Monday, June 29, 2009

Fear of a Tallgrass Planet

Another day, another piece in the Windsor Star decrying the weed-riddled parks that have flourished during the City of Windsor's outside workers 'work-stoppage'. Personally, I think that the emergence of prairie birds in our city parks has been the only positive outcome that has come out of this unfortunate situation that we've found ourselves in. (Actually, that and grass-braiding)

But I know that here where once was a sea of tallgrass prairie - that I'm in the minority. Most people in Windsor love routinely-mowed grass. In fact most people in the Western world love the lawn and the history of this love affair has been wonderfully captured in Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article "Turf War".

While Kolbert history of the lawn largely equates short-grass with material wealth, there is credible evidence that our love of short-grass is genetically hard-wired into our species:

As a reflection on what lawns mean to people, Gordon H. Orians, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, took photographs of a wide variety of vegetation habitats and asked people around the world to rate them. African savannas were preferred by a large margin. We evolved in a habitat where short green grass provided evidence of abundant grazing mammals; pruned shrubs similarly evidenced lots of browsers; and open spaces meant we could see the dangerous lions, hyenas, and other predators.

So how can we - those of us who are actively working to increase the amount of naturalized land in the Windsor and Essex County to sustainable levels - work around this tendency and keep some of the tallgrass in our public places?

I think I've found an answer in the book, With People in Mind: Design and Management of Everyday Nature by Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan and Robert L. Ryan. This 1998 work distills decades of research into the design of natural spaces into an easily understandable frame work that designers, public officials and citizens can use to design or evaluate local open space.

I'm currently reading the Leddy Library copy of this book and the good news is that there are strategies that can employed to create public spaces that incorporate natural space while addressing people's fears and preferences to outdoor space.


Candace said...

I agree - I love the look and the connection I feel to the tall grass prairie history.

Did you see today's article in the univeristy's daily news about maintaining a naturalized area?

jodi said...

Peter and I have been marveling at the beauty of our usually-bleak roadsides. It cracked us up to see "arbitration makes this go away!" signs next to abundant rose bushes along Walker Road, but somebody seems to have since realized the foolishness of this and taken them down. There are plants I've never seen before (and for someone who used to scour railyards looking for plants to bring home for the garden, that's something) encroaching on the plantings down by the Bert Weeks memorial. Except for the smelly pile of garbage outside my window and the billions of fruit flies, it makes me hope the strike goes on until fall.

How did we become so afraid of biodiversity, anyway?

John S said...

It is strange, come to think about it, that we drive out to the county to enjoy conservation areas when in fact we can have that right in our own urban areas. I can understand mowing ball diamonds and soccer fields but hopefully after this strike is over the city will give some thought about what we mow and why, then cut back where appropriate. I would love to see a thicket or forested area instead of the preened grass that comprises the small park at the end of my street.