29 Jul 2011

The Greeks didn't xeriscape

According to Emily and some discussants at H-Water, "xeriscaping" (dry landscaping) is a neologism coined in the 1980s at Denver Water; this n-gram shows the word's use.

The term caught on in some places but flopped in California because water was abundant, real estate developers likes grass landscaping, and people didn't want cactus yards.

According to Emily (and totally believable to me), water managers found themselves stuck between choices of cacti and grass when discussing water use and landscaping. They eventually changed direction towards "California Friendly" vegetation suitable for California's Mediterranean (but not desert) climate, which has been sporadically promoted by water agencies and semi-embraced by homeowners.

Why? Real estate developers, homeowners and gardeners prefer turf to xeriscaping because of a preference to tradition; they prefer turf to local plants because it's easier to install and maintain [they think -- see comments]. Water managers take this preference as given and write regulations directed at turf (watering restrictions) instead of using a more-general form of persuasion (higher water prices).

Bottom Line: Xeriscaping (or landscaping appropriate to the climate) is not popular because of strong path dependency. We can get off that path by vastly improving the support for (and regulation of) alternative landscaping and/or raising water prices as an incentive to find less water-intensive ways of decorating our near outdoors.