It sounds like one of those stories that conservatives often use to make government look bad – the city of Sacramento is fining a household $746 for letting their lawn die to save water. But the real issue here isn’t government – it’s whether California will abandon wasteful and even elitist 20th century values to meet the needs of the 21st century.
This basic tension according to the Sacramento Bee:
“In order to make the lawn go, I would have had to keep watering it intensely, and since the drought was declared, I decided that wasn’t a good idea,” said Hartridge. “Honestly, I think there’s a disconnect within the city about priorities.”
“Two weeks ago, The Bee reported that Sacramento’s per capita water use is among the greatest in the world….
“The city’s landscaping rule is intended to maintain neighborhood visual standards to prevent one neighbor’s tastes from harming another’s property values.
“The rule was the subject of much conflict last year when amended to provide gardeners leeway to grow more than grass. Sacramentans can now grow large trees, shrubs and, yes, even food in their front yards without fear of reprisal.
“But the rules still require front landscaping to be irrigated, which means scores of homeowners could be penalized for growing cacti or other drought-tolerant vegetation.”
The problem here isn’t bad bureaucrats – it’s bad policy. Like so many other California cities, Sacramento maintains absurd codes that mandate green lawns and other wasteful practices simply to perpetuate a failed 20th century urban design model. The belief is that property values will be hurt if people have anything other but green lawns and shrubbery. We have to ensure our neighborhoods look exactly as they did in 1965, never mind the cost to our water supplies.
But it goes deeper than just water conservation – important though that is. As noted in the blockquote, Sacramento only recently allowed residents to grow their own food in their yards. Urban food production, and home gardening, is an essential step in healthier eating and energy conservation. Many cities still have bans on using a clothesline to dry your laundry, even though it saves a lot of energy (and is usually easier on your clothes!).
Residents ought to be encouraged to live sustainably, and use their home as it ought to be used – to produce self-sufficiency. We can and do discuss density and mass transit as part of urban design needs, but the micro-level issues such as brown lawns and clotheslines matter too.
When I lived in Seattle from 2001 to 2007 I saw a different and better way to live. Residents there let their lawns die over the summer. Many grew food in their yards. I learned to use a clothesline there (because it wasn’t kosher to use them in Orange County, sensible as it’d have been). My neighbors had chickens, who laid delicious eggs – most summers we never had to buy eggs from a store.
Many California cities have outlawed some or all of those practices since the 1950s or earlier. It was a class-based move – middle-class homeowners saw clotheslines and chicken coops as signs of poverty and low-class behavior, which would invariably drive down property values. To a homeowner, government merely exists to protect property values, even at the expense of sustainable practices that help the environment and the infrastructure.
These practices will also help preserve the middle-class. California’s 20th century middle class was a product of cheap oil, which made it affordable to live in a suburban home and get your food from a supermarket. With the end of cheap oil, food inflation is going to destroy the living standards of working Californians. It just makes sense to encourage sustainable living.
Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. A native Californian, he was raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley.