Posts by Jessica Roberts

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This past weekend I had some friends visiting from Chicago who put me in charge of planning our weekend travels. If you want to fly halfway across the country to see a massive ecological and engineering disaster, I’m your woman. A few Airbnb searches later and our exotic vacation on the beach of the Salton Sea was booked. Welcome to the neighborhood.

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The Salton Sea is an endorheic lake and drainage basin in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys of Southern California. This vast inland lake, the largest in the state, is the lowest elevation of the Salton Sink and receives water from the New, Whitewater, and Alamo Rivers. The Sea is also a retention basin for surrounding drainage systems and agricultural runoff. A perfect setting for a weekend getaway.

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The inland sea has a long history and has served as home to different inhabitants along the way. Deposits from the Colorado River created fertile farmland in the Imperial Valley and cycles of water flow and evaporation have historically happened every half century. Native American fish traps can still be found which were moved around in relationship to the changing character of the water.

From the 1850’s on the Sea has taken on a number of names including The Valley of the Ancient Lake, Cahuilla Valley, Salt Creek, and Salton Station to name a few. The Salton Sink was the site of a major salt mining operation until 1905 when an accident led to the seas current state. Today the sea is most famous for its infill from a California Development Company engineering mishap. Irrigation canals were dug from the Colorado River to increase water flow into the valley. The canal overflowed and over the course of two years the historic dry lake bed was filled.

In the 1950s and ’60s the area was transformed into a hip resort town with swimming, water-skiing, yacht clubs, and golf courses. The California Department of Fish and Game stocked the lake with fish from the Gulf of California and the sea soon became a popular fishing spot for humans and migratory birds alike. Over time increasing saline levels and pollution from agricultural runoff saturated the sea and the freshwater began to evaporate. Algae blooms, fed by agricultural run-off, resulted in a foul smelling shoreline. By the 1980’s the cities surrounding the sea were close to abandoned, and mass numbers of fish began to die due to lack of oxygen in the water. The good times were over. (more…)

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While analyzing a tree inventory for one of our park projects, I became interested in the complicated relationship between the eucalyptus tree and the Southern California landscape. Our arborist reported, “We are typically critical of the use of shamel ash and eucalyptus due to their propensity for branch breakage, but believe these to be excellent choices for this particular park setting. Furthermore, these trees have not been “topped,” a non-industry standard pruning practice that can lead to branch failures.” The fate of about 50 trees just on this particular site is all wrapped up in chance, faith, understanding, and maintenance, perhaps not unlike any long term relationship.

How did the Southern California landscape and this alien tree meet up to begin with? Nineteenth century Californians saw the grassland hills with occasional oak and sycamore groves to be largely barren. The aesthetics of the 1870s intertwined with a demand for timber, enabling the fast growing eucalyptus – a tree that prior to the 1850s could not be found in the state – to be planted in mass. A romance was born.

 “Planters believed variously that the exotic trees would provide fuel, improve the weather, boost farm productivity, defeat malaria, preserve watersheds, and thwart a looming timber famine.  First and foremost, settlers propagated them to domesticate and beautify the land, to give it more greenery.”  – Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer

In 1924 it was estimated that California contained 40,000 to 50,000 acres of solid eucalyptus. Fast forward to the 1980s and there were about 198,000 acres of blue gum eucalyptus growing in California according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In 1927, the Los Angeles Times declared that eucalyptus “seems more essentially California than many a native plant; so completely has it adopted California, and so entirely has California adopted it, that without its sheltering beneficence our groves and vineyards would be like Home without a Mother.’”

It seemed that eucalyptus had graduated in the hearts of Californians from a youthful crush to the unwavering affection of a mother.

Tobacco heir Abbot Kinney’s feverish love for the tree translated into a landscape-altering affair. Known today as the developer of Venice, Kinney served as state forester from 1886 to 1888. During this time he promoted eucalyptus and even distributed free seeds across the region. Eucalyptus at the time was valued for its use as an ornamental, a windbreak, for its oils with antiseptic and anti-malarial properties, and was seen as the answer to the shortage of Appalachian hardwood in the early 1900’s. Myths of 500-foot trees were born and people dreamed of the profits one could glean from such a tree. In 1913 a U.S. Department of Agriculture report confirmed that eucalyptus wood was unsuitable for most timber uses once dried. Trouble in paradise.

Regardless, up until the 1960’s love for the eucalyptus could still be found in abundance. Harold Gilliam, a nature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that “’The eucalyptus seems an indispensable element of this State’s landscapes, as indigenously Californian as the redwoods, the poppy fields, the long white coastal beaches, the gleaming granite of the High Sierra,’”.

In the early 1970’s growing obsessions with “native” plants shifted plant affinities, and managers of public land began to adopt policies requiring the removal of non-native species. In 1982, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), managed by the National Park Service, took on a policy of destroying all blue gum eucalyptus on 600 acres of park property in Marin County. This announcement poetically arrived on Arbor Day in 1986. Over 350 petitions, many from county supervisors, opposed the plans. The State Parks Department adopted the same policy to remove all blue gum eucalyptus from State parks around the same time.

The State Parks Department did a complete Environmental Impact Report in response to public demands. Soon hundreds of acres of eucalyptus were eradicated. In 1991 a fire in the Berkeley-Oakland hills damaged the reputation of the eucalyptus further, and native plant enthusiasts jumped at the opportunity to continue the removal of the tree. A FEMA technical report states that homes destroyed by the fire were the biggest fuel source, not the eucalyptus.

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Jared Farmer in his book Trees of Paradise notes that insect infestations in eucalyptus might be the result of conspiracy. Allegedly, insect predators of eucalyptus might have been imported from Australia by native plant advocates for the purpose of killing the trees. Many of the claims put forth by native plant enthusiast are simply up for debate. Some native animals flourish in eucalyptus forests. Some Monarch butterflies use eucalyptus trees as overwintering sites, slender salamanders live in eucalyptus forest floors, and both native and imported bees harvest the trees’ nectar.

Eucalyptus isn’t entirely innocent though. The trees can radically alter a landscape’s natural fire cycles. The trees’ shredded bark and oily dead leaves can give fuel to wildfires, and the tree re-sprouts in abundance after a fire. This past weekend a fallen eucalyptus tree killed one and injured five people at a wedding in Whittier’s Penn Park.

In 2011 a 29-year old woman was killed by a fallen eucalyptus tree which fell on the victim’s vehicle. Soon after contractors removed about 100 eucalyptus trees from the surrounding site. The tree that fell from the median near 17th Street in Costa Mesa might have compromised others in its row. Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff said “It’s a heartbreaking decision”. Residents found the decision to remove the trees without a public forum as “disgusting”, although officials did say they would reach out to decide a suitable species to replace the trees. After the accident an article in Audubon Magazine called eucalyptus “an incendiary tree”, likening the species to an arsonist.

The blue gum eucalyptus has a long history in Southern California, but if we want the relationship to last, and we may not, we need to recognize what the tree does provide, and how maturing trees will need to be maintained in order to create healthy and safe landscapes.

Photos by Jessica Roberts

Photos by Jessica Roberts

A few weeks ago a few of us from the office made a site visit to Magic Johnson Park, a 94-acre recreation area located in the heart of the Willowbrook community, an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County south of Watts. While experiencing the interior of the park we were also drawn to the park’s context, in particular the relics of Ujima Village, a sprawling complex of mostly government-subsidized apartments.

Prior to the Village, which was erected in 1972 and included community gardens, a fitness center, and computer labs, ExxonMobil operated an oil tank storage facility on the site from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. By 2004, Ujima Village needed more than $20 million in renovations; the county tried to sell the site to developers. Some developers commissioned a soil and groundwater test which revealed gas and crude oil contamination. Although county officials declared the contamination did not pose a health risk, the results warranted further testing.

By March of 2008, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board had ordered the County and Housing Authority – as well as ExxonMobil – to clean up the site. Soon afterward, HUD began to relocate subsidized tenants from Ujima. By November of 2008, $2.5 million was used to relocate remaining tenants as the complex was to be closed. The last tenant did not leave Ujima until August of 2010.

The name of the Village, “Ujima”, means “collective work and responsibility” in Swahili, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Although there remains a certain melancholic beauty to be found in the ruins of urban decay today, how can we see Ujima as a place to learn rather than to gawk? How can we pay respect to the relationships formed there, and how can we incorporate Ujima’s original intent of “collective work and responsibility”.

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I believe one way is to consider Ujima Village a public lab, a space to continue to test the levels of contamination in the soil, water, and in the plants still present on the site. The possibilities are endless. The site could be strategically planted for bio-retention or as a pollinator landscape. Plants that are known to break down toxins through bioremediation could be planted and tested. The sites presents the opportunity for researchers to learn from the history of the site, as well as its present condition, as it transitions into its next stage.

As I continue to imagine the possibilities of this landscape and other landscapes that share similar stories, I can’t help but think of a quote from Diana Balmori, a mentor of mine recently deceased:

“All things in nature are constantly changing. Landscape architects need to design to allow for change, while seeking a new course that enhances the co-existence of humans with the rest of nature.”

Photo: Jessica Roberts

Photo: Jessica Roberts

This weekend I attended a wedding reception at the Penfield Mansion in Woodland Hills, once the home of Frank Sinatra, Clint Walker, and Roger Miller. Allegedly Roger Miller’s 1964 hit song “King of the Road” was written at the bar. An image of my grandfather singing, “I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road” gave me an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, and I couldn’t help but imagine the glamor of 1950’s Hollywood gracing the grounds of the home.

frank_sinatra_starHad Marilyn Monroe hung out on the putting green with Frank? Did she love the flagstone grotto as much as I did? Sure maybe the pool wasn’t lit with a gradient of purple, red, and blue LED lights back then, but I’m sure they got by. The night was flooded with a kind of Americana mystique unique to Southern California.

Right around the moment when a toast to the newlyweds was made, the sunset warmed our 360-degree views from atop the hill, making the moment that much more alluring. I felt swept up in the moment of romance. Gazing out at the horizon dappled with palm trees and Italian cypress, my understanding of place and identity was foggy, but it was beautiful. I felt connections to the past and to distant lands, caught in a blur of style. What a strange place.

Commonly called the Italian cypress, historically the tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, making its place of origin both undetermined and without any reliable accuracy. Regardless, Cupressus sempervirens is a tree of many names and homes: Mediterranean cypress, Tuscan cypress, Spanish cypress, funeral cypress, and pencil pine are other nicknames, although the tree is not of the genus Pinus. Culture gets complicated. The Italian cypress is a species of tree native to the eastern Mediterranean region – in northeast Libya, southern Albania, southern coastal Croatia, southern Greece, southern Turkey, northern Egypt, western Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Malta, Italy, western Jordan, and Iran.

Creative Commons photo: Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons photo: Robert Couse-Baker

The familiar narrow-columnar – or fastigiate form – is unknown to the wild. But the tree originally described by Linneaus as Cupressus sempervirens is the cypress of classical literature, planted in Italian classic gardens since the Renaissance. The trees are long lived and the wood is aromatic. They have been used to construct coffins in ancient Egypt and were used to make the entrance doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, an Italian Renaissance church in the Vatican City. Ovid, a Roman poet, wrote of a handsome boy, Cyparissus, one of Apollo’s favorites, who killed a tame stag. His grief for the death of the stag was so great that he asked to weep forever, and thus was transformed into Cupressus sempervirens, his tears embodied in sap.

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A taste of Tuscany, a symbol of mourning, a privacy screen for Californian suburbanites. This transient and adaptive tree of the underworld, with its articulated and architectural form, seemed fitting to the landscape in a way only something cultivated by a long history of human cultures could.

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It is always a pleasure to read my fellow AHBE Lab contributor’s entries. I always learn something new. I am a Silver Lake resident myself, so Gary’s recent post about the Silver Lake Reservoir of course caught my interest. I had no idea that the Reservoir was drained to bypass the drinking water system post 9-11. I also did not know that the plan was to refill the neighborhood’s token reservoir as it once was – this would be in fact no small feat.

I have to disagree with Gary on one point however. The reservoir is something different than a large empty hole. It has become a place of contingency, and that is not necessarily uninteresting.

Of course, there is potential for greatness, but what about the present? Is there a way to transition to the Reservoir’s next stage? How can we act now? The perimeter of the park is alive and shockingly green, extremely well used by residents and visitors alike. Looking beyond the fence, the Reservoir can be quite beautiful even without water, just not accessible.

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As Gary points out “The Silver Lake Reservoir is much larger than Echo Park Lake, and urban runoff alone would not be able to maintain the necessary volume for Silver Lake’s capacity”. Seeing the reservoir as less of a construction site and more of a place for experimentation could create a flexible landscape that could start performing now. This kind of experimental landscape could also buy some time for constituency and funding for perhaps a better Silver Lake Reservoir. Could we strategically propagate vegetation now to mitigate storm water, take toxins out of the soil, and provide habitat to urban wildlife?

During a community meeting on June 30th the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power committed once more to refill the iconic body of water. But when? According to CD4 Neighborhood Advocate Adam Miller, LADWP will be providing updates at a meeting to discuss specific options for restoring water to the Silver Lake Reservoir on September 20th. An additional meeting would be held after to discuss improvement plans after the Reservoir is filled. This proposed order – fill now…and then what do we do? – seems endlessly problematic. What can we do now to improve the conditions of the Reservoir and is filling it up just as it was really our best option? See you next Tuesday.

Silver Lake Reservoir Community Meeting Tuesday, September 20 
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. 
John Marshall High School Auditorium
3939 Tracy Street, Los Angeles, CA 90027
For more information, please contact SLNC.