Me generation, 2.0

This is a Shutterstock mansion image, not the one references in the post.
This is a Shutterstock mansion image, not the one referenced in the post.

Why can’t people do whatever they want with their own property? This is America, after all. Yes. But individual volition, as essential as that is, depends on a delicate relationship between the desires of the one and the comfort of all. It’s an ongoing debate, and I hear snippets of it all the time, because I’ve been involved for some years in historic preservation in Buffalo. We have nineteenth century structures that are owned by absentee landlords who don’t understand why they need to patch a roof or why they can’t cover everything up with vinyl siding. But there are ordinances—albeit not always that well enforced—that stop these people from doing (or not doing) whatever they want to their buildings. They resent it. They truly believe that they should be allowed to let their properties fall apart, regardless of the impact that has on the community.

Within the more ambiguous arena of the domestic landscape, ordinances are not so clear (outside of neighborhoods bound by clear HOA rules). And just like historic preservation—though both have been understood to have value since the early initiatives of the sixties and seventies (and before)—preservation of the natural environment and its associated resources is still something that people debate.

I was thinking of all this when I saw a Facebook post by a fellow garden writer, who posted an image of a Santa Barbara estate surrounded by acres of well-watered, carefully tended lawn.  We haven’t seen lawn here in Buffalo since November, but California is unblessed by the copious precipitation we’ve been having. In fact, the state is experiencing one of its most severe droughts ever—for a fourth consecutive year. Residents have been asked to reduce their water use by 20%, and there are some minor restrictions on outdoor water use in place, with heavier restrictions under consideration. Fines are minimal. That’s why a wealthy resident could ignore the laws and just pay the fine—we have that happen with housing violators as well.

In comments on the Facebook post, some commenters, even though they deplored the waste of water, still insisted on the rights of the property owner to waste water however he or she chose. I  don’t understand  this insistence on the individual right to do anything, no matter how it may harm the larger community. It’s a mindset that’s active in other arenas than preservation and water conservation, and it gets scarier every year.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Excellent points! It’s a deep ideological difference, I’m afraid, and not easy to change. What boggles me is that in my New Deal-era cooperative townhouse community, there are members (our term for homeowners) with that libertarian, against-all-rules attitude. Susan

  2. The tide (no pun intended) is turning in California, albeit slowly. Focused on turning a quick buck or lacking vision, the mega-mansion developers/flippers may put in grass but residents are slowly coming to the realization that lawns don’t make sense here and nurseries, garden centers, and landscapers are increasingly turning people away from them. I think the creation of a new aesthetic developed around “California-friendly” planting will do more in the long-term than fines, especially in the wealthier areas. Unfortunately, appeals to social responsibility work in some cases but not all. There are still plenty of climate change and drought deniers here – I just hope the message gets through before parts of California end up in the same boat as Sao Paulo, Brazil.

    • If only I could convert the couple who own the place we’re renting to the Word of No Wasting Water in a Drought, Chapter: Xeriscape is Not Ugly.

      However, their money has been spent, and it’s OUR money that pays for the water the front lawn uses.

  3. Here in Napa , the city will pay you to replace lawn with climate appropriate and low water use plants–the program is Cash for Grass, and applies to businesses as well. I see lawn disappearing all over this valley, and in the higher income areas (of which there are many) use of natives and summer drought tolerant plants is becoming ‘cool’ ..on the other hand, this is California, and people from cold climates move here with no understanding of the complete lack of rainfall in summer, and thus plant what they are accustomed to in their place of origin.

    • “people from cold climates move here with no understanding of the complete lack of rainfall in summer” – my next-door neighbors moved here from Chicago about a year ago. It wasn’t until June or so that I realized how little understanding they had of the basics of CA climates. I was in my front yard adjusting my irrigation while they watered their lawn with a garden hose. Mr Neighbor looked over at me and said, “We sure could use some rain, huh?” I laughed at his understatement and answered, “Yeah, but it’ll be a while before we get any.” He looked puzzled and replied, “So … maybe next week?” He looked very distressed when I answered back, “Uh, no. More like October. September if we’re lucky.” I think he was half-sure I was kidding.

      After reading Ivette’s post re: drought-friendly landscaping, I realized the rebates for Cash for Grass are wildly variable. My city north of Sacramento offers 50 cents per square foot of turf removed. LA offer $4! While I applaud LA for putting such priority on water conservation, I’m bummed that my own conversion project won’t be funded nearly so well.

  4. It’s so complicated, Elizabeth! Speaking from the drought zone, there are some real crimes being perpetrated in the name of drought – namely, really ugly gardens. Once the easy default of the lawn is gone, people are at a loss – and they just reach for what is easy. The result is pretty … bad. Creating a real garden isn’t as simple or easy as putting in lawn and a few foundation shrubs, and now I see WHY that is so successful – it is so easy and it looks better than other easy alternatives! So there is a big need for low cost garden designers who can fill the niche for quick, easy landscapes that look good! Arg this is all I can think about!

  5. Water in Santa Barbara is only slightly more plentiful than in the City of Mendocino. Unfortunately there is the city of Santa Barbara and the wealthy suburbs, and the rest of the county, with very very little economic middle. Them who has, ignores, them who don’t, grit their teeth while paying water bills.

  6. It would seem that the “I’ll water my lawn and the community be hanged” attitude is akin to the one held by those who don’t want to vaccinate their kids. Communal good versus individual rights appears to be an increasingly prevalent face off that has far-reaching repercussions. Don’t know how we get to the right balance.

  7. Pat, I agree. I was in California during the drought in the 1970s, and the attitude was so different from that of today. I know there are people who care about the common good there today, but back then, it was the prevailing attitude. We really felt like we were all in it together. I miss that kind of thinking.

  8. Central Texas has the same problem as far as water conservation and the more well off seeming to ignore the laws and rules to keep their yards green. Many could save money in the long term by having their irrigation updated to more efficient nozzles and controllers as well as drip irrigation. But rather than spend a thousand dollars to do that they’d rather pay the same amount in extra water and fines every year.
    The way some older systems were built, simply retrofitting to more water efficient MP nozzles and drip irrigation could cut water use on the landscape drastically while still keeping the grass beautiful and green.

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