California Cities Really, Really Want Residents to Kill Their Lawns

San Francisco and Los Angeles have announced new public-education programs encouraging people to use less water—especially in the front yard.

Drought-tolerant landscaping in Southern California. (Photo: Courtesy Nichols & Smyth Landscaping)

Apr 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Five days a week, I drive nearly 15 miles both to and from work, crossing through as many neighborhoods as tax brackets as I make my way from Highland Park to Beverly Hills. As I zigzag through Hollywood, Hancock Park, and West Hollywood on my Waze-enabled route, Los Angeles’ famously style-agnostic architecture is on full display: woodsy Craftsmans, flipped bungalows, Tudor mansions, concrete-block apartments. My preferred way to pass the cruely slow time, however, is to look at the yards, not the houses themselves. Every day I pass by curbside vegetable gardens, thickets of cactus thorns and desert rocks, profuse hedges of blooming roses, and so, so many perfectly manicured, dewy lawns.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco alike, those expanses of green are now public enemy number one.

California poppies (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

Unlike the remnants of chaparral that still exist in certain steep parts of the Hollywood Hills, or the native walnut woodlands in the park next to my house, all of these yards depend on a certain amount of irrigated water—but the green lawn, the ultimate status symbol of suburban homeownership, uses the most by far.

With California now in the fourth year of a historic drought—by some measures, the worst in 1,200 years—that’s a problem, to put it lightly. Lawns may not suck up as much water as almonds or alfalfa or whatever the evil California crop du jour is, but they’re worthy of enmity: Widely replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping (and switching to water-efficient appliances) could reduce urban water use by 40 percent to 60 percent, according to the Pacific Institute. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Los Angeles and San Francisco are launching simultaneous wars against them. Very cute wars.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a new drought-education campaign on Thursday. Called “Save the Drop,” it will blanket the city and Internet with PSAs, water-saving tips, and promotions for conservation rebates—all courtesy of a cartoon water droplet.

A press release said the campaign is the “necessary next step to connect Angelenos with those tools” that already exist to help residents reduce their water usage. For example, last November, the local water utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, upped the amount of money it will pay customers who rip out their grass and plant more suitable landscaping from $3 a square foot to $3.75. With “Save the Drop,” it has a marketing campaign promoting the rebate.

“Because we acted strategically and acted early, we have powerful tools in place to respond to this historic drought,” Garcetti said in a statement. “Now, through this unprecedented outreach campaign, we are taking action to make sure every Angeleno is informed and encouraged to harness those tools to lower their water use and their water bills.”

San Francisco is acting too, announcing a citywide contest on Wednesday that will crown the “ugliest yard” in town—and reward its proud winner with a drought-tolerant landscaping makeover. Because in the Bay Area, “ugly” isn’t necessarily an aesthetic designation. Both programs aim to put the cities in line with Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory water restrictions, which require cities to cut usage by 25 percent.

“The ugliest yard really isn’t one that is desolate and full of weeds and dirt,” Guillermo Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Environment, told the San Francisco Examiner. “A yard that wastes a lot of water to maintain—that is ugly.”

So what kinds of plants should be grown in the place of lawns? Contrary to popular belief, “drought-tolerant” is not the same thing as desert landscaping—many of those plants would be just as out of place in Los Angeles or San Francisco as Kentucky bluegrass. The coastal cities average as much as three to five times more rainfall in a normal year than the Mojave Desert (where the state’s wild almond relative grows). So instead of cactuses—and succulents too, for that matter—planting any of the myriad native sages, buckwheats, manzanitas, and ceanothus species can re-create a bit of coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, and other plant communities that used to exist in the Los Angeles basin and on the San Francisco peninsula. Not only can many California native plants subsist with little water—some will actually die if they get wet roots in the dry summer months—they’re like catnip for butterflies, birds, bees, and other wildlife. They make my commute more interesting too.

So why is it that we spend so much time, energy, and water maintaining those broad expanses of boring, green grass?