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.
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.
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.
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.