Landscape Preferences and Water Consumption Issues in the Desert

When it comes to landscaping preferences, we seem to have a thing for the exotic – trying to grow a Mediterranean garden in a wet oceanic climate, a big green lawn in a desert climate and tropical plants in a continental climate. While I don’ think there’s anything wrong with being inspired by things that come from afar, there’s no reason to belive that they fit our surroundings better that anything native. And while globalisation has come so far that there’s no special maintainance issue whether you choose either American, European or Japanese car, maintaining non-native landscapes can cause further problems.

Red Box; photo by Jeremy Levine Design

One of the most important aspects of environmental psychology is investigating and promoting environmentally friendly attitudes and behaviour, so the following research deals with that issue. Aiming to identify ways to reduce outdoor residential water use in the desert area of the southwestern United States, Yabiku and colleagues (2008) examined landscape preferences and some factors associated with them.

Frey House II by Albert Frey, Palm Springs, CA (1963); photo by Jeff Tabaco

They included four landscaping designs:

desert (native vegetation, no irrigation system);

xeric (plants that require drip irrigation systems with low water use);

mesic (non-native plants and trees that require a sprinkler system); and

“oasis” (a combination of the three – areas of turf and areas with native and/or low-water use plants).

Desert Garden; photo by edgeplot

Not surprisingly, respondents generally prefered mesic and “oasis” residential landscapes more than xeric or desert landscapes. Even more, it was found that the longer residents lived in desert area (Phoenix, Arizona), the less likely they were to prefer the desert and xeric landscapes. But this is a good start, because what usually works in psychology is to learn how people feel about something,  and to find a way to work with it instead of working against it. Based on this research, there are a few ways to work with people’s feelings toward the desert landscape and to reduce water consumption.

Grace Miller House by Richard Neutra, Palm Springs, CA (1937)photo by IK’s World Trip

One of the conclusions of this study (Yabiku et al., 2008) was that residents who believed the native desert landscape was beautiful were more likely to prefer the residential desert landscape. So, how could people learn to think of the desert as beautiful?  I sought for some inspiration in architectural movement that celebrated that minimalistic kind of nature’s beauty, and accentuated it  by combining it with minimalistic houses.  “Desert Modern” style adapted ideas from the International style  to the desert climate of southern California and American Southwest, with most landmark buildings concentrated in Palm Springs. This was a  high-end architectural style featuring open-design plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, swimming pools, and very large windows.

Edris/Williams House by E. Stewart Williams, Palm Springs, CA (1954); photo by dalylab

Original desert modern houses might not be liked by environmentalists – they were, after all, glass boxes with huge pools in the desert; with poor isolation systems and uneconomical electricity  consumption due to air conditioning. However, they included  drought tolerant landscaping and thus promoted aesthetics wich would be useful to adopt in desert areas today. Moreover, contemporary descendants of desert modern houses, like the Red box and Three Trees by Jeremy Levine Design featured here, aim to correct the flaws of the originals by utilizing passive and active green technology, such as  grey water recycling, solar energy, passive thermal, daylighting etc.

Three Trees; photo by Jeremy Levine Design

There seems to be some space for changing people’s habits by raising environmental awareness because residents with higher environmental values were less likely to prefer the mesic residential landscape; however, they were not more likely to prefer xeric or desert environments.

 Frey House II by Albert Frey, Palm Springs, CA (1963); photo by °Florian

Residents of households with young children were more likely to prefer mesic landscapes. This is understandable, because it would be really inconvenient for them to have many cacti and no lawn. However, there are many other kinds of xeric plants beside cacti that could satisfy both aesthetic, practical and environmental criteria, and which are worthy to consider.

Xeric Garden – aloes, yuccas, cacti and other drought tolerant plants at the Huntington Library’s desert garden; photo by edgeplot

Yabiku et al. (2008), though, see the most likely solution of water consumption to be in a compromise – that is “oasis” landscape, which includes elements of turf and elements of native landscaping. Unlike other landscapes, preference for “oasis” landscapes was not significantly associated with environmental values, appreciation for native aesthetic, length of residence, or personal demographics. Authors think that preference for “oasis” landscapes may be based on other factors, like believing “oasis” landscapes strike a balance between aesthetic appeal and environmental values.

Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra, Palm Springs, CA (1946); photo by Kansas Sebastian

I like the optimism that this research spreads – water consumption can be reduced, whether it is through learning to love the xeric landscapes, learning why they fit the best in desert climate (environmental values), learning to deal with practical aspects of xeric gardens (plants that are children-friendly) or learning to compromise and finding the right balance between what we see as beautiful and what we belive to be sustainable.


1. Yabiku, S.T., Casagrande, D.G. and  Farley-Metzger, E. (2008) Preferences for Landscape Choice in Southwestern Desert City. Environment and Behavior, 40, 3, 382-400.

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