Posted on | April 18, 2010 | 11 Comments
Interviewing Richard Schulhof should have been simple, a rote exercise of announcing that the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden has a new Chief Executive Officer, imparting a few quotes as to his plans, then wrapping it up with a time-will-tell remark. That’s the approach that I took six years ago, when the last CEO arrived.
It was about as successful as the last CEO, who in 2008 left the place much as he found it — an Arcadia picnic ground full of exotic plants and free-ranging peafowl.
The recent decision to interview the Titanic’s, excuse me, the Arboretum’s new CEO was a reluctant one. In fact, it was made only after Schulhof gamely responded to a dismissive reference on this site to the effect that the Arboretum’s 127 acres are a monument to the gardenesque philosophy that is draining our water supply.
“I thank you for throwing the gauntlet!” Schulhof wrote back in February. “We look forward to enriching those picnics with peacocks, and are making steady progress with new programs focused on permaculture, and the best of adapted plants for Southern California.”
I don’t recall having said anything about the want of permaculture programs, but he invited me out there, I went, and, last week, the resulting interview appeared in my column in the Los Angeles Times. It being an interview, it was fitting that he did most of the talking. He has nice ideas, which I hope were recounted respectfully. But since one of the things that he emphasized was that he is in listening mode, it would be remiss not to thank him by also giving him an earful.
As for the emerging permaculture program, it was all very nice to be shown a strange little corner with burrows, berms and folklorique cordage, but my criticisms weren’t about failure of the Arboretum to let hippies have a patch in which to play in the dirt. They were about water.
Crisis is upon us. During the six years that it took the Arboretum to chew up and spit out its last CEO, shortage has gripped all three of our main water sources, cutting supplies from the Colorado River, San Francisco Bay-Delta and Owens Valley.
Meanwhile, greater Los Angeles has been burning through its reserve water supply at such an alarming rate that it has the unhappy distinction of featuring in National Geographic’s April issue dedicated to international water disaster hotspots.
Our squandering of emergency reserves is in no small part down to the region’s utterly inappropriate landscaping, the tone of which was set (pre-Schulhof) by the Arboretum. Roughly half of our water consumption occurs out of doors.
If the Arboretum is to be part of a solution, instead of a driver of the problem, it must revisit its mission statement. Whatever “our mission is to cultivate our natural, horticultural and historic resources for learning, enjoyment and inspiration” means, the successive statement needs more than a pass through spell check. “We strive to reflect Southern California’s distinct climate, community and opennes [sic] to new ideas.”
Here’s an idea. Wake up.
While the impending water crisis is so acute that the region’s water suppliers are paying residents to rip out lawn, the Arboretum is leaving the challenge of coming up with new landscape models to non-profits and activists such as our local watershed council, native plant society, TreePeople, Northeast Trees, the Theodore Payne Foundation, Heal the Bay and Greywater Guerrillas.
This is not to condemn the Arb’s nice, oh so nice, current approach to education. Why not teach botanical drawing and gentle exercise for seniors? Bend away! Draw that calla lily! Let the hippies dig in their corner. Make your meadow. Do a Korean garden (great idea). But don’t ask us to believe this is all you can do as we are imploding under the weight of our fresh water budget and the Pacific is dying from run-off of the pesticide and fertilizer-enhanced irrigation that we spill.
1. Given your county connection, think of public solutions for public places. Do for landscaping principles what you did for plants. Test them. Address turf substitutes for medians, parkways and every odd irrigated corner whose sprinklers fill our gutters with dry season run-off.
While we clearly need trees to counteract urban heat island effect, do we really need herbaceous ground-covers around them on medians and parkways? What benefit do they confer other than drawing pollinators into traffic and costing local governments a fortune in watering, mowing and maintenance?
Don’t have a conference on how others should do this, then send confused attendees on their way. Build small scale models of alternatives at the Arboretum. Offer clear breakdowns of construction costs juxtaposed to the water and maintenance savings that they would confer over time. Then hold the conference. Involve municipal facilities staff, not designers. Call in the actual workers who take care of these forlorn patches lining our streets and institutions, involve them, get them so excited that they ignite.
2. Create a greywater garden where Arboretum visitors can see for themselves what plants thrive on reclaimed water and see how to install simple grey water systems, either at institutions or at home.
3. Create sample rain water-trapping demonstration gardens, then offer expert advice on how they can be adapted for homes, schools and public institutions.
4. Work with the county and local cities to change out their existing public gardens and parks for new ones that promote a conservation ethos. Even City Hall and the substations of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are surrounded by turf. This existing approach is the horticultural equivalent of smoking a cigarette while urging others to quit. To change it, you have to quit yourself. Demand ideas for a new, appropriate landscaping vernacular. Then develop small gardens at the Arboretum where you test the best schemes. Then popularize the ones that work.
5. Get involved with the Facilities department of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The second-largest school district in the country has more than 700 campuses that waste amazing amounts of water on unlikely, badly managed blobs of green while still coming across as such prisons that nobody who could afford otherwise would want to teach there, never mind enroll their kid.
6. Stop imagining that conservation is the remit of somebody else. It’s down to all of us, the most powerful first. Every public institution must become a flagship for it, or we’re all gong to become emblems of waste.
7. Stop whining about the ravages of Proposition 13. It may have been foolhardy but more than 30 years later, your inertia is to blame, not a stupid initiative. Set goals of savings of 20% of water every year for 10 years. We waste so much that this is actually achievable. Do it and let us copy you. The money that you save on water and maintenance should pay for your program and more.
You’re a nice man, Richard Schulhof. You’re smart. You’re optimistic. You’re new. And, not to put too much pressure on you, if you fail, we all do. So don’t fuck it up.
* This post has been updated. Links have been added.