Building “Natural” Beauty: Drought and the Shifting Aesthetics of Nature in Santa Barbara, California

in Nature and Culture

Abstract

This article analyzes the tension between the built and intrinsic elements that constitute Santa Barbara, California, as a place, by investigating two related questions: How is Santa Barbarans’ sense of place impacted by citywide cultural preferences for a specific plant aesthetic? and How have recent drought conditions affected that plant aesthetic, and its population’s cultural relationship to nature and the environment? The analysis focuses primarily on two key informant interviews, with Madeline Ward, the city’s water conservation coordinator, and Timothy Downey, the city arborist, and is further supported by ethnographic field notes. I argue that the California drought has brought parallel changes to both the city’s physical appearance and its residents’ aesthetic preferences regarding plants. This has further prompted changes to popular conceptions of Santa Barbara as a place, stemming from residents’ desire for an aesthetic that is better in tune with the ecological conditions of the area.

To many tourists, transplants, and lifelong residents alike, Santa Barbara, California, is a Garden of Eden. Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and a south-facing portion of the state’s central coast, it is the platonic ideal of a beach paradise. Rather than a purely intrinsic property of the landscape the city occupies, though, this conception of Santa Barbara as a place is also a rhetorical and material project carried out by its own population. This article will analyze the tension between the dominant aesthetics of nature that drive this project and the material realities of Santa Barbara’s climate and physical geography by answering the question of how Santa Barbarans’ sense of place is impacted by citywide cultural preferences for a specific plant aesthetic. The aesthetics of “paradise” in Santa Barbara often belie the semiarid climate of the region, particularly when it comes to the cultivation of plant life by the city parks department, landscape architects, and private citizens.

This analysis is situated in the current cultural-environmental moment of the California drought, as the article will also answer the question of how have drought conditions affected the city’s plant aesthetic, and its population’s cultural relationship to nature and the environment. California’s drought was already a national news item on May 5, 2015, when Santa Barbara declared a Stage 3 drought1 (Welsh 2015), and the dry conditions have persisted since. I will argue that drought conditions have brought upon a crisis for production of Santa Barbara’s aesthetic “nature,” and have furthermore shifted Santa Barbarans’ sense of place by prompting changes to material practices, the visual-aesthetic appearance of the city itself, and local discourse around nature and the environment. I build upon the work of other scholars in the humanities and social sciences concerned with the intersection of culture and nature to make this argument. While my goal is a theoretical analysis of nature in Santa Barbara, I draw from observational field notes collected in Santa Barbara between the fall of 2014 and fall of 2015, and center the article on key-informant interviews with Timothy Downey, Santa Barbara’s city arborist, and Madeline Ward, the city’s water conservation coordinator.

The rest of the article will proceed in three parts. The first will focus on my conversation with Timothy Downey, and will discuss the role of Santa Barbara’s “urban forest” of municipally managed trees in constructing Santa Barbara as a place. I will argue here that this effort at the level of city planning has profoundly shaped Santa Barbara’s “plant aesthetic,” which in turn engenders conceptions of Santa Barbara’s climate that imperfectly correspond with its material reality. Furthermore, I argue that the drought has begun to change the aesthetics of nature in Santa Barbara by disrupting Downey and his team’s ability to plant and maintain trees, compared to business as usual.

Second, I analyze the effects of the drought on Santa Barbara’s plant aesthetic, drawing on my conversation with Madeline Ward, Santa Barbara’s water conservation coordinator. Here I shift my focus to the residents’ own relationship to nature in Santa Barbara vis-à-vis their personal water consumption, in an analysis of the “Gold Is the New Green” campaign started by Ward’s office. The campaign implores Santa Barbarans to forego watering lawns during the drought, and promotes the resulting dried, golden lawns as points of pride. I argue that this campaign is part of a widespread shift in the “structure of feeling” around nature, which encompasses both the dominant plant aesthetic in Santa Barbara and the prevailing logic residents bring to bear when confronting environmental issues.

Finally, I conclude by summarizing how the process of the construction of place in Santa Barbara, and in particular the part played in that process by plant cultivation and management, positioned the city to undergo these changes before the drought began. I then discuss how these shifts have affected Santa Barbara’s internal social structure, and more specifically the city’s various forms of inequality. I also consider the implications that extend beyond Santa Barbara, as various forms of ecological crisis promise to bring similar cultural shifts in relationships between society and nature.

Urban Forest in Ecological Crisis

Building on literature from the French tradition theorizing the construction of place (Bourdieu 1977; de Certeau 1984; Foucault 1986; Lefebvre 1992), and the work of historians and cultural geographers (Augé 1995; Glassberg 2001; Harvey 1992, 1997; Relph 1976; Tuan 1978), many sociologists of recent decades have taken to conducting research in the “visual key” (Gieryn 2000), by giving greater attention to the sense of place (Bell 1997). Environmental sociologists in particular contributed to this conversation in analyzing the way human populations construct nature by ascribing meaning to the nonhuman world (Bell 1994; Brewster and Bell 2009; Dunlap and Catton 1983; Fine 1998, 2010; Freudenburg and Gramling 1993; Grazian 2015; Jerolmack 2013; Murphy and Dunlap 2012). Far from a static backdrop, or “primordial mise en scene” (Bell 1993) to which we ascribe social meaning, the physical landscape is rather in constant dialectical relationship with culture. Freudenburg, Frickel, and Gramling (1995), for instance, describe how the way we “think about” a single mountain can transform multiple times over according to the social processes occurring around it.

In much the same way, Santa Barbara’s intrinsic physical geography provided the necessary, but not the sufficient, conditions for residents’ sense of it as a place. Much of the work that goes into defining Santa Barbara as a place surely resides at the level of discourse, as it has come to be so closely associated with ideas of paradise and leisure, but Santa Barbara as we know it is also the product of significant human interventions in its “natural” landscape that greatly impact Santa Barbarans’ cognitive experience of their city. Such interventions date back at least as far as the nineteenth-century conversion of much of the area’s scrub oak and sage landscape into land for cattle grazing (Tompkins 1960), and were accelerated in the early twentieth century when horticulturalist Francesco Franceschi incorporated hundreds of new species into Santa Barbara’s plant palate from places far from Southern California. William Beittel (1984), in a book on Franceschi published by the Santa Barbara Horticulturalist Society, writes that Franceschi labored at the “thoroughly systematic and intensive work of introducing to Santa Barbara all sorts of economic or ornamental plants from the countries of the world.” His goal was to make Santa Barbara a lush and verdant visual spectacle to rival “the far-famed avenues of Hyêres (southern France), of Algiers, [and] Rio de Janeiro” (Franceschi, quoted in Beittel 1984). This aesthetic project lives on today, on as Santa Barbara continues to maintain a remarkable density and diversity of plant life.

These days, the person with the most power over the aesthetics of nature in the city may be Timothy Downey. Downey is Santa Barbara’s city arborist, but his official job title is “urban forest superintendent.” The latter, he says, is “a better description of the breadth of what this position really does,” as Downey “[oversees] the management of all city-owned trees.” The term “urban forest” seems oxymoronical given some basic assumptions guiding popular understandings of nature, but it is as appropriately applied in Santa Barbara as anywhere. According to Downey, the density of Santa Barbara’s tree life exceeds that of the national forests of Southern California, including Los Padres, which covers the Santa Ynez Mountains that overlook the Santa Barbara area. This speaks to the influence Downey and the Parks Department have over the urban experience of nature here. Santa Barbarans might take the urban forest for granted, as an intrinsic quality of the city, but it is remarkable in both its scope and in the undertaking required by Downey, his staff, and all of their predecessors to create and maintain it. Santa Barbara, in a matter of a century or less, created a forest where there was not one before.

For 33 consecutive years, Santa Barbara has received the Arbor Day Foundation’s “Tree City USA” designation, for which Downey says a city must have “a per capita budget to manage your trees of two dollars per person,” as well as a “group that is responsible for the management of the trees,” among other things to qualify. Downey tells me that the 450 different varieties of trees that he manages gives Santa Barbara the highest diversity of street trees in the state, edging out larger and more populous cities. He also notes that Santa Barbara’s regulations regarding permitted sidewalk width and incline, and street tree root barriers are geared much more towards protecting trees than those of other municipalities.

Predictably, there is a tremendous amount of planning and hands-on management that goes into all of this. For example, a particular species of tree may only be planted on a certain block, such as the Stone Pines that line Anapamu Street, for example,if it is officially designated for that street in a massive document called the “Street Tree Master Plan.” The process promotes diversity of street trees, a major goal of the department, and preserves a pragmatism to the urban forest that makes maintenance easier. The Street Tree Master Plan, Downey tells me, has grown from a document of around five pages at the time of its adoption in 1977 into the “huge Excel spreadsheet” that it is today. That spreadsheet holds the blueprint for what is an enormous influence on how residents experience their surroundings, one that does not readily betray the planning or bureaucracy behind it but rather appears natural. Nevertheless, Downey describes a process for amending the Street Tree Master Plan to include a new designation that proves the City of Santa Barbara does not take tree planting lightly: “There’s a process to do that. We present the item to the Street Tree Advisory Committee. The Street Tree Advisory Committee recommends a tree to be designated for one section of street. … That recommendation is presented to the Parks and Recreation Commission. They can change or add to a designation or leave it the same.”

All of this goes to show how much investment Santa Barbara, at the level of city planning, has in a natural aesthetic. When Santa Barbara is lauded for its scenic or natural beauty, part of what that means is the city’s appearance fits a culturally preferred aesthetic. Santa Barbara’s physical geography surely provides the basic backdrop for the city to appeal to that aesthetic. Timothy Downey’s work in managing Santa Barbara’s urban forest, however, demonstrates how much human enterprise has gone into creating the aesthetic appearance of the Santa Barbara we know today. His team in the Parks Department has taken that backdrop the physical area provides and run with it, actualizing Santa Barbara’s brand of natural beauty in ways that would not have been possible without human intervention.

So what, then, are the consequences of a sense of place in Santa Barbara so influenced by this management of plant life? The urban forest creates a contradiction in the minds of Santa Barbarans by engendering assumptions about the area that are not grounded in material reality. For a city whose physical geography would be marked by a much sparser landscape without human intervention, Santa Barbara appears strikingly green when viewed from the foothills, thanks to the management of the urban forest. Walking through the city it is difficult to find a street that is not lined with trees, though Downey’s commitment to diversity of species means the variety of tree changes from block to block. The sheer volume of trees, and plant life more generally, is enough to engender a sense of Santa Barbara as a place with a very different climate than it has, though some plants capture the local imagination more than others. The Mexican Fan Palms on Santa Barbara’s beachside Cabrillo Boulevard, for example, hold an especially privileged position with respect to the city’s aesthetic.2 Popular ideas of Santa Barbara are closely linked to these tall, slender trees, the same variety as those used in advertisements for Corona beer to evoke a sense of tropical paradise and leisure. Though the city manages trees that are far more water intensive than these, the ideas of paradise evoked by these imported palms call to mind parts of the world with much rainier climates than California’s central coast. The landscape itself and the human modifications to it like Downey’s dialectically construct Santa Barbara as a place, but in this particular way the social has superseded the physical in shaping the city in our minds. The result is a misconception about the local ecology. Santa Barbara conforms to the image of a natural paradise by presenting a dense and lush plant aesthetic that calls to mind an entirely different climate, particularly one that could reasonably expect much more rainfall.

The recent drought has started to bring this contradiction into the visible fore, though. The dry conditions have put Timothy Downey in difficult positions in terms of his ability to meet his department’s goals. For example, Downey explains that one of these goals is to plant “a number of trees … at least equal to the amount removed.” Once city council declared a drought, though, the department was forced to “[suspend] the planting of trees.” As his forest shrinks, parts of it have also become harder to maintain. Downey says of some of the trees the city manages, particularly those native to equatorial climates, are “in a drought all the time,” since they are used to more water than they get in Santa Barbara, even under more typical circumstances. Some such trees are susceptible not only to the direct effects of the drought but also to attack from insects like beetles, which is an indirect effect of their lack of moisture.

Downey’s team has had to take special measures to combat the drought’s effects, including watering adult trees, which he says they normally never do. In short, the drought is testing the commitment the city has made to its particular embodiment of nature. This commitment is enormous, and Downey is fighting for it. Some of the trees that are affected are over 100 years old, much exceeding the typical life of most street trees. It is not difficult to see why Downey, or even Santa Barbara at large, feels that the stakes are so high with these trees. Nonetheless, the drought is shifting the city’s environmental-aesthetic sensibilities, and prompting a reevaluation of what plants it makes sense to keep around. The experience of this drought will almost certainly have lasting impacts on the kinds of investments the Parks Department makes going forward, which will change the way Santa Barbara looks and feels to residents. Walking the city myself, I have seen planters where ill-fated trees have been replaced with drought-resistant succulents, which is a striking visual difference. Given the hold the urban forest has on the sense of place in Santa Barbara, this will likely mean significant changes in the dominant local conception of the environment and popular approach to environmental issues.

Gold Is the New Green

Santa Barbara’s plant aestheticis connected to persistent assumptions and ideas informing popular conceptions of nature and our relationship to the nonhuman world. This is the topic of a robust, interdisciplinary literature, whose intellectual debates give credence to Raymond Williams’s claim that “nature is perhaps the most complex word in the English language” (1980). Some scholars find nature to be a nearly empty signifier, a social construct so malleable as to be applicable to nearly any ideology (Ginn and Demeritt 2009; Harvey 1997). Typically our relationship to nature is conceptualized along the “nature/society divide” or an ideological binary that sets “nature” as a place apart from the realm of society (Bell 1994; Cronon 1996; Freudenburg et al. 1995; Hummon 1990; Murphy and Dunlap 2012; Price 2006; Williams 1973). These ideas about nature are reinforced in cultural products as diverse as classic literature (Marx 1964) and children’s books (Dobrin and Kidd 2004). As we set the “natural” apart by drawing lines between nature and society, or corollaries like “the country and the city” (Williams 1973), this external nature is also romanticized for its therapeutic, life-giving properties (Cronon 1996; Nash 2001; Price 2000, 2006; Urry and Larsen 2011; Williams 1980). Recently, sociologists have increasingly focused on the interactions with nature that are possible within urban environments, creating concepts of place that transcend binary categorization along the nature/society divide (Barnard 2016; Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006, 2014; Jerolmack 2013; Wachsmuth 2012). Some stress the interpretive and interactive elements in the development of ideas of nature (Barnard 2016; Fine 1998; Jerolmack 2013).

Santa Barbara’s particular relationship to nature is the product of a palpable tension that exists between the extreme wealth it is home to and its political reputation as being a liberal-leaning, environmentally concerned place. This tension is perhaps best captured in the city’s complex and ambivalent relationship to the oil industry. Nearby Summerland was home to the first ever offshore oil rig, started in 1898 (Gramling and Freudenburg 1993), and the industry has existed in the area since. The contradiction between Santa Barbara’s general inclination, on the one hand, towards concern for the environment, and its acceptance of the extractive, ecologically dubious oil business on the other came to a head in 1969 when a drilling platform off the coast blew out. A “massive eruption” would eventually “cover the entire city coastline (as well as much of Ventura County’s and greater Santa Barbara County’s coastlines) with a thick coat of crude oil” (Molotch 1970). This was a shock to a city that had tolerated oil drilling off its shores but nonetheless had substantial investment in its pristine coastline and natural aesthetic.

The oil spill would lead to a mobilization of environmentalist action in Santa Barbara. Harvey Molotch (1970) notes the formation of a “community organization … called ‘GOO’ (Get Oil Out!) which took a militant stand against any and all oil activity in the Channel.” The spill also catalyzed the formation of UC Santa Barbara’s Environmental Studies Program (UCSB Environmental Studies n.d.) and proved to be a major moment in the national environmental movement at large. The spill showed that an environmental crisis of this sort can mobilize genuine concern for, and action on behalf of the health of ecosystems in Santa Barbara, but in most times the tension between capital and environmentalism is resolved in the aesthetic expression of nature there. The environmental sensibilities of the area can be distilled into a “natural” aesthetic that serves to associate Santa Barbara with popular environmental values while also maintaining an attractive appearance evoking splendor and leisure to its wealthiest tourists and residents.

In theorizing the urban ideas of nature at play here, it is useful to employ Raymond Williams’s concept of the “structure of feeling.” Williams’s concept describes an amalgamation of perspectives, attitudes, and experiences collectively forming a “structure” that hovers above individual consciousness and is in constant dialectical relationship to the material conditions of society. As Williams himself describes it, to talk of structures of feeling is to talk about “specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships; not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought” (1977). These structures, Williams writes, show up in the “aesthetic” of cultural products like art and literature before they enter the collective consciousness enough to be explicitly articulated. For a “structure of feeling” around our relationship to nature, that aesthetic is borne out not just in visual art, but on the landscape of our cities as well. In Santa Barbara, as with other places, the near universally positive valuation of the “natural” gets distilled into an aesthetic that evokes “eco-friendly” or environmentally good. That aesthetic is imprinted onto urban landscapes, bringing the supposed benefits of external nature into our cities; in Paradise Transplanted, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2014: 3) writes that in Southern California, “the quest for the good life … has generally included palms, orange trees, and lawns,” though each of those plants was originally imported from elsewhere, which highlights the managed quality of this aesthetic.

As discussed in the previous section, though, this distillation of environmental values into an aesthetic can work to distance us from the ecological realities of a place. The same dubious logic that might deem planting a tree a universally beneficial act for the environment, regardless of whether the area’s climate is suited to support it, will have us come to unflinchingly regard a “green” aesthetic as “good.” This kneejerk value judgment is rooted deeply in our cultural subconscious, and it has been the target of a campaign carried out by Santa Barbara’s official water conservation program. I interviewed Madeline Ward, the city’s water conservation coordinator, who I asked about the yard signs I had seen around town that read “Gold Is the New Green.” This is a slogan her office has been promoting as part of a campaign that asks residents with lawns to forego watering them during the drought. The City of Santa Barbara’s Public Works Department gives away the lawn signs bearing this slogan for free. Ward says the city made these to give those who stopped watering their lawns a “badge of honor.” A green lawn, Ward points out, is essentially a purely aesthetic luxury. The shift from green to gold, though, makes their aesthetic much more in touch with the reality of Santa Barbara’s climate. Despite its “eco-friendly” connotations, “green” does not fit every area’s ecology. So many vast ecosystems, from the American Great Plains to the California’s Mojave Desert, are more golden or brown than they are green.

“Gold Is the New Green” is part of a broader effort to break down the barriers of the nature/society divide by shifting the focus around urban water conservation from indoors to outdoors. The Water Conservation Program sees outdoor watering and landscaping as the most wasteful kind of water use in Santa Barbara, the target area with the greatest potential for increasing water conservation. Ward says that people tend to immediately associate water conservation with indoor activities such as “washing hands, brushing your teeth,” or showering, noting that when residents use water in these ways, “they’re touching the water, they’re seeing it go down the drain, they’re seeing it being used.” It makes sense then, that these would be the easiest ways for residents to conceptualize water conservation. Watering plants is often a less personal, more mediated experience, especially with the proliferation of automatic irrigation systems in Santa Barbara.

So by prompting Santa Barbara residents to focus on the outdoors, “Gold Is the New Green” breaks down the nature/society divide, or at least blurs its boundaries. The dualistic notion of nature that casts a sharp division between us and the nonhuman world is a barrier that discourages careful consideration of our relationship to the plant life we keep around. “Gold Is the New Green” transcends this by calling that relationship to our attention and emphasizing the built and maintained aspects of our landscape. This reconsideration of the landscaping aesthetic makes the plant life that surrounds Santa Barbarans much harder to view as simply “natural.” Accoringly, residents are becoming increasingly conscious of how the plant aesthetic around them is first and foremost a product of human agency.

Furthermore, the “Gold Is the New Green” campaign is symptomatic of a general reconsideration of the terms of our valuation of plant aesthetics, which typically is so ingrained as to occur at the level of the subconscious. It is a simple rejection of a firmly entrenched and taken for granted assumption guiding many Santa Barbarans’ environmental sensibilities: green is good. Rather than evoking lushness or vitality, a green lawn has come to represent wasteful excess, a form of conspicuous water consumption to many Santa Barbarans. One woman I spoke with in Santa Barbara’s Oak Park during this project suggested that lawns were the most convenient barometer for residents’ level of contribution to the water conservation effort, going as far as to suggest the city might reprimand people on this basis: “I mean, … they could, if they wanted to … fine people, they could drive around and look at … this house has a beautiful lush green lawn … and this house has a dead lawn and it’s like, it’s clear, you know where people are using the water.”

In response to the drought and the water crisis, Santa Barbarans are reconsidering what their city should look like at a fundamental level. The most remarkable part about this shift is that it is calling into question some of the basic assumptions in the ideology that typically guides environmentalism (green is good), but in an effort to make the city more harmonious with the ecology of the area. In other words, the drought has had rippling cultural effects that have changed both the logic of environmentally conscious Santa Barbarans, and how they conceive of their city as a place.

There are compelling reasons to believe these changes will not be fleeting, temporary effects of the drought, but will in fact be permanent shifts in Santa Barbara’s relationship to nature and sense of place. For one, these changes are imprinted on the landscape, as we have seen at the level of city planning already with the changes to Timothy Downey’s urban forest. Of course, a lawn can bounce back in a way that trees cannot, but the changing cultural disposition toward green lawns in Santa Barbara may stop residents from watering their lawns again once the drought is over. In fact, Madeline Ward notes that her office has already noticed that many houses that once sported dry, golden lawns displaying “Gold Is the New Green” signs have since taken out their lawns completely in favor of “water wise plants,” the kind of landscaping Ward’s Water Conservation Program recommends. There is also precedent in Santa Barbara of a drought having lasting effects on residents’ behavior. She said this about Santa Barbara’s water use before and after its previous drought, from 1987 to 1991:

At least when you look at our past water use … it was always, you know, around 14,000 acre feet, and then it dropped steadily because of that drought, and then it slowly rose … and this is during, you know, the population going up too. But it never came back to the same level [as] before that drought, because there were a lot of … landscape changes that were made, [and] a lot of behavioral changes that became permanent.

The changes observed during the current drought may very well have similar longevity. The changes to the managed physical landscape and the related shifts in the Santa Barbaran sense of place, the more critical view of certain plant aesthetics vis-à-vis their connection to water consumption, all of these are parts of an overall change in the structure of feeling around nature in Santa Barbara.

Conclusion

My key informant interviews with Timothy Downey and Madeline Ward indicate transformations of varying magnitude occurring within Santa Barbara as a result of California’s drought. Santa Barbara’s physical appearance itself is transforming as a result of the changes in the Parks Department’s ability to maintain the city’s urban forest, and as a result of individual residents’ reevaluation of their aesthetic preferences as they relate to the local ecology. That the drought has had this level of effect on Santa Barbara’s physical landscape is a testament to how much that landscape was a product of human enterprise in the first place. Because the city favored a plant aesthetic that was incongruous with reasonable expectations of rainfall in the area, one that required a significant investment of resources even in wetter times, Santa Barbara was uniquely vulnerable to these changes when the drought made that investment of resources less viable and more manifestly anti-ecological. These visual changes to Santa Barbara have complicated the rhetorical construction of the city as the simple embodiment of beach town fantasies, shifting senses of place to include assumptions about the physical geography and climate of the area that are more in touch with actual conditions.

The aesthetics of nature in Santa Barbara that lend it much of its “natural beauty” are in many ways the aesthetics of environmentalism as well. There is a heavily visual component to the rhetoric used to mobilize sympathy for environmental causes. “Green” has become synonymous with “eco-friendly,” and it is commonplace now for environmental groups to use images of green leaves or trees for their logos. For this reason it is remarkable that many Santa Barbarans have publicly favored a different, even opposite aesthetic as part of an environmental campaign. The move from “green” to “gold” is a move toward reconciling the aesthetics of environmentalism with the nuances of material conditions that they often fail to reflect.

The developments in Santa Barbara’s prevailing structure of feeling around nature examined here have implications that extend beyond just Santa Barbara. First, it is important to remember the unique and unprecedented severity of the California drought. The drought has been discussed not as a simple anomaly, but rather as part of a larger trend of ecological crisis around the world. There is a growing recognition of the conditions of ecological crisis that are manifesting in various ways, which has even spurred a scholarly conversation about whether we are entering a new ecological epoch defined by human effects on the environment, the Anthropocene (Crist 2013; Neimanis, Åsberg, and Hedrén 2015; White, Rudy, and Gareau 2015). This all indicates that ecological crisis will likely elsewhere create the necessary conditions for similar reconceptualizations of place, with diverse peoples having to reconsider their personal and societal relationships to nature and the environment.

In discussing the implications of this reconsideration in Santa Barbara, though, it is important to make clear that the city’s physical appearance is closely related to its various forms of social inequality. The cultivation of a certain aesthetic in Santa Barbara has coincided with the ongoing erasure of its indigenous and Mexican populations. The city’s dominant architectural style for instance, is “Spanish revival,” which is characterized by the whitewashed adobe walls and red tile roofs that were typical of colonial-era Spanish buildings. This, along with the annual “Old Spanish Days” festival that the city puts on in the Summer, serves to celebrate the area’s colonial history in a way that mirrors the process observed by William Deverell (2004) in Los Angeles, whereby that city’s Mexican past was obscured by various cultural and infrastructural projects that inscribed an image devoid of Mexicanness onto the very physical appearance of the city. In Santa Barbara, the typically western fantasy of “paradise,” as actualized through the plant aesthetic, is another powerful factor erasing visual evidence of other peoples and cultures found there. Furthermore, this aesthetic needs to be considered as part of a project of maximizing the city’s appeal to tourists and the wealthiest among its residents. The material production of urban “nature” in Santa Barbara is carried out by hourly workers in the landscape industry, which Hondagneu-Sotelo (2014: 81) writes has been racialized as a form of labor reserved for Latinos since immigrants from Mexico entered the labor market in Southern California in the 1970s. These laborers perform physically demanding work, often in Santa Barbara’s hyper-rich areas of Montecito and Hope Ranch that, as Hondagneu-Sotelo (2014: 74) puts it, “supports the conspicuous consumption of domesticated nature and the nonproductive lawn.”

Just as the ideological separation between “nature” and “society” invites residents to look past the contradiction between Santa Barbara’s climate and its plant aesthetic, it also makes it easier to ignore the labor that goes into creating that plant aesthetic in the first place. It is typically much more intuitive for most to think of plant life as “natural,” and thus not the result of human enterprise, rather than being implicated in a political economy of the production of aesthetic nature. This complicates the lessons to take away from the shift in Santa Barbara’s environmental sensibilities and its aesthetic preferences vis-à-vis landscape architecture. The shift from green to gold, so to speak, is a much-needed reconsideration of the relationship between aesthetics and ecology, but it may fall short in terms of challenging the structural inequalities embedded in those aesthetics. The path of least resistance for many middle- to upper-class Santa Barbarans who want to do right by the environment during times of drought is to sacrifice their landscaping, and in doing so lay off their hired landscapers. Indeed, over the course of this research I had many conversations with landscaping workers who had lost income to the drought, as clients became less inclined to maintain a verdant green aesthetic for their homes. These often-ignored agents of the production of Santa Barbara’s aesthetic nature are paying for the city’s collective period of cognitive dissonance.

That said, the aesthetic changes in Santa Barbara are significant, and could be part of a widespread change in the structure of feeling around nature and environmentalism. The threats of climate change and the Anthropocene present an opportunity for a shift in the logic of popular approaches to environmental projects. Of course, there have been notable examples, even within Southern California, of obvious resistance to the shifts in values and behavior observed in Santa Barbara. For example, during the drought wealthy communities such as Beverly Hills in Los Angeles came under public scrutiny in the press for their reportedly astronomical water use.3 The outrage these instances inspired, however, indicates that many people beyond Santa Barbara are giving greater consideration to the relationship between aesthetics and environmental conditions. With a more nuanced epistemological base guiding our environmental sensibilities, we might move onto the more nuanced problems indicated by the above paragraph: How are the aesthetics of nature produced? Whose labor do they depend on? How are these parties affected by the cultural changes guiding the new aesthetics of nature? There are sure to be similar questions in countless other places currently subjected to environmental crisis. These provide a vast area for scholars of culture and the environment to investigate.

Notes
1

This declaration triggers special regulations of outdoor and commercial water use. For instance, residents are required to use hoses with specific types of nozzles, and are restricted from irrigating potable water or washing vehicles in many circumstances. Businesses are required to post notices regarding the drought and may only serve water upon request.

2

For a further discussion of the Mexican Fan Palms’ place in the Santa Barbara imagination, and how they serve to associate Santa Barbara with affluence and beachside leisure, see Dryden and McCumber 2017.

3

For an example, see the story published in the Los Angeles Times on October 30, 2015 titled “Beverly Hills water wasters ‘should be ashamed,’ state regulator says.” (http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-water-conservation-20151030-story.html)

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  • DrydenPatrick N. and Andrew McCumber. 2017. “#Nature: Postmoder Narrative, Place, and Nature in Santa Barbara, California”. Environmental Sociology 3(3): 286296.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FineGary A. 1998. Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • FineGary A. 2010. Authors of the Storm: Meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • FoucaultMichel. 1986. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”. Diacritics 16(1): 2227.

  • FreudenburgWilliam R.Scott Frickel and Robert Gramling. 1995. “Beyond the Nature/Society Divide: Learning to Think About a Mountain”. Sociological Forum 10(3): 361392.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GierynThomas F. 2000. “A Space for Place in Sociology”. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 463496.

  • GinnDavid and Franklin Demeritt. 2009. “Nature: A Contested Concept.” In Key Concepts in Geography ed. Nicholas CliffordSarah HollowayStephen Rice and Gill Valentine300331. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GlassbergDavid. 2001. Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

  • GramlingRobert and FreudenburgWilliam R. 1993. “Socioenvironmental Factors and Development Policy: Understanding Opposition and Support for Offshore Oil”. Sociological Forum 8(3): 341364.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GrazianDavid. 2015. American Zoo: A Sociological Safari. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • HarveyDavid. 1992. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

  • HarveyDavid. 1997. Justice Nature and the Geography of Difference. Malden, MA Blackwell.

  • HeynenNikolas C.Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw. 2006. “Urban Political Ecologies: Politicizing the Production of Urban Natures.” In In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism ed. Nikolas C. HeynenMaria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw120. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hondagneu-SoteloPierrette. 2014. Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HummonDavid M. 1990. Commonplaces: Community Ideology and Identity in American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • JerolmackColin. 2013. The Global Pigeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • LefebvreHenri. 1992. The Production of Space. Cambridge, MA: Wiley.

  • MarxLeo. 1964. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • MolotchHarvey. Harvey. 1970. “Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America”. Sociological Inquiry. 40(1): 131144.

  • MurphyRaymond and Riley E. Dunlap. 2012. “Beyond the Society/Nature Divide: Building on the Sociology of William Freudenburg”. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2(1): 717.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NashRoderick. 2001. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • NeimanisAstridaCecilia Åsberg and Johan Hedrén. 2015. “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities”. Ethics & the Environment 20(1): 6797.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PriceJennifer. 2000. Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature In Modern America: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PriceJenny. 2006. “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A”. The Believer. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200604/?read=article_price. (accessed 14 November 2015)

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RelphEdward C. 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

  • TompkinsWalker A. 1960. Santa Barbara’s Royal Rancho: The Fabulous History of Los Dos Pueblos. Berkeley, CA: Howell-North.

  • TuanYi-Fu. 1978. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • UrryJohn and Jonas Larsen. 2011. The Tourist Gaze 3.0. Thousand OaksCA SAGE.

  • UCSB Environmental Studies. n.d. “Program History.” http://www.es.ucsb.edu/about/history.

  • WachsmuthDavid. 2012. “Three Ecologies: Urban Metabolism and the Society-Nature Opposition”. Sociological Quarterly 53(4): 506523.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WelshNick. 2015. “Stage III Drought Emergency Declared”. Santa Barbara Independent. http://www.independent.com/news/2015/may/07/stage-iii-drought-emergency-declared/ (accessed 11 November 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WhiteDamianAlan Rudy and Brian Gareau. 2015. Environments Natures and Social Theory: Towards a Critical Hybridity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WilliamsRaymond. 1973. The Country and the City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • WilliamsRaymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • WilliamsRaymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • WilliamsRaymond. 1980. “Ideas of Nature.” In Culture and Materialism. London: Verso.

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Contributor Notes

Andrew McCumber is a PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work lies at the intersection of environmental and cultural sociology. The main research questions that drive his work, including this article, revolve around our cultural relationships with nature and the nonhuman world. Email: ahmccumber@umail.ucsb.edu.

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  • DrydenPatrick N. and Andrew McCumber. 2017. “#Nature: Postmoder Narrative, Place, and Nature in Santa Barbara, California”. Environmental Sociology 3(3): 286296.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FineGary A. 1998. Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • FineGary A. 2010. Authors of the Storm: Meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • FoucaultMichel. 1986. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”. Diacritics 16(1): 2227.

  • FreudenburgWilliam R.Scott Frickel and Robert Gramling. 1995. “Beyond the Nature/Society Divide: Learning to Think About a Mountain”. Sociological Forum 10(3): 361392.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GierynThomas F. 2000. “A Space for Place in Sociology”. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 463496.

  • GinnDavid and Franklin Demeritt. 2009. “Nature: A Contested Concept.” In Key Concepts in Geography ed. Nicholas CliffordSarah HollowayStephen Rice and Gill Valentine300331. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GlassbergDavid. 2001. Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

  • GramlingRobert and FreudenburgWilliam R. 1993. “Socioenvironmental Factors and Development Policy: Understanding Opposition and Support for Offshore Oil”. Sociological Forum 8(3): 341364.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GrazianDavid. 2015. American Zoo: A Sociological Safari. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • HarveyDavid. 1992. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

  • HarveyDavid. 1997. Justice Nature and the Geography of Difference. Malden, MA Blackwell.

  • HeynenNikolas C.Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw. 2006. “Urban Political Ecologies: Politicizing the Production of Urban Natures.” In In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism ed. Nikolas C. HeynenMaria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw120. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hondagneu-SoteloPierrette. 2014. Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HummonDavid M. 1990. Commonplaces: Community Ideology and Identity in American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • JerolmackColin. 2013. The Global Pigeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • LefebvreHenri. 1992. The Production of Space. Cambridge, MA: Wiley.

  • MarxLeo. 1964. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • MolotchHarvey. Harvey. 1970. “Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America”. Sociological Inquiry. 40(1): 131144.

  • MurphyRaymond and Riley E. Dunlap. 2012. “Beyond the Society/Nature Divide: Building on the Sociology of William Freudenburg”. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2(1): 717.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NashRoderick. 2001. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • NeimanisAstridaCecilia Åsberg and Johan Hedrén. 2015. “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities”. Ethics & the Environment 20(1): 6797.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PriceJennifer. 2000. Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature In Modern America: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PriceJenny. 2006. “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A”. The Believer. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200604/?read=article_price. (accessed 14 November 2015)

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RelphEdward C. 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

  • TompkinsWalker A. 1960. Santa Barbara’s Royal Rancho: The Fabulous History of Los Dos Pueblos. Berkeley, CA: Howell-North.

  • TuanYi-Fu. 1978. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • UrryJohn and Jonas Larsen. 2011. The Tourist Gaze 3.0. Thousand OaksCA SAGE.

  • UCSB Environmental Studies. n.d. “Program History.” http://www.es.ucsb.edu/about/history.

  • WachsmuthDavid. 2012. “Three Ecologies: Urban Metabolism and the Society-Nature Opposition”. Sociological Quarterly 53(4): 506523.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WelshNick. 2015. “Stage III Drought Emergency Declared”. Santa Barbara Independent. http://www.independent.com/news/2015/may/07/stage-iii-drought-emergency-declared/ (accessed 11 November 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WhiteDamianAlan Rudy and Brian Gareau. 2015. Environments Natures and Social Theory: Towards a Critical Hybridity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WilliamsRaymond. 1973. The Country and the City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • WilliamsRaymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • WilliamsRaymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • WilliamsRaymond. 1980. “Ideas of Nature.” In Culture and Materialism. London: Verso.