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GARDEN OF ED

Please Stop Landscaping
updated: Jan 01, 2011, 10:15 AM

By Billy Goodnick

On January 11, 2011, I will stand before Santa Barbara's City Council and respectfully ask them to stop all new landscaping projects, at least until they can get their, ahem, organic fertilizer together.

They're heading in the wrong direction.

Tip of the Iceberg

An unpredictable chain of events began a few weeks ago when I saw the disturbing new planting at a public building. It got my blood flowing, not in a happy sort of way. Initially, I was elated that I had something to rant about here at Edhat, but I ended up writing about the sorry condition of our once-glorious parks. (Read my last article) I promised to let you in on the location.

The new planting in front of the Louise Lowry Davis Center (corner of De la Vina and W. Victoria) misses the mark on several levels. The big thing is that it just doesn't make sense with this building.

The Davis Center -- a small, stately, not-very-Santa-Barbara civic building -- is now fronted by a visually noisy collection of plants that might make sense in someone's back yard, but looks absurdly out of place here -- an example of "one-of-each-itis."

Plants that will grow six-feet across are planted one-foot from their neighbors. Freestanding Pyracantha (able to eat tall buildings in a single bite) are lashed to stakes, biding their time. Sun-loving, low-water-using plants intermix with others that would be happier in the understory of a cool forest somewhere outside of Seattle. Partly funded by the Water Conservation Division as a low-water-using demonstration garden, it's nothing I want home gardeners to learn from. If it survives, the Parks crews will have their hands full, taming the chaos.

Hearts were in the right place. On the heels of the very successful butterfly garden at Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, a crop of Master Gardeners came looking for another project site, knocking at the Parks Division's door. "Oh boy! A free design for a building recently spiffed up, but in need of horticultural TLC," they must have thought. The weak link, as I wrote in my last article, was that there was no one at Parks to scrutinize the design. And it somehow skirted the normal design review process, which might have improved the outcome.

Okay, I'm done flinging nasty bombs. It's fixable. Unfortunately, the Davis Center is just one symptom of a malady requiring immediate action.

Do You Have To Make It Worse?

I met with Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Rapp last week, over a hot cuppa Peet's. Nancy was my boss when I worked for the city and I've always been crazy about the gal. I wasn't sure how my last article sat with her, but she said she appreciated me bringing up this topic. And though she came to Parks and Recreation without a background in plants, like me, she has a deep concern for the state of horticulture in the city's parks. And like me, she's optimistic the community can rise to the task.

It would be expedient to blame the parks crisis on economic hard times, but that lets the city's irrationality and selective blindness off the hook. True, park maintenance budgets keep withering and staff reductions cut deeper. With fewer workers and resources, standards fall. "It's the park staff's greatest heartache," Rapp says. "Right now, everyone is fighting to keep from backsliding further." And what a battle it is.

The horde of gangly Kikuyu stalks mounted on feral gophers descends on pitifully armed parks workers standing firm against the inexorable tide. They fight valiantly, but they have been on this tortured battlefield too long. Their spirits are sapped. They turn, searching the horizon for reinforcements.

A rational person would look at this horrific scene and stop it from getting any worse. But instead, newly landscaped areas keep sprouting up and more are in the way. Part of the reason is that it's virtually impossible to build anything in a park or public right-of-way without a design review board insisting it be landscaped. It doesn't matter that there aren't resources to care for it; these boards are compelled by the city charter to Martha Stewartize everything that comes their way. But it's not sustainable.

Have you seen the newish landscaping alongside the Carrillo Hill sidewalk? Weedier than Mendocino Mike's Medicinal Marijuana Mart. The new plantings along the Sunday arts and crafts show on East Cabrillo? The trampling has begun.

What the hell did they expect with thousands of pairs of sandal-clad Euro-tourist (black socks included) veering off-course every Sunday?

By the way, the new Loma Alta sidewalk plantings ain't gonna make it, and neither are the brand-spanking-new West Beach beds. Next up, the Jake Boysel Memorial Bikeway along Calle Real that's in the pipeline. Call me psychic.

Don't say we didn't warn you. Parks staff sat in design meetings and public hearings explaining in very simple language why the Cabrillo plants were doomed from the start. I was one of them. And it's not like Parks intentionally sabotage them -- City Council recently voted to reduce man-hours AND cut the budget for replacement plants.

"We Want It Both Ways"

Click over to the Sustainable Santa Barbara web page ] where the city proudly boasts its commitment to sustainability. (The green leaf in the logo tells you they're serious.) There are links about energy management; water quality, conservation and habitat restoration; land use; and waste prevention. That last one includes recycling and trash, but says nothing to say about the unconscionable waste of public monies for the design, permitting, construction, and fruitless maintenance for landscaping that doesn't stand a dandelion's chance in a tornado. That's where the selective blindness comes into play.

Change Course

First, the city should declare a moratorium on new landscaping. Stop pouring more responsibilities on city workers already drowning under their workload - it's bad for morale. Stop using volunteer designers. Change the charter so the design review boards can't demand that every bare inch of soil looks like a scenic calendar. Stop installing landscaping where you're too cheap to provide a water meter.

Second, invite, welcome, and reward volunteers. There are very encouraging signs: A recent Eastside work day organized by Looking Good Santa Barbara, brought scores of locals out to clean up Ortega Park, plant 60 young street trees, repaint park signs, and put a shine on the Eastside community vegetable garden. There are regulars who look after Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, and the Mission Park Rose Garden. Last year the community donated 4000 hours to park and tree project.

They'd love to see more volunteers. You can pitch in by contacting the Parks division.

Finally, we need a new big picture. Let's convene a think tank. Santa Barbara has an astounding collection of world-class institutions and smart people with years of horticulture experience. Tap them for a little of their time and let's see what happens.

I'm willing to start the ball rolling - no promises how long I'll stay in the game. I'm going to the City Council meeting Tuesday, January 11, (2 pm), to see how much of this I can condense into 2-minutes as public comment. I'm going to deliver a polite wake-up, not an assault (but I might wear my red Che choners). Then, on Wednesday, January 26 (4 pm) I'll be addressing the Park and Recreation Commission in City Council Chambers, asking them to take the lead starting the conversation.

I'm hopeful something good will come of it. Come join the fun.

 

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