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It’s not me, it’s you: Californians are breaking up with their lawns

The ongoing drought gives residents a chance to demonstrate creativity and self-expression in landscape choices, since it’s not easy being green

Drought Tolerant
USC faculty member Esther Margulies says we're lucky to have such a wide range of plants that can grow in California. (Photo/Dry Gardens)

It took nothing short of a natural disaster — the worst drought in more than 1,200 years — to get California to take a stand against something as all-American as green lawns.

Because lawns consume massive amounts of water, the Department of Water and Power asked Californians to consider native and drought-resistant alternatives. Officials offered rebates for turf removal at $2 per square foot, often supplemented by localized rebate programs. In Los Angeles, 2,600 residents and nearly 60 companies have ripped out their lawns so far.

And on April 1, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an ordinance calling for the additional removal of 50 million square feet of lawn throughout the state.

Brown’s proposal would all but ban grass around new commercial, industrial and institutional buildings and allow only about 25 percent around private residences. These changes, which could take effect by Dec. 1, could signal a significant shift in how Californians think about their yards.

That shift would be a welcome change to landscape architects like Esther Margulies, a USC School of Architecture lecturer who has been designing residential landscapes in Los Angeles for more than 25 years.

“The water crisis is really an opportunity to leave behind the conformity of Levittown for more creativity and self-expression in our landscape choices,” she said.

A symbol of the American Dream

“Levittown” refers to the homogeneous planned communities built by Abraham Levitt and his sons in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Marketed as the “new form of American living,” the modest, mass-produced homes with identical grass lawns became the domestic symbol of the American Dream.

Homeowners received informational pamphlets about lawn maintenance, with tips about how to keep it green and weed-free. While lawns had been popular in England since Tudor times, they were usually found only on large estates. In Levittown they were cut into affordable quarter-acre slices. As Levittown-like developments spread throughout the country, grass lawns became the gold standard of suburban utopia.

To Margulies, the cookie-cutter aesthetic of meticulously tended lawns has always been at odds with the personality — not to mention the climate — of Los Angeles.

People come here looking for a different existence.

Esther Margulies

“People come here looking for a different existence,” she said, “for creativity, non-conformity and freedom of expression.”

Recently she’s noticed “an absolute explosion of creative landscaping” in her Venice neighborhood and adjacent Mar Vista. Non-native turf has been replaced with drought-tolerant alternatives — buffalo grass, silvery salvias and lavender, colorful succulents and permeable pathways of stone, mulch or decorative gravel.

“We’re so lucky,” she said, “to have such a range of plants that we can grow here.”

Sustainable landscapes

According to Andrew Basmajian, communications director of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, sustainable landscapes are also easier to maintain.

“Plants are much happier when they live in the appropriate climate zone,” he said. “Imagine how you’d feel showing up in Palm Springs in a down coat and Ugg boots.” Among the benefits: “Mow and blow goes away, there’s no seasonal waste, they don’t invite pests and water use drops by a minimum of 60 percent,” he said.

So what does the future hold for those of us who can’t let go of our suburban ideal, complete with our own small plot of grass?

“If your dream is endless rolling lawns,” Margulies said, “you should consider leaving California.”

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It’s not me, it’s you: Californians are breaking up with their lawns

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