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Billy’s Lament to Santa Barbara’s Parks
updated: Dec 18, 2010, 10:15 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Good thing I saw the cute pink Vespa in my rear view mirror or I would have locked up the brakes. I had just driven past a new landscape installation by the City of Santa Barbara and even at 24 miles an hour I knew something was wrong.

The good news was I'd solved my bi-weekly Edhat dilemma, "What the *#%$ am I going to write about THIS time?" Once again, something to snark about.

I parked, approached on foot and took it all in - too visually "noisy", too crowded with plants that will get really big, too stylistically disconnected from the building… That was just my warm-up.

My first instinct was to launch another diatribe in my Crimes Against Horticulture campaign. But what if I'm off base? What if I'm just being an ass?

So I emailed some of my more levelheaded, cucumber cool landscape designer friends, asking them to visit the landscape. I thought they'd recommend that I chill out and take my meds. Nah, they all agreed with me.

So big deal. It's not the end of the world that someone planted a bad landscape, but this is a symptom of a bigger problem I've been meaning to write about for a few years. This time, the scale tipped, so I'm putting it in words.

What's Wrong?

I can't find anyone in particular to blame. It's a perfect storm wrought by the confluence of many factors: "the economy", well-intentioned environmentalists, complacency, and a gaping blank spot in the city of Santa Barbara's org chart.

Ask most people and you'll hear high praise for Santa Barbara's parks. They're picturing the confetti of water lilies at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, the billion-dollar island views from the bluffs of Shoreline Park, the idyllic hiking trails through chaparral.

But let your gaze linger a moment and you'll see the gradual surrender of what were once robust beds of beautiful plants from around the world, the inevitable onslaught of zombie weeds, shrubs expediently meatballed to save time, and Dr. Franceschi's inspired botanical collection fading on the hillside.

FACTOR 1: No Money, Honey

How did we get here? Money is a big factor. In budget cycle after budget cycle, P&R has been bled dry while at the same time taking on more responsibility. High maintenance facilities like Skater's Point, the Chase Palm Park expansion, and the new, but soon to be dead, planters along the Cabrillo Arts and Craft Show keep coming on line, while maintenance workers get pink-slipped to balance the ledger.

Fewer people and more acreage - something's gotta give.

FACTOR 2: You Can't Do That Anymore

Based on emotional pressure from local environmental groups and parents, Roundup and other effective materials were virtually eliminated from the department's arsenal. (These are the same products gardeners and homeowners can buy and use with no oversight.) I'm not going to argue the usefulness or heinousness of these chemicals, other than to say that when moms and little kids fill the pews at public meetings, logic and science don't get a full hearing.

Be that as it may, the most effective means of keeping aggressive, rampant, voracious, horticultural terrors at bay was locked away. To fill the void, the Parks division created the Green Team: Flame-belching wands were wielded, horticultural vinegar was tossed about (without even a splash of EVOO!), and searing saunas of steam were sprayed. Mountains of mulch were piled high, in hopes of smothering the bad guys.

"The green team was pretty effective," says Santos Escobar, park superintendent. "But the funding was pulled a few budget cycles ago."

Even mattresses of mulch can't stop Kikuyu grass. Next time you stroll Shoreline Park, look for the unintended patches of grass on the bluff side of the walkways. Those spaces were once filled with colorful flowering plants. But once a few errant sprigs of Kikuyu grass from the nearby lawn took root, the pretties didn't stand a chance.

It didn't used to be like that. A few years ago, a well-trained, properly attired, cautious park employee would squirt the necessary dosage of Roundup and the weeds would go quietly to meet their maker. Now those beds have been surrendered and roving patches of grass appear where never intended, like verdant, malignant goatees. Once Kikuyu takes hold, other than a controlled napalm drop, the only alternative is the expensive and marginally effective removal off everything, followed by replanting and a couple of years of labor-intensive nurturing. I don't see that in the stars or the economy.

FACTOR #3: Where Is The Love?

In 2002, we celebrated the City Parks' centennial. There were special events, tours, and a photography exhibit.

In the exhibition catalogue, 100 Years of Santa Barbara Parks: 1902 - 2002, Richard Johns, then Parks and Recreation Director, wrote, "Santa Barbara is blessed to have a park system with a rich history of horticultural passion, community generosity, and geographic diversity."

The geography hasn't changed and there are still generous, caring community members giving their time and dollars. It's the horticultural passion I'm worried about.

The passion needs a big shot of libido. I've pondered this question at this blog before: Where are the rabid horticulturists in the community?

Not inside the department. The two top managers at P&R come from recreation, planning and environmental backgrounds. That's great and necessary in an organization responsible for the stewardship of natural resources, providing social services, promoting healthy lifestyles and keeping the financial ship afloat on a tempestuous sea of budgetary uncertainty.

But what about the hundred year horticultural legacy in the parks? At a time when staff has to consider whether to lock down some of the bathrooms to save money, who will be the guardian of good design, botanical diversity and protection of the legacy?

FACTOR #4: Is Anybody Watching?

[The following is not sour grapes and I hold no grudges toward anyone in the City organization. I'm having a lot of fun now.]

For the first time since at least the 60s there are no landscape architects working at the City of SB. That troubles me. There are, and always have been, very dedicated and talented horticulturist in the leadership and ranks. But horticulture and landscape architecture are two very different creatures. I served as city landscape architect from 1987 until I was laid off in 2009 -- budget cuts. My departure made sense, even if I didn't see it coming. I was a high-overhead project manager and there wasn't more than a handful of chump change in the pipeline for new projects.

In my 22 years I played a key role in everything from picking out flowerpots and posies in front of City Hall to getting a skateboard park shoehorned into a parking lot on the waterfront. I had my fingers in everything landscape related, including projects done by other departments.

Landscape architecture is a Big Picture discipline: We're the "lite" version of civil engineers, city planners, sociologists, architects, horticulturists, ecologists, and artists. We use our training to create beautiful, useful, sustainable spaces. And when big projects came along that couldn't be designed in-house, we hired teams of talented designers and engineers. Everything the consultants submitted had to pass by me and other capable staff, to assure that we got the best for our public spaces.

Remove that lobe of the organizational brain and stuff happens, like the new project that nearly resulted in pain and suffering for the Vespa gal. I guess you're wondering where this miscarriage of gardening is located, but I'm gonna have to leave you hanging for two weeks, cuz once again, I've used up my space. I promise not only to reveal the secret location and issue my critique (with constructive suggestions for improvement), but also spread sunshine on a welcome surge in volunteerism.

In the meantime, ponder this: Is a world-class destination like Santa Barbara willing to protect the high standards that once prevailed in our parks and open spaces? Is it solely for want of funding that we're headed down this road? Is it fair for the city's design review boards to insist that every project be held to high landscaping standards when it's obvious it can't be cared for?

I'd like to hear your comments.


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