By: Kerry Halladay
The Texas landscape is changing and becoming more urban. In her new role in Dallas — one of the fastest-growing cities in the country — Dr. Becky Bowling hopes to see that urban landscape become more water efficient and uniquely, beautifully Texan in the future.
“I would say conservation is my passion,” Bowling said. “And I’m really interested in it from an urban perspective.”
Bowling is an assistant professor in the Texas A&M University Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialist for urban water. But, very much like the interconnected nature of water, her new role at the Texas A&M AgriLife Center at Dallas connects many different elements under the AgriLife umbrella.
In March, Bowling moved to Dallas with a new joint appointment with AgriLife Extension and Texas A&M AgriLife Research at the Dallas Center. There she will work closely with the center’s Water University group, as well as doing work for the Texas Water Resources Institute.
“I saw a really neat opportunity in this new role to explore some ideas in urban landscape management that maybe have not been fully explored yet and to engage with parts of the population that we may not currently have a relationship with.”
Bowling sees Dallas as an opportunity to make new conservation connections in Texas’ growing urban landscape.
“Historically, there’s always been a lot of focus on large-scale producers farming conventional agriculture,” Bowling said of water conservation overall.
“But I think now we’re starting to recognize that the average homeowner, especially when you’ve got 8 million of them concentrated in one area, can have a really significant impact on the environment, particularly in the city where they’re living.”
More and more people are living in Dallas these days. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington Metroplex saw the largest increase in resident population of any metro area in the entire country, adding 1,206,599 new residents between 2010 and 2019.
“Dallas is a really great place to launch some exploration into understanding what grabs people’s decision making and how to adapt to different audiences to have the greatest impact,” Bowling said. She added that reaching out to previously under-engaged groups that can play a big role in urban water conservation is a big part of her goals for the future.
“Some of my research looking at this from a multi-faceted approach is not just looking at the end-user, the homeowner, but also looking at the role that some other entities play.”
Bowling explained that groups between the municipal water utilities and the homeowner can play a big role in how residents use water in the urban landscape, making them important players in urban water conservation.
For example, homebuilders can have a significant influence on a landscape’s initial design. Homeowners associations (HOAs) can control homeowners’ subsequent landscape decisions. Professional landscapers also are a source of advice and information to homeowners on maintenance decisions. All these groups can be important players in urban water conservation. However, these mid-level influencers have not been the focus of much water conservation outreach in the past.
Bowling wants to find out how to change that.
“How we can get everybody on board to consider conservation and prioritize conservation as resources become increasingly more limited in our state?” she asked. “I would like to build more and more resources to strengthen our relationship with anybody who’s involved in the landscape.”
One of the things Bowling hopes to see in Dallas’ — and Texas’ — future is a perspective shift when it comes to how communities define a beautiful urban landscape.
“There is this surprisingly uniform idea of what a landscape should look like — regardless of where you are or what socio-economic bracket you fall into — where the goal is monocultural turfgrass lawn, green and weedless, with a short list of landscape options,” she explained.
But what if the motivations informing urban landscape decisions were who can be the “greenest” or who can conserve the most water? Bowling thinks Dallas is a good place to find out.
“I would love to see Dallas be a leader in what that could look like. As a rapidly growing urban population, it could be an example of a different type of value and a different type of aesthetic.”
Beautiful and sustainable are not mutually exclusive, Bowling said. Her vision of an ideal Texas aesthetic would celebrate uniqueness and recognize the variety of Texas’ many ecosystems and work with them.
“I would love to see landscapes that are very unique to not just Texas, but where you are in Texas. Native and native adapted plants that really represent your geographical region and are beautiful without a lot of extra work and effort because they’re designed to be there,” she said. “I would also love to see a little pressure off of turfgrass areas to be perfect and a more flexible mindset that allows for periods where turfgrass can go dormant during drought periods.”
“Texas is in a unique position to set an example or model what conservation can look like for urban areas that are in different ecosystems. We have several major cities that are in very different environments, get very different precipitation, experience very different annual temperatures and very different soil characteristics,” she said, adding that she sees Texas as one of the few states with such an opportunity.
“There’s an opportunity to create sustainable urban models that can set examples for other parts of the country.”