The High Line in NYC: The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan's West Side. Photo by: Shutterstock
Guest blog by Dee Dee Clark
Is it possible that our urban open spaces will become just as important as our national forests in supporting wildlife? It’s a concept that seems implausible especially here in Western NC where we are seldom more than an hour’s drive from numerous national parks and “wild” spaces. The land mass of the United States is so vast that, admittedly, our perception has been that no matter how many plots we subdivide, farmland we cultivate, or roads we pave, there will always be endless acres of undisturbed natural habitat for animals and insects to flourish. But is that still true today? If I asked you how much land you thought we humans have taken for our own use in the United States—what would your guess be?
Are We Running Out of Room for Nature?
As of 2011, we had converted over 468 million acres to managed urban and suburban landscapes or cropland (USDA). That’s close to 7 times the area of Colorado. From 1982 to 1997, the greatest percentage of increases (2.6 million hectares or 58%) in developed areas were here in the Southeastern region of the U.S. (White, E. M.). Throughout these residential, urban, and suburban areas, we have decimated the native plant diversity that historically supported our cherished wildlife friends. Photo Source: Meritpath.com
Our Love Affair with Grass
Adding to this destruction is our love affair with pristine and manicured lawns. It’s estimated that over 32 million acres of land in the U.S. has been converted to European and Asian turf grasses that are essentially useless to most of our native insects and wildlife (Tallamy D. W.). However, many birds, bugs, and butterflies could live sustainably with us if we chose to design both our public and private living spaces with diverse and native plant species.
Less Mowing, More Pollinators
Asheville Greenworks is making this city friendlier to bugs and birds by developing a template for turning low-use municipal park areas into native pollinator meadows like this bee and butterfly garden in Portland, Maine.
If you visit Lake Julian, you will see Greenworks’ Pollinator Meadow testing site along Fisherman’s Trail.
In May, GreenWorks coordinated with geocaching expert Graeme McGufficke, Buncombe County staff, and about 30 volunteers to lay plastic, cardboard, and mulch at the testing site.
Next spring, we are hoping you will see this area filled with a growing array of milkweed, tickseed, sunflower, wild bergamot, aster, goldenrod and other hardy perennial wildflowers.
What's Wrong with Grass?
Although Greenworks is currently determining the most cost-efficient and effective ways to kill turf grass and install perennial wildflowers native to this area, this isn’t a war on grass. We can appreciate the benefits of grass for dog parks or as a perfect picnic setting. In fact, evolutionary psychologists even theorize that humans have evolved to be attracted to large open grassy plots because our ancestors wanted to be able to see potentially dangerous animals coming their way.
However, grass has some major drawbacks too. Lawns must be mowed regularly. About forty million lawnmowers consume 200 million gallons of gasoline per year and one gas-powered lawnmower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car. Another downside of grass?... I have discovered that my lawn is a breeding ground for the Japanese beetles that have been turning the leaves on my bean stalks into something that resembles lace doilies.
This summer, I have been working as a Fellow of UNC Asheville’s McCullough Institute in partnership with Asheville Greenworks to document various methods of grass removal and to research which native perennials are both easy to grow from seed and will survive in a sunny meadow with minimal maintenance. The McCullough Institute for Conservation, Land Use and Environmental Resiliency aims to be a nation model for blending environmental study with business and sustainable economic growth in urban and rural landscapes.
USDA ERS - Major Land Uses
White, E.M., et al., Past and projected rural land conversion in the US at state, regional, and national levels. Landscape Urban Plann (2008), doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2008.09.004
Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Timber Press, 2007.