Let Birds and Butterflies Occupy L.A.

The library closest to my house — in a built-out village area — planted a pot outside with several plants. Some of these were narrow-leaved milkweed, host plant for the monarch butterfly. And in fact, on the day I was visiting, about five of the butterfly’s caterpillars were munching away on the leaves, spectacular with their white, black and yellow stripes. Their migration is even more spectacular.

So while Los Angeles bemoans the loss of the lawn outside City Hall to the Occupy L.A. protesters, I agree with Times staff writer Emily Green that this is more an opportunity than a loss. But I would go a step further than she did. The city shouldn’t just re-landscape with plants that save water; it should create a native-plant oasis in the middle of the city, one that might serve as a model for other civic green spaces.

Much of Southern California’s native wilderness — and the wildlife that likes to live there — has been lost to construction. Yet development and nature don’t have to live completely at odds with each other. Small spaces — front lawns, side slopes — can provide an ongoing patchwork of native plants that have a more significant impact than we realize.

After a years-long battle over a hotel planned for the Dana Point Headlands in south Orange County, the plot of land just jutting out toward the water — a prime whale-spotting location — was recently restored with indigenous vegetation, with a walkway weaving around it. It’s a small space, less than 30 acres. Yet on my first trip there, I saw endangered California gnatcatchers and a cactus wren, sights I hadn’t come across in decades of hiking throughout Southern California. Just for good measure, a roadrunner sped across the path. It doesn’t take wildlife long to find prime habitat, even when it’s small.

The space adjacent to City Hall could become a haven for birds and butterflies, if planted with the vegetation that draws them. Resting and viewing stations, dotted with signs, could provide an urban education on the natural landscape and encourage more Angelenos to visit and appreciate that landscape. If a pot of milkweed can be an eye-opening haven for nature, imagine what the former municipal lawn could accomplish.

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