Vancouver, Canada

Photo by Jack Tupper

The power of plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits

How is the initiative shaped by scientific evidence of the potential for plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits?

Many species and ecosystems are rapidly declining. According to a scientific meta-analysis, more than 40% of insect species are declining, and a third are already endangered. Another review demonstrates that intense lawn management practices are responsible for some of these declines: conventional lawns increase the prevalence of pest species, flatten diversity of plants and insects, and limit nesting and foraging opportunities for birds.

Since the launch of this program, we have scaled up and adapted the project based on plenty of evidence regarding the multiple benefits these updated practices offer.

This program’s design was based on findings of a multi-year graduate research project conducted in collaboration with Park Board maintenance crews. This research explored the social-ecological benefits, feasibility and operational considerations of replacing lawns with pollinator habitat. The project included field-based empirical research, and extensive literature review of pertinent science. Our design choices are influenced by research regarding “cues to care”, a framework for designing ecological spaces that suit public expectations.

We have research partnerships with non-profits and universities to monitor and evaluate the impact of this program.  We learn and implement iteratively based on their findings so that we are always aligned with current evidence. Our research partners are monitoring soil microbes, surveying presence of bees and other pollinators, and insect predators like bats and birds, while Park Board staff additionally study soil moisture, temperature, and species abundance.

How has the city exploited the potential of plants and associated ecosystems to deliver more than one benefit?

Implementation was focused in strategic areas, e.g., on slopes that are difficult to mow, or low-use turf areas that are infrequently used for gathering. This allows us to maximize ecological benefits while also preserving cherished passive-use turf areas where people gather for picnics and play.
The project also supports and expands ongoing citizen science and stewardship opportunities in the city. Many groups we work with, such as Environmental Youth Alliance and Hives for Humanity, have pollinator projects in and around the pilot sites.

Replacing mown lawns with lush meadows has many environmental and climate benefits including carbon sequestration, drought resilience, reduced irrigation needs, and new habitat and food sources for pollinators and other wildlife. However, meadows also create social benefits; it has been repeatedly demonstrated that having access to nature is essential for mental and physical wellbeing. Residents with good access to nature have lower rates of chronic disease related to sedentary lifestyles. Playing in nature improves the cognitive development, memory, social skills and attention of children, which the many outdoor preschools that use Vancouver city parks can attest to. On the other hand, children that lack access to nature experience higher rates of learning and attention related disabilities, and chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

Adding meadows and other natural areas to parks creates new opportunities for people to connect with nature, which improves health outcomes city-wide.