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Billy’s Lament to Santa Barbara’s Parks
updated: Dec 18, 2010, 10:15 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Good thing I saw the cute pink Vespa in my rear view mirror or I would have locked up the brakes. I had just driven past a new landscape installation by the City of Santa Barbara and even at 24 miles an hour I knew something was wrong.

The good news was I'd solved my bi-weekly Edhat dilemma, "What the *#%$ am I going to write about THIS time?" Once again, something to snark about.

I parked, approached on foot and took it all in - too visually "noisy", too crowded with plants that will get really big, too stylistically disconnected from the building… That was just my warm-up.

My first instinct was to launch another diatribe in my Crimes Against Horticulture campaign. But what if I'm off base? What if I'm just being an ass?

So I emailed some of my more levelheaded, cucumber cool landscape designer friends, asking them to visit the landscape. I thought they'd recommend that I chill out and take my meds. Nah, they all agreed with me.

So big deal. It's not the end of the world that someone planted a bad landscape, but this is a symptom of a bigger problem I've been meaning to write about for a few years. This time, the scale tipped, so I'm putting it in words.

What's Wrong?

I can't find anyone in particular to blame. It's a perfect storm wrought by the confluence of many factors: "the economy", well-intentioned environmentalists, complacency, and a gaping blank spot in the city of Santa Barbara's org chart.

Ask most people and you'll hear high praise for Santa Barbara's parks. They're picturing the confetti of water lilies at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, the billion-dollar island views from the bluffs of Shoreline Park, the idyllic hiking trails through chaparral.

But let your gaze linger a moment and you'll see the gradual surrender of what were once robust beds of beautiful plants from around the world, the inevitable onslaught of zombie weeds, shrubs expediently meatballed to save time, and Dr. Franceschi's inspired botanical collection fading on the hillside.

FACTOR 1: No Money, Honey

How did we get here? Money is a big factor. In budget cycle after budget cycle, P&R has been bled dry while at the same time taking on more responsibility. High maintenance facilities like Skater's Point, the Chase Palm Park expansion, and the new, but soon to be dead, planters along the Cabrillo Arts and Craft Show keep coming on line, while maintenance workers get pink-slipped to balance the ledger.

Fewer people and more acreage - something's gotta give.

FACTOR 2: You Can't Do That Anymore

Based on emotional pressure from local environmental groups and parents, Roundup and other effective materials were virtually eliminated from the department's arsenal. (These are the same products gardeners and homeowners can buy and use with no oversight.) I'm not going to argue the usefulness or heinousness of these chemicals, other than to say that when moms and little kids fill the pews at public meetings, logic and science don't get a full hearing.

Be that as it may, the most effective means of keeping aggressive, rampant, voracious, horticultural terrors at bay was locked away. To fill the void, the Parks division created the Green Team: Flame-belching wands were wielded, horticultural vinegar was tossed about (without even a splash of EVOO!), and searing saunas of steam were sprayed. Mountains of mulch were piled high, in hopes of smothering the bad guys.

"The green team was pretty effective," says Santos Escobar, park superintendent. "But the funding was pulled a few budget cycles ago."

Even mattresses of mulch can't stop Kikuyu grass. Next time you stroll Shoreline Park, look for the unintended patches of grass on the bluff side of the walkways. Those spaces were once filled with colorful flowering plants. But once a few errant sprigs of Kikuyu grass from the nearby lawn took root, the pretties didn't stand a chance.

It didn't used to be like that. A few years ago, a well-trained, properly attired, cautious park employee would squirt the necessary dosage of Roundup and the weeds would go quietly to meet their maker. Now those beds have been surrendered and roving patches of grass appear where never intended, like verdant, malignant goatees. Once Kikuyu takes hold, other than a controlled napalm drop, the only alternative is the expensive and marginally effective removal off everything, followed by replanting and a couple of years of labor-intensive nurturing. I don't see that in the stars or the economy.

FACTOR #3: Where Is The Love?

In 2002, we celebrated the City Parks' centennial. There were special events, tours, and a photography exhibit.

In the exhibition catalogue, 100 Years of Santa Barbara Parks: 1902 - 2002, Richard Johns, then Parks and Recreation Director, wrote, "Santa Barbara is blessed to have a park system with a rich history of horticultural passion, community generosity, and geographic diversity."

The geography hasn't changed and there are still generous, caring community members giving their time and dollars. It's the horticultural passion I'm worried about.

The passion needs a big shot of libido. I've pondered this question at this blog before: Where are the rabid horticulturists in the community?

Not inside the department. The two top managers at P&R come from recreation, planning and environmental backgrounds. That's great and necessary in an organization responsible for the stewardship of natural resources, providing social services, promoting healthy lifestyles and keeping the financial ship afloat on a tempestuous sea of budgetary uncertainty.

But what about the hundred year horticultural legacy in the parks? At a time when staff has to consider whether to lock down some of the bathrooms to save money, who will be the guardian of good design, botanical diversity and protection of the legacy?

FACTOR #4: Is Anybody Watching?

[The following is not sour grapes and I hold no grudges toward anyone in the City organization. I'm having a lot of fun now.]

For the first time since at least the 60s there are no landscape architects working at the City of SB. That troubles me. There are, and always have been, very dedicated and talented horticulturist in the leadership and ranks. But horticulture and landscape architecture are two very different creatures. I served as city landscape architect from 1987 until I was laid off in 2009 -- budget cuts. My departure made sense, even if I didn't see it coming. I was a high-overhead project manager and there wasn't more than a handful of chump change in the pipeline for new projects.

In my 22 years I played a key role in everything from picking out flowerpots and posies in front of City Hall to getting a skateboard park shoehorned into a parking lot on the waterfront. I had my fingers in everything landscape related, including projects done by other departments.

Landscape architecture is a Big Picture discipline: We're the "lite" version of civil engineers, city planners, sociologists, architects, horticulturists, ecologists, and artists. We use our training to create beautiful, useful, sustainable spaces. And when big projects came along that couldn't be designed in-house, we hired teams of talented designers and engineers. Everything the consultants submitted had to pass by me and other capable staff, to assure that we got the best for our public spaces.

Remove that lobe of the organizational brain and stuff happens, like the new project that nearly resulted in pain and suffering for the Vespa gal. I guess you're wondering where this miscarriage of gardening is located, but I'm gonna have to leave you hanging for two weeks, cuz once again, I've used up my space. I promise not only to reveal the secret location and issue my critique (with constructive suggestions for improvement), but also spread sunshine on a welcome surge in volunteerism.

In the meantime, ponder this: Is a world-class destination like Santa Barbara willing to protect the high standards that once prevailed in our parks and open spaces? Is it solely for want of funding that we're headed down this road? Is it fair for the city's design review boards to insist that every project be held to high landscaping standards when it's obvious it can't be cared for?

I'd like to hear your comments.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 128625 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 10:23 AM

Thank you for asking the question: Is anybody watching?

I've wondered that myself.


 COMMENT 128630P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 10:36 AM


Guerilla Gardening Seed Bombs: (1) Classic Clay Seed Ball (2) NYC Green Guerilla Grenade (3) Kabloom "SeedBom" (4) Explosive Eggs (5) Seed Balloon (6) Seed Pills

On the Mesa, the residents are taking it upon themselves to plant fruit trees to help feed hungry people in our community.

I've heard that Milpas supporters are going to get involved in plantings along Milpas.

The City of S.B. City Council could establish a commission for volunteers to work on city owned projects as you have discussed that need tending. Where there's a will, there's a way.

Thanks for bringing up this topic. It is time for us, all of us, to get involved and keep Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria beautiful.


 COMMENT 128651 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 11:37 AM

@630P: I've done my share of guerilla gardening, but I never knew about all these cool methods of dispersal. I would wait for a windy day and go upwind from where I wanted the seeds to be. Pretty hit-or-miss method. Thanks for the great ideas!!


 COMMENT 128669P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 12:32 PM

I am afraid that whenever I see anything connected to Mr. Santos Escobar all I see is b u r e a u c r a t, although that should be in all caps, shouting. He has not shown to my knowledge, at least, a caring and dedication to plant and wild life; and as for his relationship with the plant-concerned residents...!

But as for Shoreline Park, there are lots of people who live on Marine Terrace. This park is basically their back yard. Why don't they be recruited to volunteer, exactly as ...630P suggests. (Great website, GG.org!)


 COMMENT 128673 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 12:45 PM

Yes it is sad that the city is more interested in retaining overpaid bureaucrats. They are the city employees who you cannot figure out why they receive the salary they receive, .nor figure out what it is that they do. A landscape architect is a sorely needed at p&r. Get rid of some of the "planners" over in Community Development


 COMMENT 128685 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 01:24 PM

Billy you're lucky, I keep most of my complaints in and have few that really even care to hear them. It sure can be frustrating. I agree with most of your 'critiques' and recognize you have a way with words. a Humbled Landscraper


 COMMENT 128691 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 01:39 PM

But hey, look how beautifully landscaped our bulb-outs are!


 COMMENT 128697 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 01:59 PM

The city is using Redevelopment Funds to improve these areas, creating even more work for Santos and the other city gardeners.

I've been in contact with the city about the West Beach weeds (soon to be Westfield.) Nancy Rapp was very kind in her email, saying the city has 57 parks and 3.1 miles of beach to maintain. So I give the city the benefit of the doubt. Without spraying Roundup, how much can the city really do?

I like organic gardening, but I fear the weeds are going to win.


 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 02:23 PM

Thank you, Billy. Hear, Hear! I esp. love the comment about moms and little kids at public hearings negatively impacting logic and science. The same can be said about *many* theoretical environmentalists -- those who never actually *work* in the environment, but have strong opinions about it. Round-up on Kikuyu is the only thing that works, or it will overcome everything nearby. Fingers crossed that good design, long term planning, and common sense might return some day soon...


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 03:14 PM

About Guerrilla gardening and seed bombs - DON'T DO IT! It sounds all anarchistic and green and Gaia-y, but how do you know how those seeds will behave if they escape. I'm sick to death of watching plants like fountain grass overrun San Marcos Pass and half the coast. The pretty little flower you bomb with today could be tomorrow's time bomb. Please pay attention to what goes in those bombs.


 COMMENT 128724 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 03:36 PM

I agree ! Just look at the "flower beds" and the parking strips on the way up Carillo Hill to the Mesa. Mulch and BIG weeds getting worse all the time. Landscaping, my foot ! What a waste. A little round-up would solve the problem, and help all the down-wind recipients of those weed-seeds


 COMMENT 128729 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 03:51 PM

Love the City, glad I retired before the downturn and big budget cuts. Grateful you are putting this info out there Billy I hope Jim A is an Edhat reader! Sometimes we have to look at what is really being given up to save $$$.

It must make you really sad to see what is happening after all those years of trying to make it right.


 GREENTOO agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 04:08 PM

Billy, Thank you for voicing the frustration that many horticulturally concious citizens feel with P&R. Your institutional memory of the decline and its causes is right on. Yes, the weeds are winning. Invasive kikuyu and other pernicious weeds are everywhere. At certain times if the light is dim and you squint your eyes just right areas in some parks, (Alice Keck especially), look alright. When you realize that scorched earth hidden with mulch does not make a garden, not so much. I'm betting that your recent near encounter with a Vespa was inspired by the new "landscape" at Louise Lowry Davis Center.


 COMMENT 128737P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 04:15 PM

Speaking of bulb-outs.....City crews were out covering them with mulch this week. The original plants are gone from many due to traffic not acknowledging their existence.


 COMMENT 128756P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 05:45 PM

Bring back "generic" RoundUp. (It's now generic, and much cheaper than the name brand stuff still being pushed thru manufacturer stocking fees and incentives at Home Depot, Lowe's, etc.) Anyone who objects can volunteer to the weed-pulling and poison oak eradication patrol - BYOG (bring your own gloves).


 COMMENT 128764P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-18 06:13 PM

Much like with any organization, without a brain at the top all the arms/legs/hands/feet go out in all directions without any direction. This area of our local government surely needs a brain at the top, Goodnick or someone else. Home/property owners in town all know "it's not expensive" to hire the grunt work. Let's spend the money on the brain and get this place looking as it should. Volunteers are great, but everyone moving a shovel needs to understand the greater plan outlaid by aforementioned brain. Great article Billy, thank you.


 COMMENT 128818 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-19 09:17 AM

Honestly, I enjoy pulling weeds, it's a little meditative for me. Whenever I'm at a park or waiting for a bus, I pull weeds where I am. I would gladly sign up for monthly weeding parties at our city parks. Our children grew up enjoying these parks and if someone in the city would coordinate a volunteer clean up schedule, I think you'd be surprised at how many people would donate 2 or 3 hours of yardwork. All this in defense of the city's decision NOT TO USE roundup, a terrible herbicide.
Post a schedule here on EdHat, one park a month, see what happens.....


 COMMENT 128905 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-19 12:51 PM

It's always easy to pick on staff and the administrators when we see these kinds of problems. Instead, why don't we ask what our role, as taxpayers, was in getting into this and other similar messes. When it comes to the City's parks, everybody wants more, and cleaner and "greener" and cheaper and more available and on and on, but at what price? Nothing is free, there is no free lunch, there is a cost to everything. And then there's a Recession....now what? Instead of taking pot shots why not offer up solutions :-)


 COMMENT 128926 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-19 02:00 PM

Seems like one good solution on the maintenance end of more attractive installations would be to enlist the voluntary help of some of the able and willing homeless population who could give-back for the services they receive, as well as some of the folks who end-up in county jail and are interested in being outdoors and working on their good behavior early-outs...maybe sweeten the deal by giving food vouchers to the homeless. Have an organized and basically free source of labor that could be overseen through Parks and Recreation, and along with the presence of guards for the inmate workers the community would also gain an on-site partial solution to monitoring any illegal or disruptive behaviors that have been making some of the public areas less attractive family destinations.


 COMMENT 128974 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-19 06:53 PM

I hesitate to employ people or allow volunteers who don't have much experience in landscape. For the inexperienced to be a solution it would require amounts of training. Community service and SWAP workers seldom produce effective trainees. I believe we are looking for a quality "finish" look. So common the "maintenance idea" of what the scape should look like is far different from the "vision of the designers". Weed and weed seed contamination by maintenance that relied on round-up for so many years must learn to adapt until certain herbicides are allowed. Nip it in the bud. Bermuda is worse than Kikuyu.


 COMMENT 129157 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-12-20 11:22 AM

I see all kinds of workers leaning against their trucks looking at their cell phones and clicking away. Maybe if they really were waiting for someone or something, instead of clicking on their cell phone they could bend over and pull a weed or two. Maybe work a few more minutes instead of getting paid to click the cell. (Not to say that they don't work hard as I know many do but...many don't!) Ban private cell phones from the job. Breaks and emergencies only.


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