PRAIRIEFORM

Everyday excursions in the urban landscape

‘Sustainable’ increasingly means little

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neonicotinoids, corn, sustainability, sustainable, EU ban, bees

It was probably only a matter of time before the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” became so diluted in meaning that they have now become virtually meaningless. They are ascribed as modifiers to landscapes, hoped-for political decisions, architecture, in an effort to make whatever product or decision at hand seem “good.” This is done in much the same way that “common sense” is thrown around as if it had any objective meaning at all. It doesn’t. The result are terms that, at best, now simply mean “less bad,” and whose effects are intended to make the viewer or participant or consumer swell with a visceral feel-good reaction of support.

On perhaps the most cynical, lowest-of-the-low end of the spectrum, we have Bayer CropScience (one of the primary manufacturers of neonicotinoids, a substance a growing number are calling a major cause of the global bee decline) saying that the EU’s recent decision to ban neonicotinoids is “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.” To Bayer, “sustainability” can mean 90 million acres of American corn embedded with neonicotinoids planted every year as much as it can mean green roofs and bioswales and prairie restorations. How in quantifiable terms the use of the pesticide leads towards long-term environmental and economic “sustainability” is dumbfounding, but this is obviously not their point; rather, they have co-opted a term in order to render a problematic product and its manufacturer “less bad” and to make those in support of the ban appear unreasonable, and “anti-sustainability.”

In the world of landscapes there are examples of this dilution of “sustainability” that are much more subtle but equally as problematic. There is a growing trend of landscapes that feature less lawn and more plants. It is a welcomed trend; however, simply removing lawn and adding in plants does not by definition boost the landscape’s sustainability cred. So often, water-loving plants are chosen, and plants with little to no value to wildlife are used. As a result, you get a landscape that consumes much in the way of water and resources, but that gives back little. We have in effect created little more than a feel-good aesthetic that says, “Good for you, you got rid of your lawn,” regardless of how lessened its impact on the environment is.


A Los Angeles landscape advertised as “sustainable” while containing countless high-water plants that require copious amounts of supplemental irrigation year-round

The photo shown above illustrates this phenomenon well. The landscape is advertised as being “sustainable” and as a beautiful alternative to a lawn. Beautiful it is; sustainable, however, it is not. Los Angeles receives 15 inches of rain annually in a good year, and most of it falling between the months of November through April. Most of the plants in this landscape are endemic to regions of the world that receive consistent rainfall year-round that far exceeds 15 inches. This includes the purple-leafed Abyssinian banana, and the New Zealand flax (a plant that has a drought-tolerant, Agave-esque look, but actually requires relatively consistent moisture) you see in the photo. As a result, you have a landscape advertised as “sustainable” while requiring irrigation almost daily, especially during the long Los Angeles dry season. This is little improvement over the water requirements of a conventional lawn.

Perfection and attempts at pseudo-purism are not our end goal, and we are not advocating for such. Rather, it is time to create and employ new words to describe what the landscape, or building, or decision is actually doing instead of what one wants people to think it’s doing. Thus, we describe landscapes as visually appealing, plant-abundant, water-conserving, irrigation-free, wildlife-friendly, and so on. And a landscape can be many of these things at the same time. But if it is, say, a visually appealing landscape or work of architecture or whatever that merely gives the look and feel of being sustainable but actually does little in the way of giving back to the land and minimizing resource consumption, we need to call a spade a spade here and say that it cannot claim the tag of “sustainable” too just because it looks nice.

Weekend viewing

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Christy Ten Eyck is just one of the best landscape designers/architects in this mythical country of so much so-so, throwaway stuff. These projects solve so many problems of sustainability and water conservation in one fell swoop and all the while are unbelievably beautiful spaces you just want to be in. The video is not an uber-polished/hyper-edited YouTube-style video, so don’t expect a crazy fast pace. But then again, these landscapes are not to be looked at quickly in passing but rather spaces to be in and explore. Lovely lovely loveliness.

The science of urban gardening

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There is much talk surrounding urban gardens and their potential benefits to habitat, water conservation, minimizing the heat island effect, and so on. Some of these said benefits are grounded in research, while some are not. There is something to be said for not caring whether every element of one’s garden has withstood the microscope of scientific inquiry, as it is a garden after all, and it is supposed to provide space and time for relaxation and enjoyment and not always a forum for cerebral head-scratching. In any case, if we are to make claims that an urban garden can and does achieve a whole host of goals pertaining to sustainability, a bit of science to back them up would serve the cause well. Enter the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and their new endeavor to create a peer-reviewed guide to urban gardening that offers current gardeners and potential new ones advice rooted in real research and literature on what you can do and not do to ensure that your garden is a true beacon of green goodness and not simply one that has the veneer of being green. This effort to create outdoor spaces that are truly sustainable as opposed to ones that merely present a veneer of sustainability is something we strive to do in all of our work, so this report we could not be more excited about. The initial summary is available to read on their website, with the full, peer-reviewed report to come out in fall. Happy reading, everyone.

Sterile or weedy: the false dichotomy

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Conventional American front yard of turf and a few shrubs

There is very much a history of formality when it comes to the American front yard. A swath of freshly mown lawn, plus a few evergreen shrubs hugging the house or building, still endures as the overarching landscape aesthetic of the age. However, with growing concerns over sustainability and natural resource conservation, there has naturally been an increasing number of people calling for a modification of this water- and fertilizer-intensive approach to the front-yard landscape. New books such as Lawn Wars, by Lois B. Robbins, and John Greenlee’s The American Meadow Garden, advocate for a wilder, less tamed approach to the front yard. And enter the front yard that has been converted to a prairie or meadow, or some variation thereof.


On the opposite end of the spectrum

The challenge of this endeavor is not pushing the formal aesthetic too far in the opposite direction to a weedy or scrubby aesthetic, which is so often what the front-yard conversions end up looking like. As a result, people equate less lawn with weedy, and the mass appeal of the endeavor has been intensely diminished. There are those who counter that wild is good, manicured bad, and that people need to simply accept that that will be the future state of affairs. It is as if we were given only two options: water-thirsty lawn and dull evergreen shrubs, or overgrown weedy hot-mess that is good for the environment, so therefore you should like it. We are thinking human beings, capable of solving multifaceted problems, and don’t buy into this artificially two-sided argument one bit. The enjoyment and challenge of the front-yard landscape is merging the formal and wild and coming up with an aesthetic that is a hybrid of what came before and what is to come. These hybrid landscapes can potentially have infinitely more mass appeal than the purely wild and weedy ones, and if the objective is to reduce water consumption and chemical fertilizers on a large scale, mass appeal should very much be the objective, not buying into a rarified aesthetic that is tough to swallow. After all, these are landscapes, spaces that are supposed to delight the eye and the senses, not be exercises in difficulty.

Event: Thoughtful Landscapes in a Changing World

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Photo courtesy of Seneca Hill Perennials

Sponsored by the Minnesota Project, the discussion series, Centered on Sustainability, continues with a talk on landscape design techniques and strategies for creating spaces that can adapt to a changing climate. The event will be held at the Bachman’s Heritage Room in Minneapolis, on Thursday, March 17 at 6:00 p.m. RSVP here.

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