Is xeriscaping "historically inappropriate" in water-challenged Dallas?

© Burton Knight

There are many who believe that the heritage preservation movement is an environmental movement. Carl Elefante says The greenest building is the one already standing. When President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, I used to say that our heritage districts aren't relics from the past, but are templates for the future.

© Burton Knight

Burton Knight lives in a Craftsman-style home in the Junius Heights Historic District of Dallas, Texas. He is certainly thinking about the future in Texas, a future where you have to be careful about water usage. He tore out the sod in front of his house and installed xeriscaping, including rocks, water-sipping plants and cacti. The local Landmark Commission which supervises historic districts has told him to tear it all out and plant grass, because cacti "aren't historically appropriate." According to the fenced Dallas Morning News:

For Knight, rising water needs and a hotter, drier Texas as a result of global warming make up the state's most urgent environmental crisis. He said his case suggests that the cultural norms that earned Dallas a reputation as a water hog are still deeply entrenched.

"How can you say the cactus is not historic"? asked Knight, who has a horticulture degree from Texas A&M university. "Guess what crop has the greatest consumption of time, energy, water and chemicals? Turf grass."

Columnist Jacquilynn Floyd hits the nub of the issue that preservationists everywhere have to deal with:

Living in a historic district shouldn't be- can't be- like living in a museum. Wood stoves and ice wagons are historically accurate, too, but they don't really meet modern requirements.... a neighborhood can aged with grace and still evolve to adapt to a changing environment.

© Burton Knight

In the heritage field, there is a concept known as a Cultural Heritage Landscape. It's more than just a building, it can be " an array of heritage elements that work together to create a whole. It can encompass buildings, structures, landforms, plantings, and viewscapes.... the focus is not on a specific structure or elements but on how a group of elements work together to represent the heritage of an area or property."

The problem arises with wind turbines, small hydro projects, solar arrays and here, xeriscaping a front yard. Is conventional sod part of the historic package, or is it background noise? Are these changes jeopardizing the historic character of the district? At what point do historic preservationists live up to their reputation for being obstructionist NIMBYs? Burton Knight may think he has a local problem, but in fact, it is universal.

Also, the thing about landscaping is that it grows. Burton tells TreeHugger that "the landscape is just starting to bloom with native plants and flowers, and by June should be gorgeous, and naturally green."

Tags: Green Building | Preservation