For the Love of Teenagers

The following is the talk I gave at last week’s Landscape Architecture Foundation Symposium in Washington, D.C.

During fifteen years working and living in Los Angeles I’ve visited, studied, and helped to design landscapes for at least two dozen LA Unified School District public schools. For twelve years, my children attended (LAUSD) schools. As they reached high school, like so many of their peers, they suffered from stress, anxiety, depression, and bullying.

While I’m sure they were planned with the best intentions, the design of their schools—both inside and out— failed to support their mental health and well-being. They, and all of our teenagers, needed and deserved high schools that would guide them into adulthood with empathy, support, and love.

Eagle Rock High School environments

Urban communities are beset by air pollution, light pollution, and noise. LAUSD Director of Mental Health Pia Escudora reported in 2016 that fifty percent of the district’s students suffer moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder from family and neighborhood traumas like the death of a loved one, poverty, a parent suffering addiction or incarceration, or gang violence. These students, along with the growing number of students diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, sensory integration disorders, and on the autism spectrum disorder are hyper- sensitive to noise, light, and visual chaos.

Trauma Rates for US versus LAUSD

Trauma Rates for US versus LAUSD

PTSD and Subsidized Meals for US versus LAUSD

PTSD and Subsidized Meals for US versus LAUSD

To put this in perspective, 10-30 percent of combat veterans and rape victims suffer PTSD. Of the nearly 650,000 students attending Los Angeles public schools, 325,000 suffer PTSD. Add to this startling statistic, that 80 percent (well over half a million) of district students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. Designing school grounds to mitigate these traumas will help all who study, teach, and work there.

For the past year, with the help of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, I’ve studied opportunities to leverage high school environments to support students’ mental health and well-being. I’ve found solutions that can be applied not only at LAUSD, the second largest school district in the United States, but to urban schools everywhere.

Los Angeles campuses that were once planned and designed with open and welcoming entries, generous lawns, and large gardens were slowly eroded by pressures of a growing school population, auto-centric planning, concern for security, and shrinking maintenance budgets.

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Last year, LAUSD finished a $20 billion effort to build 131 new schools in Los Angeles, in order to end overcrowding, involuntary bussing, and year-round school schedules. While some were designed by highly regarded architects, they continue to follow outdated codes & policies which lack empathy for the students’ experiences, and prioritize abstract architectural statements, secure entries, and vandal-proof materials over student comfort, mental health, and well-being.

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And many more campuses remain physical manifestations of decades of neglect. I ask you what message are we sending the students attending these schools? After the bond-funded build-out, the district budget doesn’t allocate enough funds to renovate and maintain all of its school buildings and landscaped grounds.

Perceived Safety

LAUSD’s annual School Experience Survey asks students, parents, and staff questions about educational goals, supports, and expectations. The graph below of 44 Los Angeles public high schools represents how many students and staff agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, “I feel safe at school,” and how many parents agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, “My child is safe at school.” As you read the graph to the right, even in those schools where students feel the most safe, the number of students feeling safe remains over 15 percentage points below their parents and teachers. It is clear that teens feel markedly less safe in their school than the adults in their lives.

2016 SES Graph-SchoolSafety-bySchool_FINAL

We can point to at least one reason why this is true. Neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen switched her research from infant brains to teenage brains when her sons hit adolescence. She writes in the Teenage Brain, that as adults the hormone tetrahydropregnanolone (THO) modulates anxiety … teenagers have that same hormone, but in their brains, it amplifies anxiety. Teenagers are physically wired to feel greater stress and anxiety. So, the same stressors that impact all people living in urban neighborhoods — mainly associated with sensory overload — are more troublesome to teens.

Schools can mitigate this problem with better design to make students feel safe.

Unlike programs that rely on teachers or staff to identify students in need of mental health intervention, physical school improvements provide equal opportunity to help everyone who uses the school grounds. This idea—that school environments can improve one’s mental state —is not new but it is rarely included in discussions on how to support school safety and the lives of teenagers.

Sycamore Leaves

Attention Restoration Theory

Fifty years ago, psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan began working on Attention Restoration Theory, positing that the restful attention paid to leaves moving in a breeze, sun glinting off of water, birds singing from a tree, or other natural scenes reduces heart rate and stress and restores attention. For the past three decades, University of Illinois landscape architecture professors William Sullivan, Frances Kuo, Andrea Faber-Taylor, and their graduate students have furthered the theory. They’ve related access to nature in public high schools and housing projects with improved test scores … increased social cohesion … higher self-esteem … reduced crime … and a deeper sense of community.

Ten years ago, Rodney Matsuoka’s University of Michigan doctoral study correlated environmental attributes in Michigan high schools with student behavior and educational success. He found that schools along high-activity streets and with larger classroom windows associate with less student crime (like illegal possession, vandalism, and violence). And natural features next to school buildings and an open campus policy associate with more students planning to go to four-year colleges.

Rodney Matsuoka Michigan High Schools

Wide Open Views in High Schools

Wide open views, on the other hand, even if they were of living grass, related to more student crime and disorderly conduct (like bullying, fighting, and insubordination); and fewer students planning to go to college. Despite decades of knowledge pointing to these impacts, exemplary models of school environments for mental health are difficult, if not impossible, to find. I found pieces … and the best examples were in Berlin.

Examples from Schools

Berlin has transformed its schoolyards for the past two decades. In addition to managing stormwater, their focus has been on reducing students’ stress and aggression. The most striking differences between these schools and those in Los Angeles are the number of small and medium-sized gathering spots amid trees and gardens. Where most Los Angeles schools maintain open schoolyards to allow easy supervision of students, the Berlin schoolyards were full of woods and plants that gave students plenty of small sheltered places where they could sit alone or with friends.

The gardens support science and arts education as well. Berlin’s school’s boasted bee hives and honey sheds … little food gardens … vine mazes … mosaic paving and sculpted benches … and small shaded seats. This “school in a garden” model is achieved with students and the community helping to plan and maintain the gardens, and with local artists who engage students to create art for the schoolyards.

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Marshall High School in Fairfax County Virginia was the site of extensive school renovations six years ago. The new library is filled with sunlight and views of trees. Large classroom windows open onto a series of courtyards, one for each level, with trees and seating where students can eat their lunch outside and teachers can hold classes. Campus-wide improvements to manage stormwater became educational resources for students studying ecology and watershed health … and a source of pride when the news crews came to tour the new model green school.

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In downtown Pomona, California, The School of Arts and Enterprise epitomizes the idea of a school on an active street with an open campus. It is housed in re-habbed bank, retail, and office buildings in downtown Pomona, California. The high school opened 15 years ago to serve students in a neighborhood which was known in the late 90s as “the deadliest zip code for children.” From the beginning, the school and the downtown revitalization efforts were seen as mutually beneficial in efforts to bring a downtown abandoned by manufacturing and jobs … this is an area that’s been called Southern California’s rust belt.

Students move through downtown to attend classes and galleries and theater events in four different buildings. They are free to leave campus for lunch and open classes. The students’ free movement has a number of benefits, one of the biggest being that the neighbors gets to know them, and say hello to them, and know not to be afraid of them. This creates a community where these teenagers feel welcomed and valued … I want you to think about this. Teenagers feeling welcomed and valued.

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Finland, which the World Economic Forum repeatedly ranks number one in education, is redesigning its schools to support a move towards project-based rather than subject-based education. The schools are designed with quiet areas and flexible collaboration spaces replacing single-purposes classrooms and laboratories. The goal is to prepare teenagers for the workplace and collaborative environments of the present and future.

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But these examples are few and far between. After half a century of research, Why aren’t there more? And what are we going to do about it? Dr. Sullivan told me, “If parents knew that green views were roughly equivalent to a dose of Ritalin, even for students without ADHD, they would demand that districts get rid of classrooms without windows and put gardens at every school.”

Six Obstacles and Responses

1. Lack of Knowledge: People don’t know … the research hasn’t left the academy. Restorative school environments for mental health isn’t yet part of conversations about school planning, design, maintenance, or school safety and mental health and well-being.

Response: It’s Time to Start a Movement. We need to share this knowledge with everyone involved in school planning, design, and maintenance … I’m sharing this work with architects and landscape architects, school administrators and teachers. And will continue writing to share with the general public … please help me share the knowledge!.

2. Lack of Policy: District and state policies don’t mandate or suggest school design for mental health. In fact many policies contradict it.

Response: We need to bring together students and the mental health, design, environment, and education communities to develop policies that prioritize students’ mental health and well-being. Working with the Prevention Institute and the Green LA Coalition, we’ll host our first Designing Schools for Mental Health workshop this fall in Los Angeles.

3. Lack of Eyes: While parent and community volunteers are common in elementary schools, in high school … that’s not the case.

Response: Nearby business owners, artists, and senior citizens can act as garden docents and informal mentors for students to add eyes in and around campus … and be there for those teenagers who might need a little extra support.

4. Lack of Involvement: During the Design process for schools, Students are not involved. Teachers and staff aren’t involved. The community is not involved.

Response: An inclusive design process that involves students, staff, and the community will better serve students and give them a sense of ownership and pride in their school. We are developing processes to survey and observe students to find out where and why they feel safest at school. Students deserve to have their voices heard.

5. Lack of Funds: The district barely has the funds to maintain what it has, let alone to renovate and add gardens.

Response: But California schools gets state funding based on enrollment and attendance. More than 80,000 LAUSD students missed three weeks last year, costing the district $20 million in lost funds. Since research shows that restorative environments reduce sick days at work, the same should be true in schools, boosting enrollment, attendance, and funding. Imagine using that money to create warmer, nurturing high school environments where teenagers want to show up?

6. Fear: These high schools were designed out of fear of vandalism, truancy, and added maintenance Costs. Yet, research shows it is access to nature, big classroom windows, and open campuses along active streets that reduce crime, disorderly conduct, stress, and anxiety.

Response: With love, we can design high schools to support teenagers dealing with trauma, stress, mental health issues, and the rest of them too. Teenagers are uniquely vulnerable to urban stresses. Public high school is the last chance to build trust, hope, and community before young people become independent adults.

Transforming Teen-dom

Transforming the way we treat our teenagers will transform the way they think of themselves and the way they interact with the people and neighborhoods around them. Restorative high school environments can invite and build a broad community around our adolescents; improve the quality of the neighborhood; reduce teenagers’ anxiety and aggression; and make them feel safer, more hopeful, and whole. With love, we can provide school environments that nurture the future stewards of our public realm and our planet. This is the atmosphere that all of us, especially teenagers, deserve.

Tense Teens: Why High Schools Should Provide Restoration

Even if you don’t yet or won’t ever have a teenager, you were one once. This one is for all of you.

Teendom is a time of exploration and change and stress and too often, trauma. This year I’m using my Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership with the Landscape Architecture Foundation to look for ways high school landscapes can support students’ mental health and well-being, academic success, and environmental justice as well as the many environmental benefits healthy landscapes can provide.

While I was guiding my own teenagers through some intense times, a dear friend gave me The Teenage Brain. Dr. Frances E. Jensen, a neuroscientist studying children’s brains, switched her research to teenagers to understand her sons’ adolescence. I finally read the chapter on stress last week, and it helped explain a disturbing pattern I’ve been seeing in my research on high school landscapes. I want to share this little piece as I begin exploring solutions for better high school environments for our teens.

Jensen cites research done ten years ago on the hormone tetrahydropregnanolone (THP), which calms adults, but actually increases anxiety in teenagers. She also explains that since research on animals shows the effects of stress lasts three weeks longer in adolescent rats than in adult rats, the same is probably true in humans. Teenagers feel more stress for much longer than we do as adults.

Every year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) surveys its students, parents, and staff on issues to help with future planning efforts. This School Experience Survey asks a variety of questions to address topics such as positive school climate, academic expectations, school communications, social awareness, bullying, state standards instruction, and school safety. The results of these surveys are available online here.

In an effort to make some sense of how safe students feel in their high schools, I graphed student, parent, and staff 2016 responses to the questions asked about safety. Because LAUSD has 96 high schools, I start here with a smaller sample. I graphed the five highest and five lowest rated schools by the California Organization to Reform Education, and then selected fourteen schools representing a range of ratings and across LAUSD’s six local districts: East, West, South, Central, Northwest, and Northeast.

2016 School Experience Survey Graph: Best and Worst

Students are shown in green, parents in pink, and staff in blue. The solid line in each color represents safety on the school grounds during the day. The dashed line in each color represents safety in the neighborhood around the school. The gray line is the school’s rating, between 1-100, given by the California Office to Reform Education.

2016 School Experience Survey GraphIf the many lines on the graphs are overwhelming, pay special attention to the dashed and solid lines of each color. There is a remarkable chasm between how safe students feel at school and the neighborhoods surrounding their school compared to the adults in their lives. It’s not that surprising that only 38 percent of students felt safe or very safe at Fremont High School, the birthplace of the Crips, compared to 85 percent of students feeling safe or very safe at Marshall High School, that iconic school where Grease and Pretty in Pink were filmed.

But it is surprising the level of safety that parents and staff feel about schools across the board, while students bring their perceptions of safety in the neighborhood with them into school. At all schools, over 80 percent of parents thought there child was safe on school grounds, and staff responses were even higher. This difference results in a 12 to 50 percent gap between how many teenagers felt safe on school grounds versus their parents, teachers, and school staff.

Teenagers so often get a bad rap. And yet, even as they suffer from extreme stress, the everyday environments of public high schools are rarely nurturing and supportive. We can change that. Rodney Matsuoka’s 2008 landscape architecture dissertation pointed to views of nature and open campuses as being the two highest predictors of high school students’ academic, social, and behavioral success. High school grounds can be planned, designed, and programmed to build community and social cohesion, improve self-worth and self-esteem, improve attention and learning, and improve physical health.

For the next five months, I’ll be gathering solutions and examples of high school grounds that break the mold to care for and nourish our teenagers’ intellects, hearts, and spirits. Please share with me any examples or solutions you might have.

And, next time you find yourself annoyed or disturbed by a teen, think about how much more annoyed or disturbed they are by the world around them.

Love and Fear in LA

Image by Margaret Gerhart

Image by Margaret Gerhart

Sometimes things happen that make you question everything.

Two weeks ago, I walked along 103rd Street toward the corner of Grape in Watts with several community advocates and a selection committee from the California Natural Resources Agency. Viviana Franco and Maria De Leon from From Lot to Spot, the non-profit who applied for an Urban Greening Grant, led us past Jordan High School and the Jordan Downs public housing development that is under redevelopment.

We described our proposal to the Agency, pointing out the portions of sidewalk to replace with shade trees and planting. Viviana had us meet in the beloved Heart of Watts community garden they installed a year ago, and showed us the parkway plantings and new concrete that brought patches of life and pride amid the crumbling curbs. As we walked, we talked about which trees would best shade people walking by and cool the apartment homes, which have no air conditioning. We noted the phone lines overhead, and the weeds and litter underfoot. We discussed native species and biodiversity. And maintenance.

A young man in a white suit and several teenaged girls passed by on their way to school. Otherwise the sidewalk was empty.

Our group included John Jones from Council District 15, Haleemah Henderson of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Amada Valle from the Heart of Watts garden, and Watts Gang Taskforce member Pinkus Crowther. We stopped at the corner of Grape at a large fenced lot where Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park will soon be. A few scraggly trees and one large one lined the fence opposite us on 102nd Street.

The light was red where Grape Street dead-ended into 103rd. A line of cars gathered. One driver leaned out his window to complain, laughing, to John about a new sign reading “No Right on Red.” John told him, “The community asked for it.”

Pinkus and I talked about the huge change trees could bring to the street.

“I just hope they don’t come cut their branches,” he said. “We plant trees and as soon as they start growing, they cut the branches so the police can see.” He turned to John, “Do you know if the police came to cut the trees yet?”

“Not yet, but they need to,” John said. He pointed across the lot at the big tree. “That big one. That’s where one of the toughest gangs in LA hangs out. The police need to cut it so they can see who is there.”

As we walked back towards the Heart of Watts, I said to Pinkus, “I know nothing of the situation here. But how do we balance immediate security with providing the very thing that can improve social cohesion, reduce criminal behavior, improve self-esteem, and build a community? Because we know trees and gardens can do that.”

“I don’t know,” he responded. I don’t know either.

This is where the tension lies. Which approach would you choose: fear, or love?

The night after I walked through Watts for the first time, my son’s best friend was killed there, on the same street I had walked on the day before. He and two friends went to a birthday party meant to bring youth from different communities together. They left the party without a ride, were attacked by a group of men, and beaten until he lay unconscious against an alley wall. One of the men pointed a gun at his friends. They ran for their lives. Two gunshots sounded. They returned to their friend, called 911, and tried to stop his bleeding. He died while they watched over him.

His friends are devastated. My eyes ache from crying. I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through. We all loved him. I will miss his kind smile and gentle nature and the days and weeks he spent with us. I will miss the unconditional love and support he gave my son during our own family struggles.

I’m grieving the only way I know how, by writing. As I grieve, I cannot help thinking about that tree as a symbol of the lives that are lost in places like Watts.

Trees provide the air we breathe. They cool our homes and our cities, protecting us from deadly heat waves. They absorb rainwater and protect us from floods. Planting more trees may even prevent senseless deaths like our dear one’s.

Drs. Kuo and Sullivan compared Chicago public housing projects and found that trees and grass in the courtyard correlated with a greater sense of community, greater feeling of safety, less aggressive and violent behavior, and less impulsivity and irritability. A study with their colleague Dr. Taylor found greater self-discipline (and fewer pregnancies) in teenage girls who lived in housing where trees and grass were. These studies illuminate the power of nature to improve mental health … to reduce the stresses and irritability that can lead to violence.

The systems so many (cities, school districts, housing developments, detention centers) have in place now — security cameras, security fencing, security guards, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), helicopter policing, reducing growth of trees and shrubs so people cannot hide behind them — these are based on fear. Fear of somebody doing something if we don’t control our environment.

This is the same fear felt by parents who keep their children inside and over-scheduled after the freer attitudes of the 60s and 70s when so many of us roamed our neighborhoods and creeks and parks by ourselves.

But what about design born of love? Love lets us imagine the best for all of our communities. Tree-lined, clean streets with safe sidewalks, public plazas and gardens for people to gather, public restrooms and parks where families feel safe. Shaded bus stops with benches and green schools with playgrounds open to the community at all hours. Jane Jacobs summed up a safe neighborhood with four words: eyes on the street.

I grew up in a neighborhood like this in the 70s. When our classmate was brutally murdered while walking home from school, our schools and parents taught us to walk in groups and know our neighbors … not to stay inside and hide. I lived in a neighborhood riddled with crack in the 80s, where gunshots went off regularly, few dared to walk after midnight, and our roommate was held at gunpoint at the corner deli. I’ve lived in a lot of situations in between, and I’ve known love and fear in all of them.

We need to overhaul the racist lending, housing, and justice systems that paved the way to where Watts and neighborhoods like it are today. Instead of the fear-based approach that led to barren projects surrounded by crumbling streets and punitive law enforcement, people deserve to be treated with compassion, humanity, and dignity. These communities need empathetic justice, medical and mental health care, education, job training, decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, and purpose.

People also need a respite from stress, a sense of community, self-esteem, beauty, and hope. These are things trees and gardens provide. Our children and teenagers, who are drowning in anxiety, need and deserve relief.

There are non-profits all over the city working for environmental justice. WORKS is a non-profit developer building affordable and sustainable residences with mental health services in LA’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land in LA has created 10 parks in the last eight years, including Watts Serenity Park which opened in 2015. From Lot to Spot sees a more humane and beautiful Watts through planting street trees and community gardens. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is leading the effort to build Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park.

We need to support these efforts, and others like them, by advocating for funds, programs, and services to help build healthier, safer communities without displacing people … to work towards social and environmental justice. Fear has had its chance, and it isn’t working. Let’s try more love.

Restorative Landscapes for Restorative Justice

During over a decade of personal and professional experience with Los Angeles public schools, I’ve struggled to understand the impacts that school landscapes have on our children’s hearts, minds, and bodies. So, I was thrilled to be selected as one of four Fellows for the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s first Fellowship in Leadership and Innovation to advocate for changing school landscapes. Each of us will receive $25,000 to support twelve weeks of work on our chosen topics over the next year.

We finished the first of three short but intense residencies in Washington, D.C., in May to introduce our topics to the LAF Board of Directors and mentor one another in methods and approaches. Lucinda Sanders, CEO and Partner at OLIN, and Laura Solano, Principal at Michael Van Valkenburg Associates are our facilitators with a focus on transformational leadership. With the help of our cohort and facilitators, and feedback from the LAF Board and guests Brad McKee, Editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine and Daniel Pittman, Design Director at A/D/O, a design/creative incubator in Brooklyn, New York, we deepened our original proposals. After a month of interviews, research, and deep thinking, I wanted to share an update.

Connecting restorative landscapes with restorative justice in Los Angeles public high schools.

A growing body of research points to the restorative and academic benefits of trees, green views, and multi-purpose landscapes for school children. High school students in schools with green views from classrooms and cafeterias recover from stress more quickly, perform better on tests, and engage in less criminal behavior such as theft, possession, and aggressive acts (Matsuoka 2008). And yet, most school districts do not mandate multi-purpose landscapes or design to increase access to nature. Schools that do have these landscapes are located in predominantly white, advantaged neighborhoods. And even these schools often have classrooms with covered windows and policies that prevent students from accessing the nature right outside.

My own children attended Eagle Rock Junior and Senior High School, a high performing and desirable school with a great mix of students from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. The school has everything going for it, except design. Rebuilt after the 1971 Long Beach earthquake, the new classroom buildings are designed to prevent the protests that took place in the 1960s. There are interior corridors of classrooms with no windows to the green hills just outside. There are classrooms in older buildings with huge windows covered with translucent film that obscures the views. There are other classrooms with clear windows looking through grates into gardens beyond. The entire school is surrounded by chain link fence. Rumor has it that the redesign was by a prison architect.

Remember how stressful high school was? High school under normal conditions is rife with physical change, mental challenge, and trying to figure out who we are. In an LA School Report last spring, Pia Escudero, director of the school Mental Health Unit for the Los Angeles Unified School District, described the rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder across LAUSD. Compared with the rate of 7-12% in the general population, and a little higher in the military, 50% of LAUSD school children suffer moderate to severe traumatic stress syndromes. Fifty percent. Understanding that students cannot learn if they are suffering trauma, new pilot programs are being tested to treat mental health.

At the same time, LAUSD has launched a restorative justice initiative in several high schools, including Eagle Rock, to address behavior issues through dialogue and reconciliation rather than punitive measures such as suspension. Nowhere in the conversations about improving mental health and behavior is the opportunity for design mentioned.

The question I am asking this year is, where are the opportunities to connect the compelling research on the restorative effects of multi-purpose landscapes (trees and shrubs) with recent efforts to address mental health and implement restorative justice practices in our schools?

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest school district in the United States. What are the obstacles to implementing restorative landscapes at LAUSD schools? How can we advocate for LAUSD to update its landscape policies to support students mental, physical, social, and academic success? How can we communicate the importance of landscape to those making daily decisions that could allow students to access the restorative qualities of nature? It is time to catalyze the elevation of school landscapes in a district that can set an example.

I’m revisiting my writing and advocacy background to focus on communications to change school district policy and practices to revalue landscape in schools. I hope you’ll follow my progress, and weigh in with relevant thoughts and experiences over the next year and beyond.




The constant gargle, whether crashing or calm, gloriously filling your ears against small or faraway sounds. At the ocean, it is just you and it.

The broken sunlight forever chasing its changing surface, cloistering its depths from we outsiders.

The bobbing lightness of standing shoulder-deep just beyond the break, rising on tiptoe in each swell, until a slight crest appears higher than your head and invites you to sink your face into its face.

The soothing sting of seawater on the dozens of bug bites dotting your arms and legs. The slight crust of salt infusing your hair with the texture and wave it sadly lacks.

The jolt of a memory of fear, unnamed and unknown, unfamiliar and familiar, turning you to shore slowly, you think slowly and elegantly but probably quickly and obviously.

The sound of your youngest behind you, wise beyond years and yet unbelievably just coming of age, in a clumsy crashing tripping dance of heavy legs and paddling arms.

“Barracuda … as big as me.”


Love grows best in little houses, so the song says. After seven years in a little house, I think it true. With three children and a one-time partner and his child in and out of my tiny two-bedroom house, my home has seen myriad living arrangements. With only me and one of my kids still at home, our 650 sq ft house feels downright grand. With a recent desire to hibernate, I’ve found myself retreating to rebuild in small ways to make my nest more comfortable for we current inhabitants.

The studio out back was finished a couple years ago, to house tenants or my mom or any children that come back to the nest. As with the house, I designed and chose materials for the studio to be as resource-efficient as possible. Since it is difficult sometimes to remember or find green resources, here are a few lessons learned. I still make mistakes, like remembering polyurethane is a plastic after sealing my guest room floor. We are, after all, still in a market that isn’t looking out for us. But we can all have healthier homes, for ourselves and the planet, with intention and a little research.

Use what you have: the studio was a kit building with a concrete floor, a solid metal roof and posts, but cardboard walls and plastic windows. I kept the footprint and roof, and framed in new walls so I could insulate for warmth and coolth.

Reclaim materials: for the best use of materials (and money), reclaim solid and natural materials from elsewhere. The metal windows, wood door, kitchen sink, and bathroom fixtures came from a Habitat ReStore. The wood floor came from a dance studio that was giving it away from free on craigslist. The brick for the patio was the foundation under my friend Meg’s old house.

Use non-toxic materials: this is a hard one. But fiberglass insulation is easy to substitute with recycled cotton denim insulation with the same R values. It is not only non-toxic and easier to hang, it also does a better job of blocking sound. For paints and finishes, look for no VOC options, and look up Safecoat for plastic-free alternatives to polyurethane … the one I forgot about in the house, argh.

Study renewable, natural, and/or low embodied energy materials: for the siding, I chose Hardie board because it is cheap and hailed as a green material. With sand, concrete, wood fibers, and water, it has little to no toxins; and since it is distributed regionally, the transportation impacts are less than products unavailable regionally.

Pterodactyl on My Back

I’m trying to get the pterodactyl off my back.

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect … the pterodactyl is no less intertwined into every choice we make. With the Dakota Access Pipeline injustice, fear of fracking-related earthquake, and a general repulsion for war, I’m making a bigger effort to wash my hands of oil and its by-products.

Walking, biking, and public transit have always been my MO. I bought my house because I could walk or bus to nearly anywhere I needed to go. With my latest job and the need to get around Southern California quickly for meetings, I acquired an all-electric car. Three months of no gas fill-ups makes me ridiculously happy.

But what about the energy I’m using when I plug in? California is progressive, but still heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its energy supply. While Senate Bill 350 mandates 50% energy from renewable sources by 2030, we now get just over 10% of our power that way. Fortunately, I can do something directly as a homeowner. I signed a contract for PV panels to use the sun’s energy to recharge my car.

To install them, though, I needed a new roof.

“That roof will collapse your house in an earthquake,” my realtor told me when I first looked at the house. It had five layers of asphalt shingles oozing at the eaves like lasagne noodles. Replacing them with one new layer of asphalt would have been easy. But I wanted to hold out until I could afford metal … twice the cost but with so many benefits.

A metal roof is cooler than asphalt, will allow me to use rainwater in my garden without fear of contaminating my vegetables, will last 60-100 years as opposed to 15-20, and isn’t made of petroleum products. It was an easy decision.

“Asphalt shingle roofs are the most compatible with PVs,” said the American Solar Direct representative in my living room.

“But I want a cool roof,” I said, throwing out the term used in design for roofing that reduces the urban heat island effect.

“Asphalt is what our engineers recommend,” she answered. “They will have to approve metal first.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m getting solar panels to reduce my use of fossil fuels … and a metal roof will help keep my house and community cooler, reducing our use of energy in air conditioning, and I can safely harvest rainwater. It’s not just about the PVs, it’s about the whole interconnected system.”

“Oh! I thought you meant cool roof as in it looks cool,” she said. “Let’s call the engineer.”

We talked it through with the engineer, who approved the metal roof. And then I talked it through with two more people from the solar company, who called to question the metal roof. I got my roofer involved in the conversation with them, and he sent the details for a special clip they use to attach photovoltaic panels to standing seam metal roofs which actually makes it the easiest system to install them on.

So it’ll happen. My metal roof is scheduled to be installed in January, and the photovoltaics go in right after that.

In the meantime, I’m designing my rainwater harvesting system so I can catch and reuse rain to water my garden and maybe even bathe in. Metal roofs allow that.

The next hurdle? Most large rain tanks are made of plastic: another petroleum product.

Politics is Personal

Politics is personal.

My grandfather Henry was born the day after Independence Day. We drove from Columbus, Ohio, to North Carolina each summer to celebrate his birthday and the Fourth of July on the Outer Banks. One summer, Henry gave us money to buy beach towels. We ran down the road to the Trading Post in our bare feet, stopping only to pick out sand spurs stuck in our heels. We came back and stormed into the house to show off our colorful selections.

Henry took one glance at Jasper’s towel, marched into the kitchen, and came back with a pair of scissors. He grabbed the towel and cut it into shreds on the living room floor. Jasper had chosen a towel with the confederate flag on it, unaware of its history. Henry, a proud Virginian, made sure we understood the significance of the flag, and the oppression it symbolized.

The week of my 18th birthday my mom took me with her on a bus full of League of Women Voters and other friends to Forsyth County, Georgia. We marched with 20,000 people from all over the country to protest violence that had broken out the week before at a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade.

As we marched, a thin line of  National Guardsmen and policemen separated us from thousands dressed in Ku Klux Klan uniforms or camouflage gear. They held confederate flags and shouted ugly words. I heard later David Duke was there. We sang songs of solidarity and peace and drowned out their hate. Coretta Scott King spoke, and Mayor Andrew Young, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was 1987.

I have never felt as afraid of other human beings, nor as connected to so many people as I did on that day. I have never felt so much hate and so much love in the same place. I have marched in other protests and happenings. But none so powerful as that one. I wonder if today’s demonstration feel the same? It has been almost 30 years.

My grandparents and parents participated in the democratic process. I counted votes with my grandparents when I was young. My mom ran for the Ohio House of Representatives when I was in high school. We celebrated election day by going to the polls with our parents to watch them vote. Our schools were closed.

I love my country. But I’m not a patriot. A patriot is “a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.” It implies sacrifice. I am a matriot. I show my love of country by doing my best to love my neighbors and raise my children to be forgiving, loving, empathetic humans. I believe life is precious and want to work towards a peaceful planet of co-existing communities. I try to live lightly on the land, and believe we can all be happier and healthier if we build community and extract as few new resources as possible.

People are afraid. Some are afraid of an uncertain future. Some are afraid of change. I am afraid my children will have fewer chances for a secure and happy life than I did. While it is impossible to say what will happen in the future — near or long-term — one thing is certain. We each have power to make our world a little more like the world we want it to be.

Despite my grandparents and parents’ example, it took me a while to find my voice as an advocate and community builder. I struggled for a long time with believing I had anything of value to say despite having an education, a privileged upbringing, and people who believed in me. When I began advocating for a safer neighborhood for my children, I decided to go back to school, in large part because I thought people would believe me if I had letters behind my name.

But here’s the secret. Participating in our democracy is free (at least, my mentor reminded me, if you are white and straight and male and christian). Everyone, no matter how young or old, how educated, or how poor, can have a say in making our future. Yes, we can vote (if you can take off work and get to the polls and have an id). But we can do so much more. Every city and town has open meetings where the public are invited to comment. Every voice is welcome. If you want to voice an opinion, propose a change, weigh in on a plan, you can have a say.

Your voice matters. You alone experience your community from your shoes. No one else sees what you see. When we assume that someone else knows best or planned best we disempower ourselves. When we assume a park is neglected for a reason, or there are no shade trees for a reason, or a crosswalk can’t go there (because wouldn’t it already be there if it could?) we disempower ourselves. And so often we ask, why isn’t someone doing something about this?

That person can be you. You know how you feel and move through and interact in your community. You know what’s hard and what’s beautiful and what needs to fixed and who needs help. And if you don’t, you can start looking for them. You can start a movement to change a life or a park or a street or a neighborhood. You can speak and write and vote and assemble.

And you don’t need letters after your name. You just need you.

I’m Coming Out

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I’ve been getting this question a lot, since our circles have begun overlapping. Accompanied by bewilderment or curiosity, the asker often conveys a sense of betrayal, as if they were somehow misled.

So, I’ve decided it’s time to come out in the open:

I’m a twin. As in identical twin.

No, we don’t feel each other’s injuries or read each other’s minds or have our own language (though my brother swears we did), but we look enough alike to be confused for one another.

“I told you I had a sister,” I reply when people wonder why I didn’t divulge this secret.

“But not that you have a twin sister.”

To which I sometimes reply, “But what difference does that make?” And since the one asking doesn’t know what it’s like to be a twin and I don’t know what it’s like not to be, the conversation doesn’t go too much further.

But it does make a difference. I am lucky to have a sister who is phenomenally talented at making things and supporting people. And because we are twins, I have a sister who was the same age as me during the crazy times and fun times and hard times. This probably gives us a unique understanding of each other … maybe closer than most sisters, but I wouldn’t know.

What I do know is that being a twin steals a little of who I am. It makes me feel a little more invisible than I otherwise might. Because people see me in relation to someone else. No matter that we weren’t raised with rhyming names or matching clothes (thank you Mom!). We look enough alike that different haircuts or the fact that I’ve always been bigger than her doesn’t erase our similarities. So people ask:

“Which one is more social?”

“Which one got in trouble more?”

“Which one …?”

You get the picture. These questions seem to imply that we are each half of a balanced whole. One is good the other is bad. One is quiet the other is loud. But answering that we are both ambiverts or that we were both good students also doesn’t tell a complete story. Being identified as half of a pair of twins is like being identified as “So-and-so’s wife.”

Oddly, the person who most threatened my holistic identity was me. Growing up with a sculptor (twin) sister and a painter brother, I felt I was impinging on their territory if I painted or made three dimensional art. Even though I love art. It was as if I could only do those things that were deemed mine, instead of do what I loved even if someone else also did those things. It took me a long time to realize I got to decide what I wanted to do and be and make, and it didn’t matter whether my sister or brother were also doing it.

So, no, we never traded places in school. And though I love matching footsteps to those I walk beside, I make an effort to walk out of synch with her. I am hyper-aware when we say the same thing or wear the same color. And I worry my boyfriends will fall in love with her. She is edgier than me, after all. Still, I wouldn’t trade her for the world. I love my sister.

People often look at me with recognition in her neighborhood or in downtown LA. I know the look. They see me and think they know me and I have no memory of meeting them. I smile and give a little nod, and if they greet me I say, “Hi, you must think I’m Julia.” I don’t want to offend them.

She might not do the same. So if you’re walking down the sidewalk and see me, and I don’t smile at you or seem to recognize you, or I give you a cold stare, just remember it might not be me. It’s probably just my evil twin.


Hummingbirds and Home

Anna's Hummingbird George Gentry: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Anna’s Hummingbird
George Gentry: US Fish and Wildlife Service

“He’s ready.” The hospice nurse had woken us a minute before. I sat in an overstuffed chair at one side of the bed, my mom on the other, the morning my grandfather died. He breathed in one last rattled breath and let go. As I looked across the bed to my mom, a movement behind her drew my gaze to the garden. Out the open window, a hummingbird hovered, facing me. It caught my eye for more than a moment then flickered away.

That hummingbird brought me peace and lightness around my grandfather’s death … a lasting connection to him that presents itself every time I see a hummingbird. My first recollections of hummingbirds were those whirring about his ranch house in the desert outside Tucson. They fed at the yuccas and ocotillos and perched on the thin branches of mesquites around the small dark pool where he swam everyday. They hovered over the water that buoyed him and flew back and forth as his powerful arms propelled him across the pool, unencumbered by the crutches that supported him on land. The hummingbird is the perfect symbol of my grandfather’s love and stamina and the desert he called home. And they are everywhere, or so it seems.

After my Ohio-North Carolina childhood (split by divorce) I moved through the Appalachians and the North Carolina foothills before heading west. I moved from small town America through suburbs and bedroom communities before ending up in L.A. My brother moved to Austin before New York, and my sister moved to Tucson and then Los Angeles before me. As an empty nester, our mom left Columbus for Tucson to be close to her dad. I had lived in Columbus, Chapel Hill, Kill Devil Hills, Buladean, Statesville, Cornelius, Diamond Bar, Walnut, and Eagle Rock and visited my family in their many places. In nearly every place I am, there is a moment when I think I could live here. This feels like home. Sometimes it is the person I am with, or a street I am walking on that brings on a lost memory or a loved feeling. But mostly it is an atmosphere.

Just now, sitting outside in my garden and hearing the familiar whir of hummingbird wings, I feel it. A helicopter is flying overhead, not low enough to clatter the windows, but accompanied by sirens in the distance. People are having a light-hearted conversation somewhere nearby, just far enough away that I can’t hear what they’re saying. The low roar of traffic reminds me of the freeway on the edge of the valley. But the feeling is here with me, outside. The sun is breaking through the orange tree and warming a spot on my arm. A cool-ish breeze, the smell of earth and dried leaves under varying trees, and the chirps and flutters and tweets of birds bring me home instantly.