‘Sustainable’ increasingly means little

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.

Visit this park


Grand Park, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Pure Wow.

There are few public spaces we have been to in recent years that have left such an impression on us as Grand Park in Los Angeles. We knew the space when it was eyesore parking lot and drab civic plaza halfheartedly connecting City Hall to the Music Center on Bunker Hill. If these spaces of yore symbolized anything about the city and its vision, they symbolized a city with little vision. The new incarnation of these spaces, however, signals a true step forward, and a look ahead.

The park’s design is confident and playful, with a color and plant palette that tells the story of Los Angeles circa now, not circa 1855. It contains a combination of bold, plant-heavy spaces filled with groovy future-forward plants (re: waterwise but not drab); swaths of lawn for seating, lounging and gathering; simple architectural structures that sit perfectly within the space; hot pink tables and chairs that are both movable and serve as eye-catching sculpture dotting the space; and interpretive signs that tell the story of both the plants one finds in the space and their provenance.

Above all what is so refreshing about this park is its confidence and what that confidence says about an emerging new city. This is a city that tried (and has tried) for so long to pretend it was something it wasn’t, that it was a sleepy town or one large suburb, or that it was 24-7 New York, that it was tropical, rainsoaked Hawaii, or that it was just one huge disposable movie set. Grand Park in all its confidence and quirkiness seems to say, This is Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is wacky, and weird, and endlessly multifaceted, and that is what makes it both singular and lovable. For more info, check out Rios Clementi Hale (the studio responsible for the design and site planning), and Grand Park LA.

The park site before is shown below:

Come to the Mother Earth Gardens winter seminar on the irrigation-free landscape

prairieform, mother earth gardens, irrigation-free landscape, xeriscape, drought, drought-tolerance, minneapolis, saint paul, twin cities, landscape design, landscape architecture, climate change

We will be giving a seminar on the Irrigation-Free Landscape on Februrary 4 as part of the Mother Earth Gardens winter seminar series. The seminar will cover the nuts and bolts of the Irrigation-Free Landscape, how it works, what we have learned from the first pilot landscape, and how you can apply some of these lessons and tips to your own landscape or garden. The seminar starts at 7:00 p.m. and will be held at the Riverview Wine Bar, located across from Mother Earth Gardens at 3745 42nd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. The event is free of charge, but the nursery asks that you RSVP to the following email address: info@motherearthgarden.com. The seminar line-up contains tons of informative and instructive seminars on landscapes and sustainability. To check out the other speakers, click here.