Los Angeles Isn’t London, and Other Things that are Wrong with California


Recently I was browsing Imgur and came across a set of images depicting the current drought conditions in California.

Lake Oroville, July 2011. From Imgur.com

Lake Oroville in 2014. From Imgur.com

When I looked through the comments, I saw a few gems:

“See this?…See this? This is why I think lawns should be illegal in drought areas. You want a lawn? Move to East…”

“Hey let’s build golf courses in the desert!”

“A**holes need to realize that lush green lawns work in the SE, not SW. Sauce: I’m a f***ing city planner.”

Which reminded me of something that bothers me about California: that 38 million people live in an area that can probably sustainably support something more like one million, and lawns are just one example of cultural artifacts that have made it to California that were based on an entirely different climate. Let me explain:Isnt-01Well, yes, but so what? Well, some cultural features, including the lawn and the detached home, are cultural aspects that arose in England, partially because of its climate, and got appropriated to California in such a way that the environment had to be altered to support it.

The lawn became popular among the English nobility in the late Middle Ages. It arose there because England’s wet weather and moderate temperatures made it ideal for keeping grass green without the need to water, and because before the invention of the mower in 1830 one needed an army of peasants to trim the lawn with scythes. The lawn quickly dispersed to Ireland, France, and the Low Countries, other places with a suitable climate.

When the lawn hopped the pond with the earliest English colonizers of the Americas, it fared decently in the Northeast, which despite having a humid continental climate rather than England’s oceanic, still had sufficient rain and temperatures, although the winters were usually cold enough for the grass to go dormant. Some New England towns had lawns that were commonly owned and maintained, leading to the New England Common. But at this point the lawn could barely even survive in the American South, where higher temperatures made it too warm to keep the grass from turning brown.

The lawnmower was what made the lawn accessible to the land-owning middle class. They became more common with the implementation of the 40-hour work week, and lawn care was promoted as a form of relaxation during the Depression. It was only through irrigation that the lawn was able to leave the Northeast, and even then, only due to massive inputs of fertilizer that it was able to take root in the arid soils of the American Southwest.

Let’s take a closer look at climate. Here is a map of the oceanic climate, where the lawn originated:

From Wikipedia.org

These climates are most present in northern Europe, southern Chile and Argentina, southeast Australia, and New Zealand. It is truly barely present in North America, only making an appearance on the wet coasts of the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and Vancouver. Notably, it is not present in California. Let’s look at California’s climate map:

From weathersandiego.blogspot.com

The most densely inhabited parts of California are mostly within the semi-arid (BSh, BSk), desert (BWh, BWk), and Mediterranean (Csa, Csb) climate zones. Where in the world can we find those?

From Wikipedia.org

From Wikipedia.org

The Mediterranean climate, unsurprisingly, covers much of the Mediterranean, and as far east as Iran. Desert climates, largely uninhabited, cover much of northern Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and Australia. Semi-arid climates generally ring the desert areas. So maybe a Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern home might be a better model for California. How would that compare to the English-based model of today?Houses-01

Traditional Mediterranean and Arab cultures both used courtyard houses. Exterior walls in these cultures were often plain or even drab, with much more of the focus being on the interior courtyard. By having a smaller landscaped area and using native plants rather than ones introduced from a wetter climate, a household could cut its water use dramatically. The courtyard house also takes advantage of microclimates, shared walls, shading, and the solar chimney effect to naturally ventilate the house and use less energy than the detached home.

An Arab-influenced courtyard in Spain. From 200words-a-day.com

There are many issues facing California: over-development in both the housing and agriculture industries; over-reliance on cars for transportation; and despite their issues, an ever-increasing demand from new residents for housing and services. But one way they can begin to address issues related to water use and sustainability is to adopt a climatically appropriate housing model. Los Angeles isn’t London, so why should it build houses and lawns as if it was?

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

11 Responses to Los Angeles Isn’t London, and Other Things that are Wrong with California

  1. Captain Paintball says:

    I like the part in the article about the possibility of creating more interesting and sensible architecture… but what if the water was turned back ON? Everyone reading this (and the author, of course) know that this drought was made far far far far far far worse because a radical environmental group, with help from the current presidential administration’s DOJ shopped a lawsuit to a sympathetic judge, who ORDERED the water be turned off under the guise of helping the “delta smelt” population.

    • U wrong says:

      I think you missed the point of the article. Even if we drained the delta, we’d still be utilizing water in a way that isn’t appropriate for the climate. Also, the delta is a drop in the bucket; compared to the missing water from the sky that just isn’t falling.

      You know a better way to conserve water? Stop growing flood plain crops in the middle of the desert.

    • Captain Obvious says:

      If the water is turned back on, it’ll last us a few more years then we won’t just have too little water. We’ll have NO water.

  2. ronald says:

    spoken like a true graduate that doesn’t understand society just yet.

    • “Because in the real world, we do stupid shit just ’cause.”

  3. jimmy says:

    im more worried about why the news anchors on tv are so scared.

    • Ronald Baker says:

      They don’t wants get fired

  4. Alex from San Diego says:

    Let’s take the courtyard house idea one step further: privacy. The American Dream for many is a quiet, private manor house in the country–a place where the prying eyes of neighbors does not exist. If Southern California is forced to build more densely as space becomes more scarce, why not shift private spaces to the interior? The courtyard house can actually serve as a transitional development style between tract houses and multi-family. The resident gets a lot of personal space, but the houses can be built on smaller lots closer together like townhouses.

    • Dave Munson says:

      There are aspects of Islamic teachings that specifically encourage the courtyard house because it does provide privacy, especially if it’s multiple stories so that you can prevent neighbors from easily peering into your courtyard.

  5. Max Power says:

    If people actually build inward-facing courtyard homes in suburbia, you’ll hear complaints from the sustainable community crowd about how anti-social the design is – “they’re turning a suburban street into a fortress”

    • Dormilona says:

      I’m one of the “sustainable community crowd” and I love the idea of inward-facing courtyard homes. When I lived in West Hollywood in the early 70s, I used to see some old Moorish-looking apartment buildings built around courtyards. Far from looking like fortresses, they looked both beautifully private AND beautifully inviting.

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