Time to say goodbye to a climate of ease in LA?

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Los Angeles was designed and marketed around a climate of ease, LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne told the crowd gathered for "Just Add Water: The Discussions" at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on a recent balmy--and, yes, why not say it?--easy evening. But that's all over, apparently, even if hasn't quite sunk in yet. Global warming means that Angelenos are now going to have to design for a climate that's increasingly harsh, even punishing, Hawthorne said, or, perhaps, be forced to migrate out of LA, as one pundit recently speculated might happen if California continues on its current path.

justaddwater5_300.jpgAverage temperatures are going to rise across the LA region over the next several decades no matter what we do to cut our carbon emissions, said Alex Hall, a UCLA climate scientist. And the farther inland you live, the hotter it's going to get. The frequency of heat waves--very hot summer days in the high nineties and above--will increase too. And changes to the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada will likely affect our water supply, so we'll have to manage the water we get much more carefully. Right now, he added, we're not really feeling the pain of the drought the way we should--and the way that some communities in the Central Valley are feeling it--because Southern California's water purveyors have done a very good job of planning for just such a drought.

What will rising temperatures and the end of abundant water mean for the easy LA style to which we've become accustomed? Hawthorne predicted that the coming era could see the demise of the pool, the lawn, the surface parking lot, and even the freeway--the old LA--and the emergence of a new, more parsimonious, perhaps even puritan architecture in a new LA. Instead of architecture and landscaping designed to shed water wantonly, we'll need buildings and landscapes that collect every drop of precious water that falls on them. And provide lots of shade, he added.

Fortunately, we have models for such designs, said Frances Anderton, producer of the KCRW show "DnA: Design and Architecture." Spanish colonial and other traditional Mediterranean architectural styles were designed for just such an environment, with shaded arcades and courtyards, and thick walls that keep houses cool in summer. Perhaps we can take cues from these vernacular style in the hotter LA that is coming our way. Courtyard housing, which is a wonderful part of LA's residential design tradition, can also be nicely adapted for more social housing arrangements as our population ages and more people live alone. Not only does multifamily living conserve resources, but when people develop better social ties, research has shown, they can depend on each other for help and are more likely to survive disasters such as earthquakes or the heat waves we're likely to see in the coming years.

This isn't the first time the LA area has experienced dramatic climate change, but the last time it happened Los Angeles didn't exist. John Harris, curator of the Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits, outlined the changes that made the region warmer and drier after the last Ice Age and forced species such as the dire wolf and saber tooth tiger to evolve in opposite directions--the dire wolf got smaller, and the saber tooth bigger--before both went extinct. These stories can be discerned from the remains of animals and plants stuck in the tar pits. They show us that change is a constant. They show us what was here, much of it no longer with us, but some of it traveling with us into the future. They can help us imagine a vibrant landscape shared by an abundant and sometimes fierce fauna, in what was then, too, a sometimes harsh and even punitive environment.

But that past can't tell us how to fashion a vibrant future in this changing climate. We're on our own there with the materials at hand today. Or maybe not, really, on our own, but together.

So imagine a group of apartments, condos, or small homes densely, pleasantly clustered around a shared, shaded courtyard, with perhaps a small pool for cooling off. It's OK if it's shared! We don't have to get rid of all of the pools. Pretty drought tolerant plants, many native to the region, adorn the property, with a few fruit trees and vegetable gardens. It's OK. They provide food! The native plants for critters, the edible plants for us. Cool roofs reflect rather than absorb heat, while solar panels absorb energy.

Now imagine this kind of building multiplied, not in the same way, but in a million different ways throughout the city where it's easy to move about by public transportation, biking and walking, and, yes, by car too, if necessary. It's OK. Occasionally!

Perhaps there are ways to preserve LA's climate of ease after all.

Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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