Unpaving Paradise: This City Is Using Wildflowers to Fight Urban Blight

Abandoned lots and unused parcels of land have been planted with native wildflowers to bloom into beautiful local green spaces.

(Photo: Tatsuya Morita/Getty Images)

Dec 9, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Ameera Butt is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Merced Sun-Star, McClatchy newspapers and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, among others.

Across Los Angeles County this spring, open, underused plots of land in churches, front yards, schools—even outside a post office—will be teeming with native wildflowers like California coastal poppies, bluebells, and purple needlegrass.

That's the premise of artist Fritz Haeg's rehabilitation project Wildflowering L.A., in which native wildflower seeds were sown at 50 sites across Los Angeles County this fall.

“It’s about restoring natural landscape back to the current-day L.A. urban landscape so [it’s] re-infusing native plants in nontraditional sites throughout the entire county,” said Laura Hyatt, development director at LAND.

Wildflowering L.A. brings awareness to the native flora of the region and shows what the landscape looked like prior to development and industrialization. For the initiative, Haeg partnered with Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a nonprofit art that curates site-specific contemporary art projects, and the Theodore Payne Foundation, an organization that promotes preservation of California native flora.

Not only that, but the project helps fight urban blight by beautifying underused land. Locals came together to clear and seed vacant lots in their neighborhood as well as road medians, Hyatt said.

Haeg’s previous projects include Edible Estates, in which he worked around the world to transform domestic front yards into edible landscapes and gardens.

Each site, from Torrance to Eagle Rock to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, is tended by volunteers who were given one of four custom, free wildflower seed mixes to sow. The mixes included coastal, flatlands, hillside, and roadside wildflowers that were inspired by Reyner Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

Haeg’s volunteer-driven project is a way to bring the community together in the context of preserving and enhancing the environment in a sustainable and meaningful way, Hyatt said. The wildflower seed mixes were optimized for their uses based on climate, soil, and irrigation.

The sites, which vary from 500 square feet to an acre are marked by a handmade wooden carved sign indicating seed type and site number.

The project put out an open call for visible, open land submissions in September and received more than 200 submissions. The sites were picked based on visibility and feasibility, or whether there was room for irrigation, said Hyatt.

Fifty key sites were identified, and two public workshops were held earlier this year at which folks were given their "prescribed" mix, which they then planted after preparing the land, she said.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, who specializes in inner-city neighborhoods and public spaces, called the project “positive and commendable.” She said inner-city neighborhoods are the most challenging because of the lack of greenery and abundance of concrete.

“At first glance it’s a great idea to put wildflowers on empty lots and make it greener. They don’t need a lot of water,” Loukaitou-Sideris said.

Having a wildflower initiative makes communities feel responsible for maintaining the area—which is especially helpful in locations that have been neglected, she said.

While a flower planting initiative cannot on its own battle blight, it will help improve the image of the physical environment, and this is a positive step, Loukaitou-Sideris said.

Using spaces in the inner city was something the project took into consideration and included parks, schools, and residential and business sites throughout south and east Los Angeles, Hyatt said.

An exhibition or event will take place in April or May, she said, based on rainfall and the peak bloom for the wildflowers; the volunteers and the public will be able to see the images and videos and talk about the flowers that bloomed.