Metamorphosis author profile: Stephanie Speights

We are continuing our series profiling the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Metamorphosis. Learn more about the Metamorphosis volume here. Click this link to order this and previous volumes.

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

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Stephanie Speights

Our Metamorphosis volume included an interview with Stephanie Speights entitled, “Space to Place.” In July we shared a bit more about the interviewer, Donald Strauss, and today we’ll help you get to know the interviewee, Stephanie Speights. The interview in Metamorphosis focused on Speights’ capstone project for her master of urban sustainability from Antioch University Los Angeles. She called her project AlleyUp. You can learn more about her project and the metamorphosis that occurred in her Santa Monica, California neighborhood alley by reading the interview in Metamorphosis. We wanted to learn more about Speights and to see how her AlleyUp project is going now.

Whole Terrain: Through the interview in Metamorphosis we learned about your neighborhood, but what do you do for a day job?

Ecomama: drought-tolerant landscaping

Stephanie Speights: I have several things going: I work at Sustainable Works in their Business Green Program, I also teach an eight-week course on resource and recycling management through Santa Monica’s Sustainable Technologies Program, and I run my own landscape business called Ecomama. Sustainable Works partners with the City of Santa Monica to help them reach their sustainability plan, addressing energy, waste, water, and other areas. We help them reaching out to business owners and offering them a sustainability program, saving them money and resources. Even though we offer it free, we kind of have to sell the program to businesses — people think that when they “go green,” it will be expensive. I explain that even though you have to pay up front for some modifications, in the long run it benefits the company’s bottom line.

Water conservation is a passionate issue with me. I find it very rewarding to teach watershed health to the general public. Bringing awareness around water issues, such as conservation, and methods to save water when it rains, is critical in Southern California. The Metropolitan Water District sponsors initiatives to bring awareness to their customers, encouraging them to switch out their water intensive lawns for California native plants. Soil biology is a huge aspect of conserving water on our landscapes. Healthy soil decreases urban runoff by allowing the soil to act like a sponge to hold onto water, thus requiring us to water less. It’s exciting work, and good to know I’m making a difference.

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Ecomama: backyard raised beds

With Ecomama, I try to do basic environmental training. I take out turf, add amendments to soil — natural amendments to increase soil biology — and encourage people to plant native plants. I don’t necessarily say, “You can’t have your favorite plant, because it’s not native,” but I encourage them to maybe have only one or two non-native plants. I also encourage clients to learn to grow a lot of their vegetables. It’s easy, once the soil biology is in balance.

WT: What has it been like, being involved in these kinds of conservation efforts in the last few years, as southern California has been dealing with this major drought?

SSIt’s quite wonderful to see everybody wanting to do the right thing, so now it’s just a matter of helping them know what the right steps are. A lot of people just need someone to hold their hand and show them how. I rarely come across someone that wants to hold onto their lawn. They want to do the right thing, and not have to pay for extra water.

Also, the topic of waste is huge. We’re working on creating a culture of zero waste in Santa Monica, and other municipalities are also taking a look at the issue of waste. Being a vehicle for awareness on this topic is exciting, seeing people realize that their own behaviors and behaviors of their communities are important.

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AlleyUp gathering

WT: How is your AlleyUp project going?

SSFrom that project I now have friends in the neighborhood. Every time I go outside I start up a conversation or we exchange life stories, talk about what’s going on, who’s going out of town and where they’re going. I do dinner or drinks every few months with one neighbor, and I see people when I’m on the parkway taking care of plants. Hellos have become long conversations, and I think of that as a success!

During my capstone project in 2013 I set up everything to prepare to host a community event to beautify the neighborhood. We had some meetings to design a plan, and a neighbor who is a landscape designer drew up the plan. We used Kickstarter to raise funds for the plants. It was a good canvas for getting to know each other and build investment in the neighborhood.

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AlleyUp participants beautifying their neighborhood

Last year we worked on rehabilitating a parkway median. I bought all native plants with the Kickstarter money, and we spent a Saturday together — we had a good turnout. Kids painted rocks to place there. We put in the plants, but unfortunately most of them died because we planted them under a eucalyptus tree. Eucalyptus leaves put out a chemical that kills many plants. So, I did some research about what could survive there and how to modify the soil, and with some trial and error, the soil has finally transformed and some plants are surviving there.

WT: Would you share with us a time when you feel like something about the project failed, or didn’t work out as planned? 

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AlleyUp participants planting in their neighborhood

SSI’m a little bit disenchanted about it right now. We did some placemaking — the alley may look about the same, but socially it’s healthier and stronger, more vibrant. But I tried to encourage others to start taking charge and initiating projects, and this didn’t really happen. I learned from my advisor that every neighborhood or community is different. With some, you have to be the one to keep it going. Even though people will come to events, they won’t necessarily provide leadership.

I think one of the problems was that I was doing it as a school project. If I was doing it on my own and not for school, I probably would have enrolled other people to help be excited along with me, to not be the only person to think of stuff to do, and make signs, and everything else. It probably would have been easier and more ongoing if there were others who were just as committed as I was, but since I had specific goals and criteria I had to meet, it was difficult to bring others on board.

WT: What are some of the ways your environmental practices reflect your identity and what is important to you?

SSMy work serves as a mirror of an aspect of myself and how I’ve always been: concerned about the world around us and my place in it. I’m a mother, so my concern was elevated when I had my child about what I’m leaving behind. I think people’s attitudes and awarenesses are shifting, and I’m honored to be a part of that shift and transformation.

What I’ve experienced and known and discovered is that the way one would treat the outside world is reflective of how they feel toward themselves. I’ll always be involved in environmental work, professionally and personally, for this reason.

I have faith that we will be able to survive this predicament that we find ourselves in, that we’ll find the political will. It’s an honor to take part in that, and to be a vehicle for others to get to a place that is more ecologically healthy.

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