Orange County’s Low Hanging Fruit


There are things that we can do as a society to work through our big structural difficulties at an institutional level. And there are other things that can be done independently at the household level by individuals. I don’t have the technical skills, political skills, social skills, credentials, patience, or desire to engage the large scale systems. To be honest, I don’t think most people do. But there are all sorts of things that ordinary people can and should do on their own that can make a huge difference on the ground at room temperature. Collectively all our separate choices create the world we inhabit.

On a recent trip to Orange County in southern California I explored the suburban landscape and started to pick apart the typical arrangements as well as some surprising alternatives which demonstrate divergent trajectories. The quiet cul-de-sacs of 1950s homes have been remodeled, expanded, and optimized for different functions over the decades. Low maintenance ornamental landscapes, artificial turf, decorative pavement, and rock gardens abound.

Many homes have received multiple layers of appliqué brick and stone veneer, little cupolas, Iberian and Asian make-overs, and Greco-Roman columns. The pattern is clear. People go out in the world, earn a cash income, then spend a lot of money on beautification projects to reflect an aspirational status.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s a tremendous social stigma associated with a dead lawn. It’s a sign of poverty, laziness, a lack of pride, and an act of aggression toward the neighbors. In a location where it doesn’t rain for months or years at a time keeping a lush Kentucky lawn is a challenge. But heavily irrigated and chemically induced turf is also stigmatized as being inappropriate for the local climate, wasteful, expensive, and borderline toxic. A delicate balance of social and economic forces are at play. It’s really all about conforming to a generally agreed upon cultural look and feel.

Hardscaping in a hot climate results in a heat island effect. All day long the sun beats down on the concrete, brick, and stone which soaks up the heat. That heat is then radiated back all night long when the temperature should be dropping instead. When enough of the territory is paved over like this one lot at a time the entire county heats up.

Dark colored roofs – particularly tar and asphalt shingles – also absorb and hold heat. These roofs are disposable and only last for a couple of decades before they need to be peeled off and replaced. Property owners don’t seem to understand that a roof is first and foremost a functional element and not something to be picked out like wallpaper based on fashion. Something as simple as a light colored roof made of a reflective material makes a huge difference in thermal performance inside a building.

Here are classic cases of homes fitted with photovoltaic panels to offset electricity coming from the grid, presumably to help run air conditioning compressors. But the same amount of money could have been spent on a light colored roof that bounces heat away, or extra insulation, or better quality replacement windows, or a reduction in the concrete around the house, or some strategically placed exterior shade structures. At that point the extra “green” power would no longer be needed since the house would have remained considerably cooler passively. I’m in no way opposed to solar power. I just think there’s more low hanging fruit to pluck first. Reduce demand by 90%, then install a few panels to supply the little bit of power that’s still needed.

This house has a standing seam metal roof that reflects the heat away. There are also ventilators that passively draw heat out of the attic. A metal roof has the advantage of lasting a century or more, is fire resistant, and is the perfect surface for collecting rain water. A white pebbled roof also gets the job done in a hot dry climate. So does a white elastomeric material. Is this house any more or less attractive than the others in the area? Meh.

The need to accommodate multiple vehicles per home is apparently universal among the affluent and working class alike. Driving is an essential requirement in suburbia. Therefore the bulk of many front yards are parking lots. Some are just more attractive than others. What I see in each example is a huge amount of money (almost all of it borrowed and repaid with interest) being spent on cars as well as the driveways and extended garages to accommodate them. Four or five cars per household appears to be the norm. On average each car costs $10,000 per year. That’s a $40,000 – $50,000 household expenditure just to get from Point A to Point B. Ouch.

I lived in Orange County when I was a kid and remember the last of the actual orange groves before they made way for supermarkets, tract homes, office complexes, and auto dealerships. The land underneath is still rich agricultural soil and the climate supports a wide range of year round crops. There’s generally enough winter rain and mountain run off in spring to maintain the aquifer.

I met with a young woman who spent the last three years transforming the yard of her rented home into a permaculture style food forest. She said her dream is to be a farmer and own land someday. This garden uses half the water compared to the old lawn it replaced. A deep mulch retains moisture and the dense collection of ground covers, vines, shrubs, and fruit trees keeps the soil shaded and cool.

Everywhere you look there’s food. She’s taken the same space that might have been a driveway, a rock garden, or a plastic lawn and transformed it into a small farm that provides her family with nearly all its fresh produce. The garden is cool and tranquil. The vines and trees help shade the house on hot days. It’s wonderful and incredibly productive.

A few blocks away another woman gave me a tour of her garden burdened with fruit of every variety. The house was quite modest and the yard wasn’t all that large. But she cultivated every inch of it to great effect.

The suburbs are a permanent fixture in the landscape that aren’t going to change much in most places. There’s infill development here and there in the places with enough money, geographic constraints, and market demand to support intensification. The congealing clumps of apartment buildings and office blocks are usually concentrated along the eight lane arterial roads and always include five stories of structured parking. There’s some half assed public transit smeared around that tends to be really expensive to maintain yet doesn’t actually do a great job in the ‘burbs. And there’s an army of expert consultants and engineers who are busy securing grants to build ever more complex and expensive infrastructure projects to keep it all functional. It ain’t Paris folks. It’s always going to be kind of shitty. I can’t help but think the world’s problems can be solved in a garden organized by the ladies.

This piece first appeared on Granola Shotgun.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.