2008 National Planning Conference: AICP Symposium

Water Conservation and Place Making in the Southwest

By Carrie Fesperman
APA Research Associate

In the Southwest, water conservation is among the most significant environmental planning issues. The AICP Symposium examined how environmentally sensitive policies, design, and landscaping could conserve water resources, enhance place making, and achieve greater sustainability.

Maurice Cox, design director of the National Endowment for the Arts, moderated the session and began by providing a national perspective on water, water fronts, and place making. He highlighted the work of the Mayors Institute on City Design, an initiative that connects mayors with designers. Mayors are charged with bringing forward a challenging project in their community for further strategic planning and analysis. As an example, he discussed the experience of Jerry Abramson, mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, who came to the Mayors Institute in 1992. Abramson wanted to know how to create connectivity between the downtown and the riverfront; he hoped to create a riverfront with a sense of place, attracting visitors and residents. Highly successful ideas for spaces along the riverfront such as the Louisville Waterfront Park, the Great Lawn, amphitheater docks, and accompanying targeted water features came from work at the institute.

Maurice Cox was followed by Doug Bennett, who is the water conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and charged with managing the nation's largest water efficiency programs and coordinating regional water-efficiency efforts for the Las Vegas, Nevada area. Bennett stressed the challenge of encouraging water conservation in a desert city like Las Vegas, a city of perceptions with casinos, like the Bellagio, that showcases major water features giving the impression that water is in abundance. In actuality, Las Vegas gets less than three inches of annual rainfall a year and is allotted a small fraction of water from the Colorado River. In the last couple of decades, 4.5 trillion gallons of water have been consumed from Lake Mead and not been replenished by Mother Nature. Study results investigating how water is consumed in the city showed that, despite perceptions of the casinos vast water usage, two-thirds of city water is used by single family/multifamily residents, with 73 gallons per square foot annually being spent on water application for lawns.

The SNWA rolled out a program encouraging people to use water smart landscape. It employed regulatory tools like new development standards which prohibited any ornamental lawns to be used for commercials landscapes or front yards of new homes. The standards also dramatically reduced the amount of lawn allowed for apartments and golf courses to try to minimize ornamental uses and encourage instead the conversion of non-functional turf back to desert landscape. The SNWA is also paying residents by the square foot to pull up their grass turf and replace it with landscaping that uses more sustainable and regional plants. Thus far, this program has been highly successful; the gallon usage per capita per day has decreased from 350 to 250 since 1990.

George Radnovich, founding principal of Sites Southwest, a firm that is an established leader in the planning, design, and management of complex ecosystems, discussed design principles to consider when planning sites or outdoor public spaces. Radnovich stressed that it was important to consider aligning water use and sustainability and to take historic perspectives into account when doing so. He outlined multiple levels in the southwest environment — the mountains, the pinon juniper zone, the grassland and high desert zone, and the low desert — that have different water fall levels and landscapes; these factors affect how landscaping design should be considered for each type of environment. From the historical perspective, Radnovich cited multiple examples of how Native Americans used landscaping efforts to capture and retain water, including using trenches and grids to hold waterfall in place and thereby generate denser landscapes.

Radnovich highlighted working concepts and technologies to reduce water use in order to create more sustainable environments that protect natural landscape. Saving the crust of the desert during landscaping and construction, for instance, and using it to recover the area after projects have been completed can more quickly regenerate the area vegetation as it contains all kinds of organic matter including seeds and stems. In addition using local materials, wind sheltering, shade, and sun creates landscapes that do not use as much water and recycle existing materials.

Ronald Lee Fleming, FAICP, the president of Townscape Institute, concluded the lecture by underlining how the value of water conservation can be cultivated by tapping into cultural and historical values of local residents. He showed examples of how infrastructure can be used to convey the personal meaning of a place, reinforcing the importance of water. For example the Gateway of the City of Cincinnati, Ohio tells the story of the water system of the Ohio River.

Fleming also used the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico as an example of drawing attention to the wildlife of a place and using design techniques to highlight water features. He showed a series of compelling images that illustrated how artists and artisans can tap into policy questions to challenge and change society values on water usage and landscaping.

Send an e-mail to WebsiteEditor@planning.org for permission to reprint this article.