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America's Horticultural Renaissance: Plants in the City
| Debbie Hamrick
>> Published Date: 1/28/2013
While just 3% of the United States’ total land mass is considered urban, our cities concentrate wealth in the forms of capital investment (buildings/infrastructure) and people (jobs/consumption markets). Cities are also a hub for innovation and creativity. An astounding 82% of all Americans live in cities and nearby suburbs.
The profound shift of populations and jobs to urban centers and near urban centers/inner suburban rings, combined with the emergence of Generation Y/Millennials, creates opportunity not seen in a generation for our industry.
When the view of horticulture is widened beyond floriculture to encompass the landscapes and tended gardens around our homes, the trees in our cities and our urban and peri-urban parks and along our roadways and streets, we become green infrastructure. Green infrastructure provides services that benefit cities and people in the form of storm water mitigation, carbon sequestration, climate moderation, wildlife habitat and higher tax values.
Changing our thinking
There are two primary ways the industry can benefit from beginning to think of plants as green infrastructure. The first is by working with gardeners and homeowners to realize the potential of their personal garden/yard spaces and the contributions of those spaces to the urban environment and, as a result, to the tax base of their governmental jurisdiction. And the second is by beginning to look at plants as part of the community infrastructure and engaging with the institutions, regulatory agencies and private professionals active in the sector to ensure horticulture is a driver for the future.
Getting there will require subtle shifts in how we see the world. For instance, is it time for the industry to decouple from housing? On average, it’s projected that working families with commutes spend 28% of their income on transportation costs. That doesn’t leave much for discretionary purchases. Housing preferences are changing, too.
Brooking Institute’s Christopher Leinberger wrote in The New York Times that only 12% of future homebuyers want “drivable suburban-fringe houses.” He said today’s consumption trends are being driven by downsizing Baby Boomers and Millennials (Gen Y). Combined, the two groups comprise more than half of the American population. Both groups seek “walkable” communities in urban and near-urban neighborhoods.
In the city of Asheville, North Carolina, the Board of Realtors, in making its case for more dense population corridors, took a look at the tax base. It discovered the highest tax base could be derived from mixed-use construction—condominiums and commercial space. Such four-story developments bring $44,887 per acre in taxes. One residential acre in Buncombe County brings just $1,236, while a residential acre in the city brings $1,716. Implications for highway, communications, waste management and water infrastructure are clear: Density pays because it maximizes fixed investments and services.
Mass merchandisers and home improvement chains drive the horticultural industry. But even they’re beginning to downsize stores and develop new formats for high-density urban locations in a nod to the 7,000 acres of vacant retail space added to the American shopping landscape in the recession (Source: Ad Age).
The implications of urbanization for ornamental horticulture and floriculture are clear. Broad, sweeping flower beds popular in suburbia are taking a backseat. It’s time to think about making an impact on balconies, in sidewalk strip (AKA hell strip) flower oases, and on rooftop getaways. When Natural Home & Garden polled its readers, their number one challenge was limited space to garden.
Plants benefit cities
In the United States, ecological benefits of gardens haven’t received the same attention as in the UK. Here, urban foresters and the urban forestry community have been sustaining a steady effort to develop tools to help cities quantify the value of their urban tree canopy and tree inventory. For instance, the city of Elgin, Illinois, values the 49,583 trees in their jurisdiction at $72 million and placed the carbon they sequestered annually at 6.24 million pounds. Not only that, but the municipality values savings of $1.13 million less in energy expense and $1.83 million less in storm water expense as a result. Elgin has always had trees. What’s new is the realization that trees are more than just pretty.
The city of Chicago will rebate homeowners up to $100 for trees because it recognizes that for every tree planted, the city receives about $1,200 in ecosystem services over the life of that tree.
There’s even a new discipline emerging—Urban Watershed Forestry. Trees provide benefits that provide value. But so do shrubs, perennials, annuals, herbs, turf grass, constructed meadows and vegetable gardens!
Legacy thinking is that urban ecosystems have little value. However, there’s an emerging field of study to quantify the ecosystem contributions of green infrastructure—urban ecology. The good news is that eco-evangelists aren’t driving that train. There’s an emerging, fresh group of pragmatists adding fresh thinking to the discussion.
The emergence of urban ecology, as a discipline, is playing out against a backdrop over the past 20 years of a steady emergence of new institutional consumption of plants, to meet legislated, regulatory and industry voluntary environmental and sustainability metrics. For example, some of the better-known voluntary programs include Sustainable Sites Initiative, LEED standards for buildings and even EPA’s Water Sense label.
Outdoor water use: Industry elephant
Water—regulated primarily at the local and regional level—is an industry-wide issue and important for the future on two fronts. The most immediate is water availability and securing the ability of homeowners to be able to irrigate gardens. The second is water quality, and it’s here the industry can be an asset.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that outdoor watering in the summer can exceed all other total water use during the year. The U.S. Geological Society says that in 1995 the U.S. used about 26 billion gallons of water a day—about 30% of that was outdoor use. Here’s the bottom line: Total water withdrawals have increased about three times in the last 50 years. By 2025, water withdrawals will increase again. Worldwide, projections put the current withdrawal rate at more than 50% of the available water supply feasibly accessible by societies.
In North Carolina, we’ve confirmed outdoor water use data. North Carolina State University, in conjunction with the North Carolina Green Industry Council, surveyed water use for 1,800 households (ones with swimming pools were eliminated; only 4% of surveyed households had water features.) They found that of total yearly water use, about 54% was used outdoors. However, the survey was not detailed enough to know how much was used to irrigate landscapes. Only 12% of households had automatic irrigation systems; those households used about twice as much as hand waterers.
Any grower living in a drought-stricken area has seen firsthand that when water supplies are tight, outdoor watering for landscapes is one of the first water uses to be restricted. Many times water restrictions are implemented in stages, with hand watering being one of the last outdoor water uses to be restricted.
One kneejerk elevator pitch from public agencies seeking to limit homeowner access to public water supplies for outdoor irrigation is to plant native species. The topic of natives is highly divisive in the ornamental and floriculture industry. Many horticulturists with landscape/field experience know that native plants are not necessarily the best choices for our increasingly urbanized world. Maybe there’s middle ground—combinations of native plants and introduced species that are also functional, not just pretty.
The city of Santa Monica, California, compared native and traditional gardens at two adjacent city-owned properties on Pearl Street in 2004. From planting the gardens in 2004 until 2010, they found that the “native/natural” landscape used 92,673 gallons of water versus the traditional landscape use of 482,330 gallons. Other metrics they measured were labor and waste generated (both important to municipalities).
The native/natural landscape also significantly outperformed the
traditional landscape. (Source: Santa Monica OSE—www.smgov.net/Departments/OSE/Categories/Landscape/Garden-Garden.aspx)
“Water wise” and “drought tolerant” are terms being promoted and used more and more often by industry groups, growers, garden centers and municipalities when referring to plants for gardens and landscape. Unfortunately, xeriscaping (AKA zeroscaping and zerogardening) has been interpreted by many to mean no water at all, even during plant establishment.
A potential solution is being implemented in some areas; industry at all levels should be involved in discussions regarding “purple pipe water,” also known as “reclaimed water” or water that’s been treated after its use, but not treated to drinking water standards. These systems can be localized for a site, local within a neighborhood or even regional. Depending on the scale, delivering reclaimed water can be expensive to implement and politically unpopular because of the expense. There can also be hidden issues with exactly how reclaimed water can be used as we discovered here when a purple pipe system was not going to be available for a nurseryman to use for nursery irrigation until the NC Green Industry Council, NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and NC Farm Bureau became involved and changed the law.
One question must be answered: Is it realistic for the industry to believe that we’ll provide plants for 400 million people in 2050 and that the consumers of those plants will be allowed to use drinking water to irrigate their garden?
Water quality: Plants do the work
The second area of water the industry needs to focus on is an area for potential growth in the form of new markets in urban ecosystems and water quality. Gardens are nature; they’re an ecosystem. Increasingly rain gardens are being used to mitigate storm water runoff in low-impact development, highway construction and commercial buildings to slow and/or eliminate storm water runoff depending on the rain event. Rain gardens and other riparian or buffer gardens may be installed voluntarily or to meet local, regional, state or federal regulations depending on the project and jurisdiction.
Federal storm water regulations are relatively recent—just barely more than 20 years old. They’ve been developed as a result of the federal Clean Water Act and numerous amendments and updates to it.
As the impervious surfaces of urbanized areas increase, covering more than one-third to one-half of the total watershed landmass, “receiving waters” become impaired by pollutants contained in storm water runoff. Green infrastructure—specifically plants—plays a tremendous role in mitigating runoff.
How to engage in green infrastructure
How can floriculture and the ornamental horticulture industry begin to influence green infrastructure discussions? Here are a number of ideas:
- Get involved with your local soil and water conservation district. If you’re inclined after observing meetings and getting to know your district’s work, consider running for supervisor. Nationally, there are 3,000 local conservation districts. They formulate policy and determine how to direct federal and state expenditures and grants. They’re wired into local, state and regional environmental and conservation communities and regulatory agencies. As a result, soil and water conservation districts are instrumental in helping to formulate and implement water policy. These local governmental units work with landowners and other units of government to implement policy and programs. They also provide technology, funding and educational services. (National Association of Conservation Districts: www.nacdnet.org)
- If you are not already doing so, engage with Master Gardeners in your community. They get it and a good number of them will be hardwired into your area’s political infrastructure. According to a 2005 white paper, in any five-year period, more than 100,000 volunteers were brought into the Master Gardener system. Given outreach per volunteer, Master Gardeners reached more than 10 million people who received information and advice through volunteer projects. A Minnesota analysis showed that for every $1.00 in hourly value spent on training, a Master Gardener volunteer gave back $9.70 in the first year alone. The Baby Boomer demographic bubble is moving into their years with more free time. They’ll be taking a lifetime of career experience with them. You may be able to tap a surge in Master Gardeners, especially YEEPIEs (Youthful Energetic Elderly People into Everything).
- Get to know what your city is up to. Attend a City Council meeting. A number of American cities are implementing policies and programs related to green infrastructure. For instance, the City of Chicago estimated that as much as 30% of its urban footprint is rooftops. To mitigate storm water runoff investment, it offered $5,000 green roof grants. It’s estimated that the city has 1 million sq. ft. of green roofs installed or in process. Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program offers rebates for up to 50% off their next local purchase of trees (up to $100 back); native plants (up to $60 back); compost bins (up to $50 back); or rain barrels (up to $40 back). Philadelphia city leadership is pushing to be the Greenest City by 2015. The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society has initiated the Philadelphia Green Initiative for urban greening. Elected leadership and regulators recognize that investing in green infrastructure is less expensive than investing in black infrastructure, such as sewers, deep pipes, holding tanks, tunnels, etc.
- If your town is not already participating in America in Bloom (AIB), pull the industry together and start. AIB gives industry in the local area a great reason to approach and get to know city, county and regional leaders, regulators and planners. AIB also is a great way to connect to neighborhood community groups, local garden clubs, Master Gardeners and other organizations in your area.
- Another way you can become part of the green infrastructure discussion is to join and be active in an industry organization, like OFA/ANLA and/or SAF. When national associations ask to be at the table as a stakeholder and they can state their membership represents a majority of the industry, it’s hard for regulators or legislators to turn them away. It’s possible to make a difference. For example, Turfgrass Producers International (TPI) members successfully lobbied to change EPA’s Water Sense label for single-family homes. EPA originally restricted Water Sense landscapes to 40% turf grass. However, the turf grass industry argued that a 40% reduction didn’t take into account regional climates. The effort took three long years, but it was successful.
- Finally, influence green infrastructure by spending 15 minutes a day looking at industry emails/updates. Acres Online, GreenTalks, Green Profit’s BuZZ!, Inside Grower, ANLA’s Legislative Updates and Charlie Hall’s “Making Sense of Green Industry Economics” are all filled with insights and information you can leverage into new markets.
An increasingly urbanized society and the pending shift of American consumer generations create unprecedented opportunity for the industry. Imagine the future if we can translate the emotion, connectedness and beauty the industry is known for and apply that to the green infrastructure of our cities through functional private gardens, balconies and rooftops, and neighborhood and regional-scale landscapes that benefit the municipality, the residents and the environment. America’s horticultural renaissance may just create Eden all over again; this time in the city. GT
Debbie Hamrick was part of the Ball Publishing team from 1985 until 2004. She resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is the Specialty Crops Director for the North Carolina Farm Bureau. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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