Los Angeles City Hall has been surrounded by chain-link fencing since Occupy… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Occupy L.A. raised consciousness about something else besides income disparity: landscaping. After the two-month encampment turned the lawn around City Hall into a sprawl of dirt, the debate now is whether to replant it with grass or take the opportunity of this topographical upheaval to do something more environmentally sound. Using drought-tolerant native plantings would give the city a chance to create a high-profile, less-thirsty panorama on the 1.7 acres surrounding City Hall, and would set an example for city residents whom it has urged to replace water-guzzling lawns with indigenous flora.
There are some challenges to this outdoor renovation. At least initially, it's more expensive to install and maintain these plantings in the park — and the city does consider it a park — than it is to lay down a carpet of new turf and mow it regularly. The very rough estimate for refurbishing the grounds completely with native vegetation and fixing the damaged irrigation system could run as high as $600,000, according to Recreation and Parks officials. Also, a native plant landscape requires a more complicated maintenance process with a different water regimen. But once the plantings fill in and the routine of caring for them is mastered, the natural landscape could ultimately be less expensive to maintain than a traditional lawn.
We like the idea of recasting the City Hall park with a native landscape, but it must be more than aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sustainable — it must be physically welcoming to the public. Long before Occupy L.A. took up residence, City Hall's rolling lawns routinely hosted news conferences, ceremonies, a farmers market and all the strolling pedestrians those gatherings beckoned. The park doesn't need to be a campground again, but as the headquarters of city government, it does need space for the public to promenade or protest without worrying about stumbling into a patch of prickly pear.
Of course, it's unlikely that any of the native-plant-promoting groups that have already made recommendations to the city would suggest cactus in a heavily trafficked public garden. California has the richest flora of any state, with more than 7,000 native species, including some that bloom year-round. A native grass such as Carex pansa, which can be mowed, could be part of the mix. City Recreation and Parks officials — who say they have embraced this opportunity for a new direction — should take full advantage of the wealth of knowledge that preservation organizations and landscape architects are eager to supply.
Together, they should be able to create a flourishing landscape that conserves water but also offers a generous, usable area that is easy on the feet. The point is to lessen dependence on precious resources, not change the character of the City Hall grounds.