Posted on | June 4, 2012 | 10 Comments
UPDATED Many of the same people whose passion and stamina forced Los Angeles City Council to adapt a low-water garden for City Hall are now campaigning for Phase Two stops of the city’s Expo Light Rail Line to be landscaped with native plants. Their movement, called LANative, has a website, a petition, and, most recently, support from an impassioned article in the Huffington Post.
Fellow travelers in the native plant movement, forgive me, but I can’t sing with the choir on this one. I can’t see how most of the powerful arguments for natives at City Hall to do with water efficiency, beauty, sense of place, pollinator benefit, run-off capture, leading by example etc. necessarily apply to a railway, which is less a garden setting than a fierce border twixt track and asphalt, steel and concrete.
In fact, as Phase Two of Expo Line construction presses forward, the most logical question might be: Why landscape around trains at all?
The Huffington Post column extols the beauty of native sages, toyons, fuchsias and bunch grasses. They are lovely landscape plants, yes. Think of the pollinators, it urges. Always a pleasure to picture birds, butterflies and bees. Funnily enough, years ago, observing a Volvo mow down a swallowtail was what first seeded now-rooted skepticism about use of any nectar- or seed- or berry- producing plant in a high traffic area. Isn’t using natives in the treacherous medians between trains and roads the horticultural equivalent of putting an ice cream truck in the middle of a freeway?
The Expo setting combines the worst aspects of traffic medians with all the problems of foundation planting, a style of landscaping where shrubs and trees are jammed up against structures and descending open space is given over to lawn or paving. As the best kind of Mediterranean landscaping teaches us, the exact opposite arrangement should be pursued. Structures should be kept free of plants, water, weeds etc and shrubs and trees should be massed away from buildings in enough open space for their water, roots and branches not to be an obstacle or even contributor to structural decay. This also prevents planting from becoming fire hazards and trash pockets and makes for more efficient, less heat-stressed irrigation. Wildlife benefit by not being constricted to heat-blasted spaces often narrower than an IKEA wardrobe. In the case of rail lines, planting done to buffer noise should be done across the street from stations. Shade for stations themselves should come from built shelters, ideally covered with solar panels.
Watching the argument over the Expo Line landscaping play out is fascinating on a second level. It offers a near-perfect snapshot of one of LA’s most abiding culture wars between conventional and native landscapers. I’ve met hundreds of native plant enthusiasts over the years on the Theodore Payne Foundation tours. I myself am one. Usually we are home gardeners, nursery owners or landscape designers. Invariably our lives have been transformed by switching from lawn to native wonderlands vibrant with wildlife. Our water bills are half that of a conventional family. We do not torture our neighbors with mowers and blowers. The best of us are not just environmentalists, we are also artists. We fill LA up with flowers, scent and color. And, as if it needs mentioning, we’re quite often smug.
At the other end of the spectrum from the native plant community, which will no doubt feel betrayed by this, we have the conventional facilities industry that has clearly done the Expo landscaping so far. They garden with lawn and exotic trees and shrubs. They come bearing sprinklers and mowers. They’re high-carbon, high-noise, high-water types who make environmentalists like me despair. And along the Expo Line so far, they’ve done what they always do: Use ghastly little pockets of grass, hedges and exotic trees to fluff out unlikely spaces.
To my eye, when it comes to the Expo Light Rail Line debate, both sides are showing their weakest hands. The call for use of sages, toyon, grass and fuchsia shows no awareness about context, or animal welfare, maintenance, fire resistance and ease of litter-picking. Beyond pollinators being lured to squash and splatter zones, what about the large and vulnerable populations of feral mammals forced to take refuge in ever more perilous ribbons of un-buzzed greenery? Human safety doesn’t seem to figure, either. Would anyone want to be on a rail carriage when a spark hit a dry stand of bunch grass? How could maintenance crews get to the tracks for quick repairs? Who will litter-pick among the dense foliage? Where are the skilled gardeners needed to tend these plants?
To judge by what the conventional landscapers have done so far, they know even less about trains than they do about horticulture. Flick through a slide show of stations already greened up around the edges and you have a dictionary of how to waste water, energy and time on unsafe plant choices. As someone who spent two decades commuting on the London Hammersmith Line, I can assure Angelenos that “leaves on the track” is not announced to commuters because the leaves look pretty. Here in LA, it takes only mild gusts to turn palm-lined streets into bone-yards of huge, jagged, hard fronds. Fronds on the track will be no joke. And there clearly will be fronds on the tracks. As for the irrigating and weeding of those awful little beds, why? If you’re having nervous decorative impulses to soften a harsh urban setting, why not use sculpture? Something that doesn’t need watering, weeding and pruning?
Our failure to use and celebrate the indigenous flora extolled by LANative in the parks and open spaces where it belongs has left the region the horticultural equivalent of a city with more tourists than residents. We’ve all heard the expression, “there’s no there there.” In Los Angeles landscaping, the problem is that there’s no here here. The native movement is so desperate to change that, it’s fighting for marginal spaces with what in the Expo Line case is a marginal argument. But if plants must be made to endure inhospitable and unnatural beds between roads and rails, the choice should be parsed very carefully. It should be an ebullient salute to the great moment for LA when 21st century public rail transport pierced the East-West divide. It should be safe, regionally appropriate, low-maintenance and, above all, beautiful.
*The Expo Board of Directors will be meeting in Room 381B at Los Angeles County Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administra
UPDATE: 6/5/2012: the passage about foundation planting and link explaining the lawn-centric style of planting that undermines thinking about LA landscaping was added, along with more photos.