Turn Yards Into Parks

There is little in urban life more dreary than the sight of a lawn. Even when well-tended, their uniformity is deadening to the spirit; thus, they are well-suited to the tedium of suburbs but inappropriate to the more bracing landscape of the city. More often than not, a yard is not the verdant meadow that was intended, luxuriant and enticing, but a tufted and scrabbled wasteland, like the carpet of a fleabag hotel.

In the southern California community where I live, concern over the "pedestrian experience" has expressed itself in the harassment of homeowners, miscreants who use high hedges and lines of trees as shields from noise and fumes on busy thoroughfares. Although some of this shrubbery has been in place for decades, property owners suddenly face, without the benefit of public discussion, at least not in this century, of the desirability or not of such vegetation, the possibility of costly fines or expensive removal.

The lifestyle police argue that their intervention is required because high hedges are antisocial, creating areas of private space that are, well, too private. Although there must be reasonable limits on private property rights, it isn't clear that the hedge row is the place where the line should be drawn. In pursuit of the vaunted pedestrian experience, why should an ugly four foot copse be permitted while a beautifully designed and cared for twelve footer is criminalized? Doesn't any fence have the effect of confining the passerby to a narrow ribbon of concrete? And is there any legitimate lifestyle exigency (there may be safety concerns) that requires regulating the height of barriers other than those that actually intersect the public's space? If I don't want to look in my neighbor's window or permit her to peek in mine, is that anyone's business but ours?

Here are two proposals that, if adopted, would not only improve the pedestrian orientation of residential streets, but also offer additional benefits in water conservation, improved air quality, protection for native flora and fauna, and greatly expanded public space. Either scenario could be realized by means of tax incentives, cash payments, abatements, zoning exemptions, or similar forms of positive reinforcement:

Turn lawns into parks and native plant refuges.

Imagine, if you will, a street in your neighborhood, perhaps the one you use to walk to the market or take your daily constitutional. Instead of crabgrass and sandpits, each yard features a garden of native plants: here cacti, there succulents, the occasional lemonadeberry or manzinita, beds of chinese houses and fiesta flowers beyond.

In addition to inducements favoring such uses, the city could offer the assistance of gardeners, nurseries, publications, free compost, etc., to assure that even those with limited means, time or experience would be able to provide the community with beautified walkways. Where there was interest, neighborhood groups might be able to facilitate and coordinate block-long conversions.

Similarly, in the few cases where a building is set back deeply from the street, a landowner might be moved to offer the front yard as a park, a municipally maintained dell being preferable to the typical sunbaked expanse rendered inhospitable by the reek of dog urine mixed with feces flakes. If such a facility were carefully designed to encourage contemplative uses and were limited to daylight hours, with the right incentives what landowners wouldn't be pleased to have the responsibility for their troublesome and demanding front yards taken over by the parks department?

Such an arrangement would need clear boundaries to protect both the property owner and the city, but there is no reason to think the obstacles couldn't be overcome, as they are routinely for office and apartment buildings.

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