It was 1991 when an emerging concept took hold amongst landscape architects and designers – one that began to describe a new landscape typology: Xeriscape. It was an idea discussed amongst the environmental community in the 1980s, a term coined by Nancy Leavitt, a Denver Water Board member in 1981. Leavitt coined the new typology after completing a water conserving demonstration garden, and its use is still prevalent today.
During the 1980s xeriscaping grew in popularity along the West Coast, including Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California, states where drought became an important public concern. Back then, xeriscaping was still a new idea to most Southern Californians, with many people thinking of it as a novel approach, but also a “good idea for someone else’s yard, but not mine”. The public at that time believed this landscape design approach was just another typology, much like an English or Japanese garden…another aesthetic genre designers could draw upon for inspiration.
It was during this period in the 1980s that I began to question this term of xeriscape as a landscape typology. Because I was influence by a few contemporary practitioners and professors, namely Ian McHarg, Carl Steinitz, and our local hero Professor John Lyle, I began to question this limited view of landscape within our profession. I wanted to test the term of xeriscape, not as a typology, but as a contextual way of think about design and planning. I began to ask questions like, “How does the broader designed landscape transform to one where no water is needed?” and, “Is it possible to shift the public’s perception of the traditional green lawn to a dry landscape?”
Exploring these boundaries was a kind of a personal quest. I wanted to understand how this idea could influence the formal aspect of design, the spatial qualities, and the human experience of this type of landscape.
As an exploratory project, we were commissioned to design the landscape for the US Borax Headquarters in Santa Clarita. I recall the questions I posed to the client during an initial kick-off meeting: “What would a landscape be like if we didn’t need potable irrigation water?” “Could this idea of no potable water be expressed in a deliberate and artful way?” And, “Could this idea express the corporate aspirations?” The discussion/responses ranged from, “No way!” to “Why not?”
In the end we were to have a British CEO, one who shared a love of both the garden and landscape. He said, “Why not create a landscape that was appropriate to our regional climate”, at a time before the term “sustainability” was in widely even known amongst the public.
Well, the project was built, and we successfully accomplished most of our objectives. And even though it was 100% irrigation free, we introduced native grasses and drought tolerant shrubs and trees that would thrive with a modest amount of water. We even created a corporate theme garden called “Garden of Twenty” which paid homage to their history of the “20-Mule Team”.
We were all excited about conceptualizing a unique approach and having it built. Praise for the project afterward arrived from the City of Santa Clarita, the nearby Art Institute, and the media. It was happy times for about six months…until I received a personal call from the CEO of US Borax.
Of course, my first instinct was believing we were in trouble and that we had done something wrong. With an apologetic voice, the CEO was actually calling to inform us he had just received a petition signed by nearly 500 employees stating that they did not like the native grass and the dry landscape planted on headquarters ground. They demanded it be changed. I was stunned.
I had just recently visited the site and noted the gardens were beautiful, performing just as designed. He said he was going to remove about 2 acres of native grass and replace it with the ubiquitous status quo: a lawn. He also asked if I could help him with the plans in making the transitions, inviting an awkward moment of silence. I said I would need to think about it. All the while, I was thinking to myself, “How can I do this given the integrity of the idea revolved around eliminating the lawn to conserve water?”
That night I spoke to my wife and shared my experience about the call. Her response was, “He is your client and you have to do what he’s asked”. I called the CEO back the next day and told him we would take care of it. I never went back to the project again.
This experience taught me a great lesson about cultural attitudes, values, and preconceptions about the nature of landscape. It also taught me how ingrained the ubiquitous American lawn is imbedded in our national consciousness of how we define landscape.
Much has changed since 1991. Although I believe the environmental paradigm has changed, there are still more battles to be done in our common consciousness about the future of sustainability.