Posts by Katherine Montgomery

Hill St and 5th Street (Creative Commons photo via Wikipedia)

As Los Angeles has evolved over the last 150 years, so has its ecology. Once a pristine mixture of ecotones, including chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and annual grasslands, it is now dominated by a naturalized urban forest and a blanket of concrete. Humans have introduced a variety of fantasy landscapes from faux-tropical paradises to Midwestern suburbs, and created the layered, modified landscape we are all familiar with today.

As Los Angeles has become the densest city in the United States, it has maintained its status as a biodiversity hotspot due in part to these complex microclimates and its location in the western hemisphere migration. However, development of the city has led to a critical loss of open space threatening flora and fauna diversity. Recognizing this issue, members of the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion last year to support biodiversity. City agencies have since come together to develop a biodiversity plan, starting with an index of existing ecology and leading to implementing policy and action. The index, presented at the end of April by the Bureau of Sanitation, is based on the Singapore Index.  It quantifies indicators of ecological health such as natural areas, pervious surfaces, urban forest canopy, and native birds in built areas. By evaluating these criteria, they hope to support both ecological and human health in Los Angeles.

It is necessary to understand the impacts of historical and current land use changes caused by humans. By replacing open space with buildings and infrastructure, we are removing the benefits provided by soil, water infiltration, tree canopy, and wildlife. Los Angeles’ signature sprawl, which admittedly has its own issues, has also allowed for a complex patchwork of open spaces from private yards to the sides of freeways to vacant lots. These spaces play an important role in the ecology of the city, but are being lost to urban infill.

In the course of the city’s history, green open space and tree canopy have favored the white and wealthy.  Poor and working class neighborhoods of color are still tremendously lacking in tree canopy and parks, and these ecological deserts create physical and mental health disparities. By focusing on improving biodiversity especially in these communities, habitat becomes an issue of environmental social justice. But establishing a value for biodiversity and native ecology, without monetizing these life essentials, is difficult. How can the city evolve to support population growth, a healthy ecology, and environmental equality?

This Yellow Breasted Chat was seen in Downtown LA under a large field of reflective windows, an assumed victim of the urban ecosystem. If we seek to increase bird populations in the city, we must be sensitive to how design affects them. Photo by Katherine Montgomery

While we cannot restore all species to their pre-1850 populations, we can better support those that have adapted to urban spaces, and lure back some that might be able to adapt. The presentation at the Bureau of Sanitiation last month was titled “Conserving Biodiversity when Land is Developed” and several presenters discussed the varied methods of considering how non-humans use our shared space. The presentation focused mainly on birds as indicator species for overall habitat health.  Los Angeles is the “birdiest” county in the United States, with 527 recorded species.  The birds have complex seasonal roles, using our region for wintering, breeding, as a stop-over, or a year-round home. Some require large contiguous areas of open space while some are happy in urban fragments. Scientists are currently studying bird habits and the connections between them, plant species, and insects. This important information will then guide policy as well as design of open spaces to support those complex avifauna behaviors.

The 2018 Biodiversity Report is the start of a very important conversation that landscape architects will play a huge role in. As we work on commercial, residential, and civic developments, we can advocate for design that values natural systems and their performance benefits. One of our greatest influences is in the design of schools, introducing kids to nature as early as possible. The city must also institute policies that support a diverse density and not just a capitalist drive towards development. An interdisciplinary approach, using engineering, green infrastructure, policy and cultural awareness will enable Los Angeles to thrive in a changing climate and evolve into a healthy city for humans and wildlife.

Photo: Katherine Montgomery

One of the reasons I love Los Angeles is its blurred line between urban and wild life. Hawks are often sighted soaring above the 101 freeway, and P-22, our Griffith Park resident mountain lion, has become a new kind of Hollywood celebrity. It is easy to champion these interspecies citizens from a distance, but we must also support their habitat as part of our community.

Living so close to wildlife is becoming unavoidable as humans encroach more and more upon their territory. I have encountered many coyotes on my early morning runs through Highland Park. A friend of mine just posted a video of a bear in his neighbor’s pool in Altadena. We’ve all seen the video of the mountain lion in a Los Feliz basement. These animals are charming, but they are also doing their best to live in altered and often hostile environments. As landscape architects and planners, it is our job to assess the impact of our proximity, and adjust our designs and methods to support coexistence.

Last weekend during an afternoon walk, my husband and I crossed paths with a coyote suffering from a serious case of mange. He was thin and disoriented, with barely any hair. A neighbor said he had already called the city wildlife hotline. Concerned about the coyote’s fate, I also called and was told he would be caught and euthanized. One more phone call to the California Wildlife Center, and I learned I could email their vet and request a dead, medicated mouse to leave for the coyote. With one to several treatments, he could be cured of the mange. Unfortunately, the city captured him first.

In the last few years, there has been increasing research on the link between wildlife mange and rodenticides. Even P-22 has suffered the negative effects of rodenticide. Many animals along the food chain are natural rodent predators, including mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, as well as owls and hawks. All of these animals are poisoned second-hand when they eat poisoned rats, mice, or rabbits.

This month AB-2242 – a bill banning all anticoagulant first and second generation rodenticides in California – will be moved forward to the Committee of Water, Parks, and Wildlife for approval. You can submit a public comment by April 23 by following the directions on the Project Coyote website. This bill is also supported by RATS (Raptors Are The Solution) and Poison Free Malibu. Much like the historic ban on DDT that saved the bald eagle, this movement has the potential to save California’s iconic wildlife

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All photos: Katherine Montgomery

I cannot remember the first time I saw a monarch butterfly, nor can I recollect exactly when my mom planted milkweed in our backyard. But there are photos of me holding recently hatched monarchs dangling on my hair.

As a kid, I probably misread their docility and fatigue from metamorphosing for affection, adoring the opportunity to be so close to something I would otherwise never be able to grasp. My mom’s decision to lure and then raise monarchs stemmed from her own love of nature and wanting to share it with both of her kids, alongside her 5th grade students. She planted milkweed at home and at the urban schools where she taught, leaving a trail for the monarchs to find. We had numerous seasons of caterpillars eating, pupating, hatching, and flying away. The experience instilled in me a sense of wonder and scientific curiosity.

I recall seeing monarchs regularly enough to assume their permanence in the world. However, the last 20 years has seen an 80% decline in their populations, and their annual migration is now threatened. This decline is due to several causes, but mostly related to habitat loss. Native milkweed once filled the spaces along roadsides and in corn fields across North America, but these nodes of habitat have disappeared with the rise of agricultural herbicides like glyphosate (found in Roundup). Also, those attempting to aid monarch butterflies by planting non-native milkweed in their yards have only exacerbated the problem. The widely available milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, or Tropical Milkweed, found at big box stores or garden centers around the country hosts a parasite that transfers to the caterpillar as it eats the plant, infecting the monarch into adulthood. I grew up with Tropical Milkweed too, before becoming aware of the importance of regional species to their lifecycle.

Monarch migration is one of the wonders of our world. The butterflies, usually 3-4 generations removed from those who migrated north, innately know to fly across North America to a specific location in southern Mexico to mate. The typical lifespan of a butterfly is only 4-6 weeks, but those that overwinter in Mexico live 6-7 months. The females fly north again to lay their eggs, while the males die happily after completing their duty, littering the forest floor orange. The succeeding generations of monarchs make their way as far north as Canada before repeating the cycle.

Last fall, my garden was host to a handful of monarch caterpillars. I spotted the first tiny pearlescent egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. Once hatched, I watched as the hatchlings fattened themselves over the course of a couple weeks. Overnight they disappeared, and I began hunting around the yard for their green, bejeweled chrysalises. One hung gracefully from the arm of an Aloe marlothii, and another nestled into the concave leaf of an Aloe vera right next to my front door. A few attached themselves to small buckwheat branches. I brought one of these in a jar to work, where my coworkers and I excitedly waited for the chrysalis to turn dark, and then clear when it would reveal its black and orange wings folded inside.

Concerned the butterfly might emerge over the weekend, I decided to take it home. During the Metro ride back home I held the jar gingerly, trying to soften the bumps of the train. A wide cross-section of passengers ended up asking what I was cradling – from teenagers to Spanish-speaking older men – each wanting to connect with the tiny bit of nature within my jar. Once they knew it was a monarch butterfly, their faces registered I was transporting something special. Thus, a subway ride became an opportunity for conversations about bugs, ecology, and the environment.

A monarch egg (left) and young caterpillar (right).

The green and gold chrysalis transforms to clear a day or two before the butterfly hatches.

The butterfly emerges with a large abdomen full of liquid which is pumped into its wrinkled wings. It lingers several hours before having the energy to fly away.

Monarch butterflies’ orange and black wings are immediately recognizable, traditionally associated with spring, rebirth, resurrection, and more recently, as symbols of strength and resilience. They are also a sentinel species, warning us about health threats within a particular ecosystem or habitat. If we don’t address overuse of herbicides, pesticides, and abuse of our lands, we will lose the monarch and harm ourselves. The monarch butterfly is more than just a visual icon; these charismatic creatures can also prompt larger conversations about ecosystems, food sources, and the economy. One small critter can lead to educating the public on a variety of world issues.

The Asclepias fasciculatum (narrow-leaf milkweed) in my garden is just beginning to rebound after some winter dormancy. I am hoping my patch of California native milkweed will lure more monarchs this year, permitting me the opportunity to share the wondrous experience again with as many people as I can, just as my mom once did for me.

The bright orange of monarch butterflies disappear like the thin edge of a slip of paper until their wings fold up or open, changing dimension while pausing on a leaf or flower.

As designers with our hands in the landscape, it is our responsibility to support populations like the monarchs, and build habitat into the urban context. These nodes, however small, support a much larger system, providing important moments of connection with the bigger picture, even if just for a moment on a subway ride.

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Zanja Madre; All photos by Katherine Montgomery

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA currently presents visitors with a false archaeological site, one populated with carefully arranged pieces of frozen trash, petrified wood, and stratified concrete and resin columns evoking geologic core samples. The assemblage of objects are the work of Argentine artist Adrian Villar Rojas, part of an installation situated in a large, dark hall split by a series of bright blue walls, an environment capable of inducing a sense of feeling both underwater and underground at the same time.

Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York /Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé

More than the physical objects, Rojas’ “Theater of Disappearance” is conceptually intriguing. In conjunction with the exhibit, I attended a lecture by Los Angeles-based writer Normal Klein, whose exploration of the city as ruin touched upon several ideas I have been mulling over for a while. Klein’s presentation was guided by Google image searches, a source which he referred to as the “Brain”. Klein used photos of historic and recreated ruins as reference to ask why we give weight and meaning to remnants of the past. Klein suggests ruins provide a sense of comfort, a visual memory, and a depth to the otherwise shallow present. The discussion eventually turned towards city planning and historic preservation of functional architecture, but I was left more interested of the idea of incorporating obsolete structures into the landscape as totems, activated by what Klein called the “dissolving present”.

Los Angeles is a constantly evolving city only now slowly learning to value its past. A see-saw process of older structures being torn down for the erection of new condos is perpetually unfolding, rendering some streets unrecognizable in short time – a “Theater of Disappearance”. But Los Angeles – while often seen as a city lacking in history – does harbor historical depth, one as engaging as any older civilization: fascinating ruins such as the Belmont Tunnel, Murphy Ranch, Echo Mountain, and even abandoned oil derricks all remain integral to the city’s rich landscape and history.

Klein’s discussion sparked more thoughts about remnants than ruins – objects, instead of buildings or infrastructure. How can they can be integrated into a designed landscape without being a simple memorial? How do physical relics affect our connection to a space, and how can we use them to create more dynamic landscapes?

When the Blossom Plaza was being built on the site of Little Joe’s Italian Restaurant in Chinatown, the construction team discovered a brick water pipe dated to the very beginnings of Los Angeles. The water conducting pipe was laid into an even older ditch, or Zanja Madre as it was called, a conduit once responsible for connecting the early city to the Los Angeles River. A piece of the pipe is now tucked into a small corner of the LA State Historic Park, with the Metro Gold Line tracks separating access between it and the public. It’s hard to tell if its location was meant to keep it safe, or simply keep it hidden until a better situation is decided. Should it be left to erode into the landscape, left underground in its original place, or placed in a protected environment? In any case, its current state is not ideal.

The 6th Street Bridge, Los Angeles.

The design for the new 6th Street Viaduct and adjacent park will incorporate one of the iron arches of the iconic 6th Street Bridge, which was demolished this past year. The city even handed out chunks of the bridge’s concrete with a certificate of authenticity so people could have their own personal remnant. The 6th Street Bridge was a central figure in the culture of Boyle Heights, and the neighborhood mourned its demolition with a few final, illegal cruises right before it was dismantled. Incorporating a physical piece of it into the park below is a small token gesture to its vibrant past. I am curious to see how it will be used. How will visitors be able to engage with it? Will they people able to walk through it, touch it, or park their old low-rider in front of it for pictures?

An example of an “accidental totem”.

It was a few months ago while hiking around the Hahamonga Wash a few months ago I took this photo of a concrete wall. The man-made interplay of movement and light within a very wild context offers an ideal backdrop for plants and their shadows. Much of my own interest in landscape revolves around ecology – I like systems with a purpose, that work, and support a larger purpose. I often focus solely on the world of nature, but I also love seeing the interaction between humans and nature. This remnant of some forgotten infrastructure is now enveloped by plants, resembling a piece in a sculpture garden, an accidental totem layered into the landscape.

Which leaves the question: At what point does a remnant of the past become art?

The “Theater of Disappearance” touched upon these ideas, sparking conversation about how LA’s landscape architects can use to better design within the context of our history. As we design landscapes, these elements of the past are capable of telling a complex story, one rich with historic context to the present and a physical connection to the past, imploring us to ask questions like, “Who else has touched these bricks?” or “Why is this here?”

I prefer we continue to use these elements in the landscape – objects activated by humans and nature permitted to grow, decay, and move – rather than leave them to stagnate forgotten or in a museum. Their presence honors the collective memory of a place.

Photos: Katherine Montgomery

Witnessing the enormous wildfires scarring large stretches of California a few months ago, followed by the subsequent mudslides, it’s been difficult to see past the very real threat of nature. Lively green hillsides became charred and empty, and rain has made them destructive. I’ve struggled with mounting questions related to what these threats mean for life in California moving forward.

It’s well documented chaparral plant species have evolved with wildfires, sometimes requiring the burn to regenerate. The California Chaparral Institute has championed this unique ecosystem. Their articles have helped me better understand the chaparral; I now bristle when our native habitat is referred to as ‘overgrowth’ or ‘fuel’. However, the increased frequency and scale of recent fires – caused by humans – exceed what chaparral has evolved to withstand. The California Invasive Plant Council has also researched the correlation between wildfires and invasive species. Can these ecosystems adapt at a reasonable pace, or will they need to be managed?

Birds act as indicators of a landscape’s health. After the Thomas Fire, birders congregated for their annual Christmas Bird Count where they found a surprising amount of avian diversity, if not quantity, had returned to the depleted but regenerating landscape. For immediate survival birds are able to fly away from a fire. These observations left me wondering how much resiliency can be designed, and at what point do humans just need to get out of the way?

Since September, I’ve returned to hike through La Tuna Canyon. Along the canyon’s trails I’ve seen life begin to spring back from under the surface, giving me reason to reflect on survival and grit. Plants shielding themselves from death, their cells evolving to survive extreme heat, or seeds requiring fire to propagate – it’s reassuring to see nature’s resilience in person and consider how to best to mimic it.

I’ve found myself returning to the pages of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature again. I’m digging further into how others process the cycle of destruction and regeneration. Articles by experts – naturalists, engineers, birders, landscape architects, etc. – vacillate between managing the wildness and keeping a safe distance from it. As wildfires become more extreme and frequent, and as the boundaries between nature and city blur, how can we as designers protect habitat for both wildlife and humans?