What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

The neighborhood becomes more attractive.

Urban greenery “doesn’t just beautify the city,” begins an article published in an Italian newspaper last February. And the article isn’t talking about lawns. It specifies that the gardens in question contain trees and bushes, and the feature image depicts drifts of tall grass. Yet the author seems to take it as an uncontroversial fact that these types of plantings are beautiful, listing this virtue of healthy vegetation right alongside “screening out noise” and “filtering pollutants from the air.”

Crime goes down.

The real focus of the article is an experiment in Philadelphia, in which researchers established gardens in small abandoned lots. In the months after the gardens were installed, police records showed that crime in the areas near the gardens decreased markedly, compared to the months before the planting took place. Thefts decreased by 22%, while shootings dropped by 30%.

Some people think that lush plantings create places for criminals to hide, or that they have a neglected look that encourages criminal behavior. But the article specifically contrasts the new gardens with the “broken windows” conditions that contribute to drug dealing, prostitution, and other unsavory activities.

People’s lives are better.

The improvement in public safety was obvious to the residents of the communities that hosted the new gardens. The article reports that people who lived near the plantings felt less fear of moving around the neighborhood, and were able to visit and enjoy the green space in their community. Exposure to green space is known to have a wide variety of positive impacts on human health and well-being, meaning that people living near the gardens received benefits far beyond a reduction in crime.

And these benefits did not come with a steep price tag. The researchers spent only $5 per square meter for the initial installation of the gardens, and $0.50 per square meter for maintenance over the course of the study. Comparing the costs of these urban green spaces to their benefits, the researchers concluded that law enforcement officials and public health workers alike should invest resources in greening our cities.

 

Given all the benefits that healthy plantings provide, we all should be transitioning our own spaces from low-value turf grass to air-cleaning water-filtering community-beautifying crime-stopping native landscaping. Moreover, we should be demanding that our local authorities do likewise on city-owned property, and that they create rules or incentives to move our reluctant neighbors in the same direction. When thriving vegetation provides so many benefits with so few drawbacks, there’s simply no reason to delay.

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What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

People often toss around the words “appropriate” and “suitable” to describe where they think nature belongs. Nature is “appropriate” in city parks. Nature is “appropriate” in faraway wildlife refuges. Nature is “inappropriate” in people’s yards.

We should be asking these people why they think it’s “appropriate” to deprive others of a healthy living environment.

It’s a fact that some neighborhoods have more nature than others. In particular, affluent neighborhoods tend to have more street trees and more green space than poorer areas of the same town. Now, of course, there are lots of reasons why rich people are doing better, in all sorts of ways, than those who are less financially advantaged. There are also reasons why wealthy neighborhoods are greener: for example, those with money and status are more likely to demand that these kinds of amenities are created and preserved.

Presumably, the well-off would not be demanding more trees and parks if they thought these things were bad for them. But the more important point is that there are direct links between more greenery and being better off. Experts say that access to nature tends to move people towards healthier patterns in their exercise routines, transportation choices, and diets. Nature also reduces stress, moderates temperature, and combats air pollution. When people don’t have access to nature, they don’t have access to these important benefits either.

It’s fairly obvious that people who have nature right outside their front doors have more access to nature than people who have to travel some distance to experience healthy plants and plant communities. People who have more access to nature and all its benefits are more likely to actually receive those benefits.

The city of Madison recognized this when it said that destroying trees in some neighborhoods and not destroying trees in other neighborhoods would be unfair to the residents of the de-greened areas. It was exactly because of this unfairness that the city decided to work harder to protect trees.

In saying that it’s not fair for some people to have more trees and some people to have fewer trees, the city of Madison was expressing that trees have value. Nature has value. And so, to return to the original point – why would it be “inappropriate” to have valuable things on our property?

Nature belongs in every neighborhood – in the form of pocket parks, street trees, and natural yards – for the same reason that every neighborhood should have fire hydrants and nearby places of employment and access to public transportation. These things make our lives better. Anyone who says otherwise is not acting in your best interest.

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

What is solastalgia?

We’re all familiar with nostalgia: the sadness we feel when thinking about places we love but don’t visit anymore. Solastalgia is nostalgia’s dark cousin: the sadness we feel when looking at places we once loved, but which have been irreparably transformed from how they used to be.

Maybe you can think of a specific moment in your life when solastalgia suddenly set in. Maybe when you were a child, the forest or field you played in was bulldozed to make room for more houses. Maybe you went to a favorite creek one day, only to find it had just been paved over. Many people who consider themselves environmentalists describe just such an experience as a defining moment in their lives, the time when they first understood that natural places matter and must be actively preserved.

Maybe solastalgia has set in for you more slowly. Maybe as you drive around your town, you say “That used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland.” But the housing developments and strip malls sprung up one at a time over decades, and there was no specific day when you realized that the character of your community had changed.

Or maybe your family has lived in the same home for generations, and by talking to your parents and grandparents, you can trace a slow history of the surrounding hills being gradually deforested and then blasted apart for mining operations. The view from your house is no longer what it was when your ancestors settled in this spot, and you’ve lost something that you valued about your corner of the world.

Nostalgia makes us sad because there is no going back, even if we can physically return to the place we love. The creek where we played as children may still be there, but we just can’t experience it the same way as adults. We can walk the halls of our old high school, but we can’t recreate the good times we had with our friends.

Solastalgia makes us sad because what we loved is gone, irretrievably. We can’t go back to the neighborhood woodlot to stand in the cool shade and remember the adventures we had there when we were young, because the woodlot is now a treeless private yard. We can’t take our children cycling on country roads and show them our favorite vistas from when we were their age, because those roads are now busy city streets, unwelcoming to cyclists, and the views of farm fields have been replaced by gas stations and convenience stores.

The world, including natural environments, is always changing. But in recent times, change is occurring fast enough that we can see it happening over a single lifespan. We feel sad about how things are because we personally remember how they used to be.

When change is positive, we may reminisce about what things were like before, while also appreciating how they are now. But when change is overwhelmingly negative – when cookiecutter suburbs march across endless acres of what used to be healthy nature – we’re left with a deep sadness about what we’ve lost, while having little offsetting happiness about what we’ve gained.

Like biophilia, solastalgia often gets brushed off as a kind of illness, even though it’s perfectly normal. Nowadays, solastalgia is increasingly recognized as a real and legitimate form of grief. While biophilia is characteristically accompanied by action to repair the distressing circumstance, the defining feature of solastalgia is that the damage cannot be undone on any timescale short enough to help the sufferer feel better. If you are experiencing severe solastalgia, a counselor may be able to help.

What is solastalgia?

What is biophilia?

Very early on, That Blog wrote about how people are inherently drawn towards other living things, including plants and animals. The English language (via Greek) has helpfully provided us with a word for this: the term biophilia, which literally means love of life.

Not to be confused with joie de vivre – happiness about everything that’s good in our own lives – biophilia describes the care we feel towards all the other living beings we share our planet with. In particular, it refers to a kind of empathy for the non-human.

Biophilia is why we enjoy watching animals. It’s why we like walking among plants. Biophilia makes us wants to nurture flowers in our yards, adopt a cat, and pass laws to protect endangered species.

Importantly, biophilia is a normal part of the human condition. Most people experience it. Though some people try to cast wildlife lovers and treehuggers as strange, or even as unhealthily concerned about “useless” plants and animals, we should not be intimidated by this. Instead, we should ask those people why they don’t have normal feelings of respect and care towards other inhabitants of our world.

Normal, healthy people also experience feelings of intense distress, even grief, when we witness other life being harmed or destroyed – when we hear about how animals on factory farms are treated, when we see pictures of trophy hunters showing off their kills, when forests are destroyed by wildfires, and when healthy urban trees are “removed” – a frighteningly euphemistic term – to make more space for buildings and cars. Then, normal, healthy people experience a strong urge to do something to help offset this destruction of life. They may feel a desire to donate to a wildlife charity, or to sign a petition telling major restaurants to get animal abuse out of their supply chains. But most particularly, people feel compelled to do something hands-on: to plant trees in local parks, to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, or to tear out their barren lawns and fill the space with a thriving plant community. All of these feelings and actions are collectively known as urgent biophilia.

If you or someone you know is suffering from urgent biophilia, don’t dismiss it as being odd, or as being overly sentimental. Act on it. As our world moves deeper into a crisis of diminishing wildlife populations, disappearing forests, polluted oceans, and a dangerously unstable climate, people acting on their natural instinct to repair our only home may be our best hope of minimizing the damage.

What is biophilia?

Is global warming good for plants?

Some people deny that global warming is happening. Others agree that it is happening, but claim it isn’t a bad thing. People in this second group often say that global warming isn’t bad because all that extra carbon in the air will promote plant growth, which will benefit agriculture and the environment. Is this true?

Not really.

As described in the last post, plants do need carbon to grow, and they like having more of it around. But, they like extra carbon a little too much.

Let’s explore why by looking at humans and sugar.

Humans like sugar. We generally think of sugar as a bad and unnecessary thing that makes us fat. But, in fact, humans need sugar. In the past, sugar was rare and hard to find. Because sugar was important for human nutrition but difficult to get, evolution fitted us with a sugar craving that drives us to search energetically for this nutrient, and consume it whenever possible. This worked great until the modern age, when sugar became abundant and readily available in our dietary environment. Our biology hasn’t yet learned that it should tell us to eat a certain amount of sugar and then stop. And so, unless we manage to exert a lot of willpower, we end up eating too much sugar, and we get sick from it.

A similar mechanism is at work in plants. A plant’s biology tells the plant to absorb as much carbon as possible. This is very good for the plant as long as the amount of carbon the plant can realistically absorb is not greater than the amount of carbon the plant really needs. However, if a plant was able to absorb more carbon than it needed – for example, due to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere related to global warming – then the plant would happily gorge itself on the extra carbon. In a classic case of too much of a good thing, the plant would then become sick.

This is not just theoretical. Studies have found that plants that binge on carbon really do become unhealthy. Just like humans who eat too much sugar produce body fat that isn’t good for them, plants that absorb too much carbon produce abnormally high levels of starch. And while these plants are getting vegetatively flabby, they store less protein in their pollen.

This means that the plants are not healthy, their pollen does not contain the nutrients that pollen-eating animals need to be healthy, and the parts of the plants that humans eat are similarly lacking in nutrients that humans need to be healthy. Far from being a boon to agriculture, global warming puts plants on a junk food diet that is bad for everyone.

And that part isn’t theoretical either. Studies on how plants react to excess carbon haven’t just been done in the lab. In the US, plants living in the wild have shown a marked decrease in the protein content of their pollen since America began industrializing in the 1840s. That decline has been most severe over the past six decades, when America’s carbon emissions were increasing dramatically.

Global warming is a serious problem that we are running out of time to solve. At this point, we cannot decrease our emissions steeply enough to avoid disastrous warming on our planet. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to not only reduce our emissions, but also actively work to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have not yet invented technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, nature has. We call that technology plants.

Global warming will not benefit either humans or plants. But if humans and plants work together, we still may be able to solve this urgent problem.

Is global warming good for plants?

Why is That Blog necessary?

That Blog has now been active for three years, and currently has nearly 200 posts. Those posts document numerous benefits of natural yards, and also report on clear signals that the era of the lawn is rapidly coming to a close.

During that same three-year period, however, the acreage of lawn in the United States has continued to increase, alongside ongoing suburban sprawl, as lawn remains a default landscaping choice in many parts of the country. And, studies still find that many people do not understand or value the many crucial services that urban nature provides for us.

A fascinating report from 2015 – just after That Blog was launched – investigates why experts on the importance of urban nature struggle to communicate what they know to laypeople. The fundamental finding of this report is that while experts recognize that nearby nature is absolutely critical to human health and wellbeing, the average person views nature as a sort of bonus amenity that is nice to have around if there is any space left after inserting houses, schools, workplaces, roads, parking lots, and all the other manmade infrastructure a community needs.

The report finds that many people also struggle with the basic idea of nature in cities. Urban dwellers often don’t view their local parks as nature, despite the presence of trees and other plants. To many Americans, “nature” means someplace vast and far away, the kind of place we visit occasionally on vacation.

In other words, the average person thinks that nature only counts if it’s big, and that we can “stock up” nature to sustain our wellbeing throughout the year. In contrast, experts understand that people benefit from nature as small as a pocket park or a residential yard, and that we need daily exposure to nature to really be at our best.

After comparing the views of laypeople to the knowledge of experts, and examining the communications gap between the two groups, the report concludes that people would value and support urban nature more if they understood that:

  • nature benefits us even when it is small.
  • we benefit from experiencing nature, rather than simply using it as a place to take a walk and get exercise.
  • nature benefits us in specific ways, via mechanisms science can explain.
  • nature is an essential component of urban design; we cannot live without it.
  • we can choose to have more nature in our cities!

For three years, That Blog has examined how even a small planting provides a wide variety of benefits, explored how we feel when we look at naturally-growing plants, explained how plants support our physical and mental health, expressed that natural yards are a great choice for our neighborhoods, and encouraged everyone to garden sustainably with nature!

Until public understanding and acceptance of urban nature is in line with what experts have long known, That Blog is still necessary. In the coming months, That Blog will cover the impacts of global warming, how to be a good neighbor to plants, and what happens to people’s wellbeing when nearby nature is destroyed. But first, That Blog will tackle head-on the key question: How can one yard make a difference?

Why is That Blog necessary?

Why are lawns seen as safe?

If lawns are so dangerous, why do so many people believe they are safe? One reason is that advertisers have spent decades telling us that lawns are safe.

In the post-war period, lawns actually were marketed to women. Advertisements persistently positioned lawns as a kind of outdoor extension of the living room. (This is why lawns are so often compared to carpets.) Lawns were depicted as safe, clean places for children to play, and women were told that not having a nicely-mowed lawn was akin to letting garbage pile up inside their homes or failing to cook dinner for their families. So, wives nagged their husbands to mow their lawns, and lawns continued to serve as a visual symbol, without regard to what they actually did to people and the environment.

As described before, people tend to perceive familiar things as safe. At one time, lawns were not common, and most people didn’t know why they would want one – lawns took a lot of work to maintain, and didn’t seem to provide anything in exchange. But as lawns became more common – driven by social pressure, which in turn was driven by images and meanings created by advertising – lawns and their accompanying equipment became normal parts of the suburban scene. People forgot that these things were dangerous, and stopped following safety precautions. More recent generations, who grew up with lawns, may have never been aware of the hazards just outside their home.

But industries haven’t forgotten. Pesticide manufacturers know that their products are dangerous. Lawnmower manufacturers know that their products are dangerous. These industries quietly lobby against bans and regulations on their products, while investing heavily in advertising to tell us that it is insects and tall grass that are the real dangers. In fact, there is very little evidence to support those claims.

Our brains have evolved shortcuts for assessing risk – shortcuts that don’t always work in the modern world, and that can be manipulated by what special interest groups tell us. By paying attention to where information is coming from, and by looking at the real facts regarding risk, we can make intelligent decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe.

Why are lawns seen as safe?