Public and community open spaces could, by a factor of an awful lot, have a significantly more positive impact on the environment over the next 20 plus years. In reasonably plain English this manifests as:
- Increased biodiversity, and
- Improved climate resilience, and
- Lowered carbon footprint, and
- Spending less over time.
It can all start straightaway, depending on circumstances you can change your policy, change your current contract or award a new contract.
Traditionally grounds maintenance …
Traditionally grounds maintenance strategies, specifications, and buyer-supplier relationships, despite best intentions, promote:
- Lush green manicured grass
- Cut and leave
- Annual wild(?)flowers
- Rapid growth
- Instant run-off
Unfortunately, all this gives the environment a good pounding. For example, ‘lush green manicured grass’ supports little or no bio-diversity, it requires cutting many times a year and struggles in a drought, if you don’t water it regularly. ‘Cut and leave’ leaves grass cuttings to decompose in situ. They maintain/boost soil fertility so the grass continues to grow at the same or a faster rate. Which means you have to continue to cut it regularly if you want manicured grass, otherwise it’ll look a bit of a mess.
We’ve seen ‘annual wild(?)flowers’ sown in prominent swathes to have an ‘immediate’ visual impact. This involves killing off what was already there, plowing the top soil and sowing expensive generic seed, that isn’t intentionally local or native and not all that wild. This involves harmful chemicals, releases carbon into the environment and gives us pseudo wild(?)flowers, which need resowing each year, unless of course they magically self-seed with the same or greater coverage. Not particularly helpful!
Prices tend to go up not down …
With a traditional approach it is difficult to reduce or change how you supply a service and how much in terms of inputs. Therefore, price reduction is pretty nigh impossible and biodiversity, climate resilience and your carbon footprint are likely to stay the same or get worse, but they won’t improve. In fact prices are likely to go up, year-on-year, by whatever price change mechanism you have in the contract or by inflation and pay rises, if you supply with in-house resources.
Rarely are prices, inputs and drivers modelled to find out if …
Accurate modelling helps you understand the type, quantity and frequency of inputs to perform a contract over its duration. They largely dictate the price you pay. Particularly, if we assume minimal variation, across potential suppliers, in terms of unit prices, management, overheads and profit margins.
While somewhat rare accurate modelling enables should-cost thinking and ‘what if’ scenario planning. However, in this instance it’ll be a static model as not a lot will change, except for the annual price increase. You might be able to “fiddle around the edges” as spending a bit less here or there isn’t particularly difficult, perhaps 11 grass cuts instead of 13.
It doesn’t set you up to spend significantly less while increasing biodiversity, improving climate resilience and lowering your carbon footprint, over the next 10 to 20 years. Fiddling around the edges won’t cut it (pun intended), so what will?
Things to think about …
Consider these ‘innovative’ initiatives to endow your open spaces with actual, rather than pseudo, natural environments. The two that should come first are:
- Develop a longer term, much longer, strategy: shelve inputs and focus on outcomes, to establish a clear direction and expectation, that is a common understanding for all beneficiaries.
- Reset expectations for open spaces: from stereotypical wants to actual needs. Explain what and why, with evidence and proofs, and give time frames for initial results, say two to three years. Otherwise expectations, despite best intentions, will be those of a stereotypical layperson, such as:
- High soil fertility is best
- Frequently cut lush green grass
- Lots of ‘annual’ wild(?)flowers
- Manicured appearance
- Immediate results, hence expensive generic wild(?)flower seed
Pretty much everyone wants biodiverse, climate resilient and low carbon footprint open spaces. Some of the practical and ‘innovative’ initiatives that can do this include:
- Reducing soil fertility: because grassland wildflowers grow more slowly in low nutrient soil, so you cut them less frequently. Fewer cuts allow wildflowers and plants to flower for longer, improving people’s wellbeing and enjoyment; it also enables greater biodiversity as they attract more, and more diverse, wildlife. To reduce soil fertility consider:
- Collecting and composting grass cuttings, so they don’t enrich the soil
- Removing the top soil, and seeding the subsoil
- Seeding and planting in subsoil on new developments, now policy for Highways England
- Boosting cultural heritage by going local and native: with a rolling program of culturally important biodiversity change by sowing local native species rich grassland wildflower seed within your open spaces. Harvest and sow seed from your own native grassland wildflowers. Commercially produced seeds are unlikely to be native/local, in some instances they’re not even wildflowers, and exhibit lower in species genetic variation, that is lower biodiversity.
You could enable wildflowers such as cowslip, bird’s-foot trefoil and autumn hawkbit to grow on urban road verges, to be seen by everyone and used as food plants by the plethora of insects and associated creatures that we could have in our lives again. Don’t forget to look out for funding pots that support heritage projects.
- Growing for longer: let much of it grow longer for some of the year. This enables local native species rich grassland and wildflowers to develop deeper roots, along with more flowers that can be on show for longer, essentially hardwiring in greater biodiversity and climate resilience. Species rich grassland wildflowers give you flexibility, of what you cut, when and how frequently. So you can create displays of different species of wildflowers for much of the year, whilst ensuring larger areas of grassland remain user friendly particularly for school holidays, for example, by cutting wide pathways and open ‘play’ areas.
- Fast in slow out: or the sponge effect, where dual purpose areas of soft and hard landscaping, such as wetland areas, flood plain ponds and sunken seating collect excess rain water and allow it to drain slowly. Species rich grassland wildflower roots also contribute, as they penetrate further into the soil searching for moisture, especially if cut less frequently, which improves climate resilience and capacity to absorb moisture. These are all important contributors to sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS).
- New development default: for planning conditions to include the above. For example, default to sowing locally-collected native species rich grassland wildflower seed on subsoil. Local seeds give a sense of local character and distinctiveness. Subsoil, as limited fertility slows growth reducing cuts and pruning. This avoids the current default to high cost, high maintenance, low biodiversity, rye-grass sown on expensive often imported topsoil. Yes there’ll be exceptions, perhaps sports pitches.
Impact of future considerations …
You can have your cake and eat it. That is you can improve biodiversity, climate resilience and your carbon footprint, and also reduce the cost of your grounds maintenance service. Fewer and different types of inputs enables you to spend less over time.
With this in mind, and my caveat of not knowing your specific circumstances, these are the likely impacts on input costs.
- Labour: significantly less over time because you won’t need to cut the grass as much
- Equipment/Machinery: a marginal increase in capital investment for longer grass, cut/collect and the shift to electric/hydrogen power.
- Consumables: less fossil fuels, less water, more electricity, albeit somewhat offset by fewer cuts over time.
- Soft landscaping: additional cost to collect/harvest local native grassland wildflower seed (will diminish over time) offset, or covered entirely, by not having to buy expensive generic annual wildflower seed. Some capital investment for new or enhanced fast in slow out features, to increase the sponge effect.
- Travel/logistics inc. vehicles/trailers etc.: fewer cuts over time equates to significantly less travel, although transporting cut grass could limit this, at least initially.
- Storage space inc. depot/plants/consumables/vehicles etc.: more space to compost grass and other cuttings, which may be available within current accommodation.
One other cost, not specially mentioned, is harm to the environment. However, changes to demand, as discussed, leads to fewer inputs and reduces emissions with subsequent improvements in air quality, congestion, pollution etc. and therefore people’s wellbeing.
There is considerable scope, over time, to reduce inputs and the cost of Grounds Maintenance. However, more importantly you can do this and sustain it for the next 20 plus years, while successfully increasing biodiversity, improving climate resilience and lowering your carbon footprint.
And finally …
The pressure to change is overwhelming, or at least it should be if you are serious about repairing our environment. Over the first two to three years, when setting it up, you’ll spend less than before. However, the benefit, environmental and cost, in subsequent years will continue to increase, until it plateaus, providing open, particularly urban, spaces that have an increasingly positive impact on people’s wellbeing
I could leave it there but I’m feeling a bit picky. Therefore, if you haven’t already embarked down this path, why not? Conceptually, it is pretty straightforward. Operationally, it isn’t hugely difficult, with sensible thought and planning. Ultimately, there isn’t a more effective direction, this is it.
Now I’m back to where I started, why haven’t you already started?