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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2005 Issue

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

Lessons from a Feral Landscape
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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