BY BRANDI ENGEMAN
Recently, the Los Alamos County Council heard a report compiled by the Environmental Sustainability Board and Parks and Rec Board about eliminating the use of certain herbicides on Los Alamos County properties. The outcome was a positive one for our community and public feedback was given wholehearted consideration during the council meeting.
Another topic that is under discussion currently, and the subject of much debate, is the upcoming updates to Code 18 (commonly known as the nuisance code) of the Los Alamos County Charter. The County Council, through staff and contractors, sent out a survey asking questions of the community to gather public feedback on the code revamp.
The recent survey, and the controversy surrounding it, has many people discussing what a more community and people-centered code would look like. Eliminating the subjective parts of the code, those that end up defining what a yard or property “should” look like, is vital to a cohesive community. Many agree, aesthetically based codes that are centered on increasing property values are not as important as objective codes that enforce safety issues and do not pit neighbor against neighbor in a battle over what a yard or property should look like.
In addition to removing subjective wording in the code, we should be looking at how a code that focuses on aesthetics may have a severe and negative environmental impact on our community in years to come.
For decades the standard for American homes has been the lawn (or in regions like ours, manicured rockscapes). In recent years, science has told us that these standards are increasingly environmentally unsound and have their roots in racist and classist aesthetics. Lawns are a monoculture that eliminate native plants, especially some of those that bees and other pollinators rely on to sustain healthy populations. The most well-known weed, the dandelion, is one of the first to appear in spring and pollinators rely on them for an early source of food. Lawns, and landscapes manicured to be weed free, including some styles of rockscapes, traditionally use a tremendous amount of water, herbicides and pesticides. They destroy and usurp native plants and lead to fewer resources for native pollinators and beneficial soil microbes. They can contribute to additional heat and warming in areas that lack adequate shade further harming the immediate environment around them. They can eliminate food sources for birds and native wildlife. All of these should be of great concern to our community where water is scarce and we are host to several migrating bird species.
Codes that promote aesthetics can unintentionally penalize those who chose to “grow food, not lawns” as plants grown for food can seem messy or unkempt to someone who isn’t familiar with the movement away from manicured landscapes. Being able to grow food, in whatever limited space is available, is an important component in alleviating food insecurity and contributing to a diverse ecosystem. In some cases, creating spaces for communities to gather and enjoy the fruits of several gardeners’ labor is an important piece in the “place making” puzzle we hear about consistently from the County Council and their staff and contractors. A prime example of a local business contributing in this way is Bathtub Row and the beautiful outdoor space they have; if you didn’t see the sunflowers at their peak this summer or get to nibble one of the fresh peas growing in amongst the hops, you definitely missed out.
The current county code could discourage such spaces in neighborhoods and commercial areas in favor of less environmentally sustainable lawns and manicured landscapes that are aesthetically pleasing to a few who are holding on to outdated ideals of what makes a “good” neighborhood. As a county with a diverse population and a focus on environmental sustainability leadership, we should be encouraging more people to move away from these outdated ideals and set up systems that support people through the process of diversifying their landscapes, rather than punish them through a series of code violations and anonymous reporting tools that only demoralizes communities.
I encourage each of you to reach out to County Leadership and Staff and ask that when they sit down to rewrite the Nuisance Code, they build on the precedent they set recently and focus more on people care, environmental sustainability, out of the box thinking and place-making that is diverse and attainable for all our neighbors, and encourage the Community Development Department and Staff to bring ideas to the table that will allow Los Alamos county to grow into a true leader in innovative community building.