Jon Jensen: How our system of lawns and parks could become environmentally positive

We could create a rich network of thousands of ‘eco yards’ and ‘eco hoods.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Stonehill plays with his dog Abner at Liberty Park, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

The arrival of spring is a delight to behold: the intoxicating sequence of unfolding blossoms and leaves, the return of migratory birds, seeds sprouting in the garden, the reawakening of the land.

Unfortunately, this resurgence of life is, in our contemporary high-energy technological society, accompanied by the resurgence of deeply entrenched conventional yard and landscape management practices — on both private and public land — that collectively harm our environment and health and offend the intrinsic beauty of the season: gas-powered equipment, yard chemicals, water-intensive lawns and powerful outdoor lighting are exacerbating air, water, noise and light pollution, harming human, pet and wildlife health, and increasing pressure for disastrous water development and diversion schemes.

Radically transforming this regime could turn a net destructive system into a net ecological positive, addressing all of these interlocking issues at once. Replacing (or reducing) the resource-intensive lawn monoculture with diverse xeriscapes and organic food gardens, paired with replacement of gas-powered equipment with electric or manually powered machines and halting invasive outdoor lighting would cut out or dramatically cut down on yard management-related air, water, noise and light pollution and water consumption, cut out the main object of chemical applications, and promote the welfare of wild birds and insects by providing desperately needed habitat and food and maintaining necessary dark sky conditions. In a place plagued by chronically bad air pollution and an emergency level of drought connected to climate chaos, and with wild birds and insects disappearing at a shocking rate, these changes are not merely desirable, but necessary.

How can this be achieved? City and county governments have a primary role to play in driving forward a new ecological landscape management regime, through a combination of voluntary, incentive-based approaches to encourage home and property owners and landscape management companies to adopt these changes, and regulations that mandate them to a degree based upon principles of minimization of harm and trespass (since the current practices all trespass upon common rights to clean air and water, quietude and dark night conditions).

These changes are also necessary for local governments to achieve crucial commitments to clean air, climate action and water conservation, and thus cannot depend solely on voluntary action by the most motivated residents. Local governments, as very large land owners and managers, should also lead by example and adopt policies barring chemical applications, gas-powered equipment and excessive (in spread and intensity) nighttime electrical lighting on all publicly owned lands, and reducing the footprint of water-intensive turf grass where it is not needed or actively used for recreation.

To receive operating permits, landscaping companies should also be subject to regulations and incentives that phase out gas-powered equipment in favor of electric and manual alternatives, and mandate organic replacements for toxic synthetic chemicals.

We can follow the lead of municipalities that have already implemented elements of this agenda: Dozens of towns around the U.S. (including some in Utah) and internationally are certified dark sky communities, committing to reducing light pollution through outdoor lighting ordinances.

Over 100 cities – including Washington, D.C. – have banned or restricted gas-powered leaf-blowers. Cities in a number of states offer rebates for replacing lawns with xeriscapes. Minnesota’s “Lawns to Legumes” program pays homeowners to replace lawns with bee-friendly native plants.

Places like Montgomery County, Maryland have banned lawn pesticides on public and private land. Let us combine all of these initiatives into an integrated and holistic vision of ecological landcare, creating a rich network of thousands of “eco yards” and “eco hoods,” where prioritizing the needs and interests of birds, for example, will redound to environmental health, wellbeing and sustainable futures for the human denizens of this place as well.

Jon Jensen

Jon Jensen is a Salt Lake City-based environmentalist.

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