Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Trees or Prairie? Lincoln Needs the Latter

As the drought goes on--nearly 9 weeks without significant rain--we're forced to think about how we use our resources. Lincoln has an odd / even watering ban in force, and since nearly half of our water right now goes to lawns and gardens, it's fair to ask if we need these kinds of outdoor spaces? Water usage on Monday, when a full ban is in place, was at under 30 million gallons, over half of what it was for each day over the previous week. We are draining the Platte River dry, literally, since it's filled with fish bones. How do we use that much water? How do we conserve water and cool the city down?

This piece in the local paper advocates more trees, better managed and placed trees, and better storm runoff and more permeable landscapes--i.e. engineered landscapes. I agree. I also respect the author, but take issue with the trees. We are on theoretical prairie, at least that's what the climate zone is--boom and bust droughts and deluges, the edge of tallgrass and mixed grass.

Union Plaza in Lincoln
What we need are more prairies. I've always lamented Lincoln's inability to plant prairie within city limits. New parks and pavilions and parking islands and hell strips go in, all slathered in attention-needing grass. Union Plaza, a new large green space in downtown Lincoln, is an eyesore to me. Yes, we need a downtown park, a green space, but I see lots of areas that will be infrequently used, areas where massed plantings in the style of the Lurie Garden in Chicago would be breathtaking. Even to imitate the High Line in New York would be something that would make Lincoln really stand out--and it'd be relatively inexpensive. What a gathering place it would be.

More prairie spaces, even in small chunks of 100 square ft, would create a new community, maybe a stronger sense of community and a sense of connection to the land--that latter point being something we really need for emotional and physical health. Trees may cool the heat island, but true water conservation begins with side oats grama grass, coneflowers, leadplant, prairie clover, bluestem, milkweed--all plants that improve the clay soil digging down deep. And the wildlife benefits would be immense, especially for insects that are the base of the food chain. Who wouldn't want to sit in a park watching butterflies and birds by the hundreds? Downtown? Over lunch? Holy cowhusker. And the maintenance costs are this: mow in the early spring, wait until next spring. No chemicals. No combustion engine exhaust fumes or sound pollution. Serenity in the "prairie capitol." A little Chicago or New York (the watermark in the first image says "Lincoln's Central Park," but Lincoln is in the Plains, not in east coast forests).

Lincoln, we need prairie. We are prairie. Teach us about our state and world. Open our eyes to life and one another. Prairie us.


Desert Dweller said...

You bring up a great point, and I appreciate your balance between trees and prairie. "Tree people" miss the companion plants to their trees, while "prairie people" miss that trees are a decent part of the prairie where moisture is more available (N slopes, drainages, certain soils). The core of this issue seems to be near worship of lawn, caused by a lack of imagination and appreciation of your place's power.

How to get appreciation of the land (patterns, processes) and get past dated lawns, that's the challenge. How do you see your role in that? Landscape architects? The public?

What you say regarding how forest-located New York, etc. doing your area better than your own area is why I often rip on the flunkies here, I mean "experts", who consider arid Abq as "plains (or prairie) grassland". They just can't bring themselves to the fact they live in the desert, and our landscapes should reflect our actual desert ecoregion far more strongly.

I could really go on about this - great post, Herr Vogt.

Benjamin Vogt said...

I do live in the Arbor Day state, which is ironic, or not so, since colonization, pioneering, and manifest destiny bring with it the eastern coast culture of woods (and European culture for that matter). My mennonite ancestors, for example, were noted arborists, transforming central Kansas in the late 1800s into orchards.

I really want to know what our city thinks--lawns are not sustainable. They keep making budget cuts, but the mowers are at parks and on highway edges all the time. What happened to the wildflower highway edge initiatives I wonder? Last year I witness mowers destroy gorgeous stands of sunflowers, and I felt the bees and insects, and future flowers ripped to shreds. It was like watching someone be tortured and murdered. I'm a nut I know.

Native systems work and are less expensive. They also highlight our cultural heritage and the region we call home. So I'm rambling with no answer. Look at what you did! :)

Desert Dweller said...

All you say makes sense to me - many, many I know would agree with you, as well as many you don't know yet, some probably right in the "cowhusker state".

You can grow prairie far easier and better than New York City, Albuquerque, or even Denver (though great plains like you, it is steppe & drier). Since it belongs there - you have the soils, pollinators, seed floating around. Like we can grow Chihuahuan desert grassland / desert scrub better than you, Denver, and New York.

Maybe you and the head curator at the Denver Botanic Gardens can brainstorm?

Feral landscapes rule!

scottweberpdx said...'s a sad reality that the obvious answer, prairie plantings, seems to be the furthest thing on their minds. I sometimes think it's fear and greed...those grounds crews can make a lot of $$$ just mowing acre after acre of lawn...but maintaining something like a prairie...too much to wrap their heads around. When all they are used to thinking of is plant matter trimmed and manicured to resemble carpet rather than anything found in nature, the natural world can seem frighteningly alien.

Blue Dragon Arts said...

I totally agree! I'm disappointed the University isn't leading the way, they have the knowledge and man power to make both campuses a place of prairie self sustaining beauty, inspiration and learning, yet they are just as bad when it comes to grassing over things.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Scott, nice last line. The natural world is VERY frightening. We're still very much thinking of it as a wilderness where our puritan morals are tested, where we are tested, and we must show mastery and power over it. We never think of ourselves as of nature, yet we are made of stars. We share the same molecules as every chunk of matter in the universe, and are bound and set free by this. We are the universe trying to figure itself out.
BDA, so much grass on those campuses that's never used, so many mulched (empty) beds. It's a travesty.

Ryan Armbrust said...

I agree that we need more prairie planting in town -- MUCH more -- but I also think you may be overlooking the need for trees. Yes, we are a prairie state. But we are also a tree state. And not just the river bottoms! There are several stands of native oak/hickory communities within just a few miles of Lincoln, in Lancaster County, and the southeastern part of the state is filled with forested areas like that. There are stretches of the Sandhills that are certainly natively treeless, but SE Nebraska is not. What I'd like to see is more bur oak savannahs, more native shrubs, more tallgrass prairie / forb stands, and more diversity in general! We can all agree that over-irrigated turf is probably not a good thing. Let's scale back the turf, increase our urban plant diversity, take advantage of the many wonderful native trees available to us, and use plant material where it makes the most sense -- right plant, right place!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Ryan--I'm with you all the way! Diversity, yes. Of course, each region is unique, as you point out, and we need to pay attention to that. I see Lincoln as ALL trees, and while important for butterflies, birds, shade, they've produced a monoculture of sorts (using the term loosely so give me license here). Why are we still afraid of prairie? If anything, it recalls the African savanna where we felt comfortable, able to see predators coming from long distances as we evolved from frightened forest creatures. Right plant right place--I'm cheering along with you, I preach that all the time.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

They took out parking where I work to make more green space, but have not taken good care of the plants.

sharon said...

my eller relatives and hannapels were from Lincoln..Ive never been mom just gave me a a book called wild flowers of you know of it?
damn this stupid character sign in hardly worth it for 5 trys

Benjamin Vogt said...

Sharon, glad you did. I hate word verification, too, but it seems like a necessary evil. Don't want to constantly be approving comments--too much email. Anyway, yes I know that book. Good stuff!

Bert Cregg said...

Good post. I used to work on East Campus ans remember they had some small prairie demo plots that they would burn periodically. I've been gone over 15 years but I take it that effort never really took off beyond that. Interesting that in some states such as Minn. the prairie movement is strong and very active.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Bert--patches here and there, no concerted effort it would seem to do something unique and bold. There's prairie at Pioneers Park, of course, but how cool would it be to have prairie in downtown? That's something that'd bring in tourism and really reshape the city into something much more than it is. Instead, we're build a new stadium and hotels in the Haymarket--which may have some token concrete planters. It's a shame, really.