Green lawns or a green tomorrow?

The image of a freshly mowed, green lawn has become deeply embedded in the psyche of the American dream. Aesthetic beauty has been one of the primary driving forces for commercial and residential design, but the cost of this beautification often comes at a high price. Site planners and developers have long been giving into Americans’ water addiction, perhaps most notably, in many naturally arid regions.

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Building green lawns into the California desert. Wikipedia. 10/21/13

The city of Las Vegas, located in the heart of the Mojave Desert, is the perfect example of thirsty modern development. Hotels and attractions on the Las Vegas strip guzzle millions of gallons of water every year for no other purpose than to create a visual spectacle for visitors.  The water usage on the Las Vegas strip however, only accounts for 7% of Las Vegas County’s overall water usage. This means that residential use, including lawn maintenance, is a major component of water consumption. The expansion of Las Vegas until recently, seems to have been based on fantasy world plans, where water can be brought in indefinitely with only moderate increases in the cost of this precious resource.

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The Las Vegas artificial Oasis. Wikimedia. 10/21/13.

Las Vegas County has been trying to reduce its dependency on water through incentive programs such as paying residents to remove their water dependent lawns, using city ordinances, which fine and prohibit the misuse of water, and through creating more sustainable water recycling systems.  Even with all this innovation and promotion to reduce water consumption, there is still something fundamentally flawed with the continued expansion of the many cities that reside in these artificial oases.

Developers and planners who are responsible for the growth of these desert cities have failed to understand the long-term consequences of building in areas that require water to be shipped in from other regions. Planners today, face very difficult decisions trying to balance the promotion of growth and development in the face of the known consequences of dwindling water supplies.

Programs such as LEED (leadership, energy, and environmental design) try to encourage practices that reduce or eliminate some of these resource strains, but fall short and are often ineffective at actually providing a remedy to the problem. These programs, which are generally very beneficial to creating a sustainable and green tomorrow, can also be viewed as just another way to justify the questionable continued growth in an area, which may be already environmentally strained.

The question that needs to be addressed is whether or not continued development in these desert areas is something that can ever be sustainable. Planners can be champions of this cause by going above and beyond to ensure sustainable systems are in place with site design and new technologies, but they need to first address the laissez faire mindset that seems to be ever-present with citizens in these water poor areas.

The city of Idaho Falls has been attempting to develop site plans that utilize naturally growing vegetation that requires little water, but residents have continued to complain about the aesthetic quality of xeriscaping attempts.

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Village at Meridians’ fountain display on opening weekend. Mondada 2013.

The recently opened Village at Meridian project with its large and active fountain display is but one example of poor water planning. The fountain, which is very reminiscent of a gaudy Las Vegas style attraction, gives visitors an impression of luxury and opulence. Perhaps a more intelligent and optimal plan would have been a plaza design highlighting and educating citizens about the wise use of water, thus promoting the new aesthetic of local flora and fauna that wouldn’t put a strain on one of our most precious resources, water.

Before any real substantive changes can be made, the mindset of citizens living in these areas needs to change.  We cannot continue to put such a heavy strain on our depleting water systems, nor can we carelessly waste water in full worldview, leaving future generations to cope with the fall-out of our poor planning decisions.  Citizens of these desert regions should educate themselves and recognize that having a fountain in every public square brings with it many detrimental costs, both financial and environmental.

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4 thoughts on “Green lawns or a green tomorrow?

  1. Thanks for writing this Aaron! I too am worried about our region’s over-consumption of potable (or treatable) water for such extravagances. If one spends even the shortest amount of time researching the histories of desert communities (in North Africa, Spain, the Middle East and Central Asia) you can find some very simple and beautiful water features and lush landscaping that actually use very little water. The Alhambra in Grenada, Spain is a great example — and in a climate not too dissimilar to Boise. Here’s a link to the World Heritage Convention’s website for the Alhambra — I highly recommend watching the short video: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/314/video

    Now compare this site with “The Village” in Meridian…

    For a memorial that was to have been built in a public park I worked with the same water feature consultant that design the choreographed lake fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (Wet Design). It took a considerable amount of encouragement to get that company’s design team to tone down their concepts for our project — asking them to forgo their typical fountain splash and pop jets, and use instead thin flat sheets of water and a series of control weirs to provide evaporate cooling, mirror reflections, and the sound of water, but without the expense and excessive water consumption. So it’s not impossible to get even the most hyperbolic of designers to respect the environmental obligations we all share.

  2. Great read Aaron. You hit the nail on the head with the statement “The fountain, which is very reminiscent of a gaudy Las Vegas style attraction, gives visitors an impression of luxury and opulence”. We have come to associate water guzzling features such as green grass, fountains and ponds with having arrived and the good life, even though we live in the desert. It is an expectation that every home include a yard of water guzzling grass as opposed to more sustainable xeriscaping that utilizes plants that are indigenous to desert climates. If done properly xeriscaping can be as attractive as a traditional landscape and greatly lessen the use of water.

    What do you think would be the most effective way to address this issue and educate both planners and citizens in order to change the current mindset?

  3. Somehow we as a society tend to take for granted the availability of basic needs and somehow view them as rights forgetting that they are scare. Instead of considering the most efficient use of scare resources we tend to be more interested in showing off how amazing our design ideas are so that we can immerse ourselves in feelings of opulence instead of responsibility. Developments often seem to indulge imaginations rather than accentuate realities.

  4. Thanks for all the comments everyone!

    In response to your comment Julie “What do you think would be the most effective way to address this issue and educate both planners and citizens in order to change the current mindset?” I think that there needs to be a public education campaign in many of these desert cities. I attended the opening weekend celebration of the Village at Meridian and I overheard many people talking about how great the fountain was, and I have a hunch that many of these people don’t even realize we are in an arid area. We are lucky to live in an area, and time where we don’t have to worry about water usage, but this also means that most people never think about where their potable water comes from…

    Projects like the Village at Meridian could be the perfect avenue for outreach. If they would have put up a large Xeriscaped area with signs praising the importance of water conservation people would at least have a reason to think about our relationship with water.

    Dean if you do find that typology local drought resistant plants for landscaping I would love to take a look at it.

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