Lessons from a Feral Landscape
What’s become of a Tommy Church garden since it was released from intended
irrigation and other care?
By Joan Woodward, FASLA
Tavo Olmos, Chattel Architecture, Planning and Preservation Photographic Collection
In the 2002 movie Sunshine State, tamed golf course developments are
described as “nature on a leash.” This phrase can apply to any designed landscape
that is well maintained, irrigated, and weeded. But what about landscapes
that have been neglected, left to adapt to pervading conditions, that have
essentially gone feral?
In some cases, particularly in temperate and subtropical climates, aggressive
imported plants advance, shrubs outgrow their previously hedged dimensions
and block movement and sight lines, and trees shade out diverse understories.
In arid and semiarid landscapes, plants often retreat and wither once their
water I.V. is removed. Yet in other cases, the designed framework remains
sturdy over time in the face of neglect. Plants remain to scale without hedging,
ground covers are still legible though possibly replaced with leaf litter,
and blooms penetrate tangled branches. Not surprisingly, some landscapes provide
more habitat, permeability, and species diversity after release than they
did when they were maintained.
I have been exploring 30 designed sites in the Los Angeles region that have
been released from intended irrigation and maintenance to see what happens
when largely imported landscapes are left on their own to adapt to urban forces.
One site, designed by Thomas Church and architect Edward Durell Stone—designers
whose names connote permanence—is worth exploring as an example of future
resilient design in a provisional urban area and as a nexus of colliding contemporary
design concerns: New Urbanism, historic landscape preservation, and water
conservation design. Scrutiny of the design and the tenacity of such landscapes
reveals a region’s volatility and reminds us to take into account probable
neglect when shaping future landscapes.
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