will announce their findings at a meeting on December 6th at the Metropolitan Water District Headquarters, adjacent to LA Union Station.

If we are serious about wanting to use our water resources responsibly while still maintaining the beauty of our state, we must be able to give landowners and designers the tools to be able to make the best decisions benefitting landscapes. The only way to accomplish this lofty goal is to provide the people of California with vetted research that generates hard and reliable data.

WUCOLS will now be moving forward to becoming that tool. AHBE Landscape Architects is proud to be the sponsor for this event. Please look for more information about this event in this space, and through announcements with our partner organizations: USGBC, Living Building Challenge, and ASLA.

It was 1982 when I visited the future.

I had just caught the latest Harrison Ford flick, Blade Runner, with my high school buddies. Overall reviews for the movie amongst my friends were mixed, but the one thing we could agreed upon was that we had been transported to the 2019 version of Los Angeles. We were absolutely sure of it.


For those who have not seen the movie [raised eyebrow], Ford plays an LAPD officer specializing in hunting down and killing artificial humans – “replicants” – who have broken their programming and illegally immigrated to Earth to blend in with humanity. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is dirty and wet, an industrial and apocalyptic wreck of city rendered as dense as New York or Tokyo, but with the appearance of only a marginally functioning economy and environment. In fact, the smog in the movie is so dense, the city is drenched in perpetual rain. Teeming with criminals, the homeless, and policed by corrupt cops milling about around bombed-out buildings, the forecast looked grim.

Yet, in 1982 this vision of LA seemed reasonable, if not guaranteed. New York City was in the midst of the worst year of crime on record, Los Angeles itself was an environmental wreck hidden beneath a perpetual thick brown haze. Thermonuclear war was a real concern as President Regan ramped up the military and rhetoric in an attempt to intimidate the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. By the mid-1980’s, a third of the American population believed nuclear war was inevitable, and a dystopian view of the future hung over our heads.

Fast forward to 2016 and it seems dystopia has reemerged in popularity. Pop culture books/movies/shows like The Hunger Game , The Walking Dead, Divergent, and Maze Runner – all uber-popular fiction – revolve in a post-apocolyptic realm. Even the Star Trek franchise – originally built upon a utopian view of humanity’s future – has been rebooted with existential threats at the core of the franchise.

Silver Lake's Sunset Junction transformed into a zombie land in Fear The Walking Dead.

Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction transformed into a zombie land in Fear The Walking Dead.

Closer to home, Fear the Walking Dead shows a fully functioning Los Angeles descended into zombified hell. I have to admit a pleasure in seeing Sunset Junction in Silver Lake as a backdrop and in the opening scene of the pilot.

So, why are we so hell-bent on a apocolyptic future? The world of 2016 is kind of scary place. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, continuous war in the Middle East for over a decade, a highly polarized political state, horrible new diseases to worry about, 100 year storms with 1,000 year droughts, all with the looming concern of rising sea levels. With all this happening, no wonder many believe the end is nigh and the eventual outcome will resemble the fiction we so voraciously consume on television, movies, books, and video games.

But we would also be wrong. I believe humans are way more resilient and a tad smarter than we give ourselves credit for.

Those seeking a more optimistic vision of Los Angeles in the future should check out, Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, the film follows a sensitive guy going through a tough divorce who falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer operating system (just go with it). In Spike Jonze’s film, Los Angeles is doing pretty well. Angelenos live in a dense environment, but within sleek and clean hi-rises (that look suspiciously like Shanghai). Phoenix’s character walks and takes trains everywhere – a subway to Santa Monica and a high speed rail to the Sierra Nevadas. He visits parks and interesting public spaces where crime never seems to be a concern. Could this future be a possibility, or just as naive and fanciful as the Walking Dead’s vision of the City of Angels?

Los Angeles as portrayed in the 2013 movie Her was actually a combination of real world locations in LA and Shanghai's Pudong business district. Stills via via Warner Bros. Pictures

Los Angeles as portrayed in the 2013 movie Her was actually a combination of real world locations in LA and Shanghai’s Pudong business district. Stills via via Warner Bros. Pictures

AHBE Landscape Architects is in the middle of looking at a 100 year plan for the firm. At first, I thought this to be a silly exercise. But as we delve deeper and deeper into the plan, I realized that having a ridiculously long range view is an exercise in keeping faith in humanity. We are not planning on stockpiling guns and building bomb shelters. We are thinking about the real problems humanity faces and how our landscape architecture team might be able to solve those problems. We have to begin with the belief we’ll still be here in 100 years, perhaps still muddling through our problems, but surviving.

I find that perspective comforting. If history has taught us anything, our fictional visions of the future are never correct. In the name of drama popular culture skews to extreme situations. Certainly the outcome of a 2 degree Celsius climate change event might seem cataclysmic, but in the end I believe humanity is resilient and will adapt to those changes. In other words, we may have to create a utopian society within a dystopian landscape.