Posts by Jessica Roberts

All photos by Jessica Roberts

I recently participated in the pilgrimage to view the incredible spectacle of California poppies. It was around this time last year when I had just moved to California;  I was immediately awestruck by the California poppies and giant coreopsis along the coast. I couldn’t wait to see more this year, especially with the super bloom hype in the air.

A coworker of mine had posted an image of poppies at Lake Elsinore on Instagram. I quickly copy and pasted the name into Google maps, noticing that it was on the way to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. And just like that my pilgrimage journey was mapped. The display of flowers did not disappoint, but what was perhaps as spectacular was the number of visitors at the parks. Tour buses, traffic jams, and selfie-hunters were ever-present. How was the prevalence of social media and the construction of self-image impacting the landscape?

Last year a University of Vermont research team used geo-tagged social media images to measure the use and value of outdoor recreation on public lands. The study analyzed more than 7,000 images, calculating that conserved lands contributed $1.8 billion to Vermont’s tourism industry between 2007-2014. The team developed criteria that drives the use of conserved lands and they discovered that there were differences in use between in-state and out-of-state visitors. For example out-of-state tourists preferred locations with easy access to clean water and swimming. The study indicates how important it is to understand the dynamics of ecosystems in conservation.

Although the idea of using this kind of research to collect data on the value of outdoor recreation is exciting, what’s even more fascinating are the ways social media can impact the public’s perception of any landscape and its perceived value worth visiting and protecting.

The poppy covered hillsides of Lake Elsinore were populated as one might expect. The entrances and even the slopes directly adjacent to the interstate were filled with tourists from all over the world. You had to hike further to see the pro hiking gear and safari hat wearing local nature lovers in their element. Temporary accommodations were set up and there were volunteers everywhere. Clearly these parks do not usually see this kind of traffic.

Photo by Alex Reed

A friend of mine in Illinois uses Instagram to track seasonal morel mushroom sightings as they creep up from the south. Similarly, based on the tagged location and time of posted images on Instagram, I could predict when the poppies were fully opened and the quality of light I could expect to see. A quick #californiapoppy and #superbloom search had led me to all the hot spots. As overwhelming as the crowds were, I was pleased to see the masses appreciating the beauty of the landscape (with a little selfie-love in the mix). It will be interesting to continue to observe the intersection of social media and landscape value as the two continue to weave together.

A few related links for your superbloom flower expeditions:
• How to Shoot Epic Landscape Selfies – 6 Top Tips
• 10 Tips For Stunning iPhone Flower Photography
• 7 times selfies and nature didn’t mix
• Spatial and Temporal Dynamics and Value of Nature-Based Recreation, Estimated via Social Media

During a trip to Sequoia National Park a few months ago, I spent some time in Exeter, a small Californian town located in the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Tulare County. The changing landscapes surrounding the town already inspired thoughts about the area in pre and post European settlement times, the history of the railroad in the west, commercial agricultural practices, and water use. But Exeter’s 28 murals downtown – each illustrating the changing relationships with the landscape from the town’s settlement to the present – really underlined this relationship between land and community. These murals are worth checking out: curated historical California fun for the whole family. The past follows visitors everywhere, literally around every corner in the town of Exeter.

All photos by Jessica Roberts.

All photos by Jessica Roberts.

The mural above depicts the Visalia Electric Railroad in Exeter in 1915 and 1945; it was painted in 2001 by artists Michael Stanford, Yuri Somov, and Matt Hemsworth. The Visalia Railroad Company was incorporated in 1874, and by 1898 the rails had been extended south from Visalia to Southern Pacific’s East Side Line at Exeter.

In the early 1880’s hydroelectric power from the Kaweah River – about 15 miles north of Exeter – was being promoted, and an electric inter-urban railroad was proposed for Tulare County. In 1904 the Visalia Electric Railroad Company was incorporated. The rail transported mostly oranges but also plums, peaches, lemons, grapes, and dairy. With the convenience of shipping and the accessibility to water resources, more land was converted from natural planes to cattle, dairy, and fruit tree production.


A mural around the corner painted by Colleen Mitchell-Veyna and Morgan McCall in 1996, depicting a scene of orange pickers in the 1930s. As I drove out of the town center I thought about this image, about the character of the landscape that had taken on for over a century. An overlay of past and present was easy to imagine.


With the increase of automobiles the railway lines popularity declined, and passenger use was discontinued by 1924. By the 1940’s freight service was in decline, even with the increase of produce production in the area, and continued to do so with the increasing use of trucks for moving goods. The last shipment was in 1990 and the rail was abandoned 1992, 9 years before the mural to commemorate the history of the rail was painted.

A 20 minute drive northeast brought us to Kaweah Lake, the source of the hydroelectric power that once transported and connected passengers and goods in Tulare Country. The water levels were noticeably low, and there was a light mist in the air. I wish I had an image of the lake now, after a few months with heavy and historic winter rain, for comparison.


I returned from this trip wondering how high-speed rail and long-term drought conditions might transform the use of the land and the interurban connections of goods and people today. When will future developments of Exeter be archived and interpreted on the streets of the downtown (hopefully in mural form too), and what version of the past will be deemed worthy of capturing for posterity?



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.


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.


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…)


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.


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”.



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.”