Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Reassessing Municipal By-laws and Practices: "Unsightly" May Be "Environmentally Friendly"

I received a registered letter in the mail today, from the City of Greater Sudbury. It wasn’t in fact a letter; it was a “Notice of Non-Conformity”, issued by a municipal by-law enforcement officer. Apparently, we’ve been contravening a municipal by-law for a while now, and the City wants us to do something about it. And if we don’t take action, the City will – and charge us back.

You know what? I understand that’s the way things work. The City has its facts right; there was a contravention. And I’m actually pretty ok with that. It doesn’t hurt, too, that the contravention was taken care of earlier this week, so my wife and I don’t really have to worry about this. But this Notice really got me thinking about whether the City’s by-law continues to make sense in this day and age.

You see, we hadn’t mowed our lawn for some time, and the grass had grown quite high. Certainly higher than the apparent 20 centimetre limit the City has established as the maximum height for grass to grow. You see, I really don’t like mowing the lawn; and this time around, the extension cord had decided to quit, so I had to find an opportunity to buy a new one and….well, you see, I really just don’t like mowing the lawn.

Nevertheless, the lawn got mowed last week, but not apparently before by-law enforcement had been around to note the contravention. Again, I know that the City is just doing its job here.

The by-law that we contravened (ok, that I contravened…I can’t blame my wife, the lawn is my responsibility), by-law 2009-101, pertains to yard clearing and vacant lots. It talks a lot about the need to remove refuse from yards and lots, for health and safety reasons, along with ensuring that “unsightly conditions” do not occur.

OK…health and safety I can understand. Rusting abandoned vehicles loitering around a front yard might be the kind of hazard that really needs to be removed, given that children like to play and don’t understand the concept of invisible property lines acting as trespass barriers.

But what about this notion of “unsightly”? I mean…one person’s “unsightly condition” is another person’s paradise. That being said, I certainly didn’t think that my lawn looked like paradise…I’m sure that I thought of a few stronger terms to describe it than “unsightly”. But why did I feel that way? Maybe it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to seeing nice, green, manicured lawns in my neighbourhood (with the exception of the one in front of my own house), and I’ve come to accept this as “normal”.

But maybe it’s my perception which is out of line here. Let’s think about this a little more. The City demands that I cut my lawn when the grass exceeds 20 cm…so I go and plug in the mower, using energy to trim the grass. I guess I could use a more traditional, carbon neutral mower, but since I hate cutting the grass anyway, I just want it to end as quickly as possible. It’s my experience that most homeowners in this City have either electric or gas-powered mowers.

So, here I am, cutting my lawn to meet the 20 cm height restriction. I guess I’ll have to do this again later this summer…a few more times, in fact.

Yet, what harm is long grass on the front lawn really doing to my community? Sure, maybe it’s upsetting to my neighbours to have to look at (and certainly it was beginning to weigh heavy on my own conscience), but those issues are really related to perception, and not to any physical harm or danger. I don’t know…maybe tall grass attracts snakes. Actually, a few more snakes around wouldn’t be a bad idea, if they helped reduce the field mouse population.

So, by not mowing my lawn, I’m not actually causing any harm. Oh, I guess weeds might take root and send their seeds to the wind, infesting other lawns in my neighbourhood. As if mine is the only lawn with weeds (actually, the weed situation on my own lawn isn’t as noticeable as on some, as the low-lying devils paint brush has pretty much crowded out the dandelions).

What’s wrong with having a naturalized lawn in the first place? Especially when the alternative is to use energy to cut the grass? Haven’t I just written a couple of blogposts about the need to create a culture of conservation, which starts with taking a close and hard look at wasteful energy-intensive practices?

Now look…naturalized lawns make me nervous…certainly my own front lawn did. I guess I’d much rather see a nice manicured lawn, or perhaps what my neighbours a couple of doors down have down: they’ve turned their front lawn into a food garden, with nice raised beds. It’s great to walk by and see the tomatoes and whatever else (that I’m too dim-witted to recognize) growing. I know tomatoes (well, when they start to form on the vine anyway), and they look pretty in the garden. Tall grass like I had on my lawn…not so much. Not all that pretty.

But there’s a lot of things which aren’t particularly pretty in my neighbourhood. The collection of grocery store buggies on the front lawn down the road comes to mind. And then there’s the raised sewer grates in the road, which are a lot of fun when you’re biking.

And what about the constant flow of pedestrian traffic in front of our home? Now, I’m not complaining that people are walking…or even that they’re walking on the street, because our side of the road doesn’t have a sidewalk. When I first moved into the neighbourhood, it used to seem kind of unusual to me that people wouldn’t cross the road to walk on the sidewalk, but then I quickly learned that there had been a sidewalk on our side of the road, up until the City had the bright idea to come along and tear it up, in order to reduce winter maintenance costs.

You know, some city’s require land owners to shovel the sidewalks in front of their homes. Not here in Sudbury, where we get the Cadillac treatment…or at least those remaining homeowners which have sidewalks in front of their homes get that kind of treatment. In a world where energy prices continue to rise, and our population is aging, we can expect to have more pedestrians in our community. I’m not sure that it makes any sense to actually reduce the locations where sidewalks are found…certainly removing the sidewalk seems to have had a negligible impact on the amount of foot traffic on our side of the road.

In comparison to pulling up sidewalks in an aging city, forcing pedestrians to walk on the road itself, keeping the grass on your lawn at a height greater than 20 centimetres really is small potatoes. Or tomatoes, if you prefer.

In some communities, clotheslines were considered unsightly…even though they perform a carbon-neutral clothes-drying function. Municipalities with by-laws on the books banning clotheslines began repealing those by-laws because…they really didn’t make any sense. The use of aesthetics as a rationale for prohibiting environmentally friendly practices is really poorly thought out. Just because something looks bad doesn’t mean that we should outright prohibit it.

My City, though, like most cities, hasn’t yet come to terms with a number of problematic practices which we frankly have to get a handle on if we are to be serious about creating a culture of conservation (although clotheslines have always been ok here). This by-law which prevents naturalized lawns is but one archaic relic which, in my opinion, needs to be abandoned, no matter how nervous long grass might make me feel.

Take these issues, for examples:

Currently, if you are driving your car and you come to a level rail crossing (of which you’re likely to do in Sudbury if you drive your car at all). When the train comes, there is no requirement that you turn your engine off. Sure, some people do, but most simply leave their cars idling, burning gasoline but not getting anywhere. Needlessly adding to our community’s carbon emissions.

There is a movement afoot here to encourage our Council to pass an anti-idling by-law. Why it’s taking a public initiative to move this issue forward is beyond me. In today’s economic environment, it only makes sense to limit needless idling. So do it already, pass the by-law. And to those who think that idling is a personal choice, I’ll only go so far as to suggest that it, like smoking, may be a choice, and I don’t want to choke on your second-hand emissions. Unlike smoking, though, you can’t very well take your car into your home and idle it there in privacy to your hearts content (well, you can I guess…but you’ll probably only just do it the one time). Your needless carbon emissions are polluting my atmosphere. Cut it out already.

Or, how about this one, which is also lawn-related: phosphorus in our fertilizers. Phosphorus is a popular chemical in fertilizers. It helps things grow. Nevermind that most lawns don’t really need phosphorus for good growth (especially naturalized lawns!), fertilizers with P remain popular.

But the problem with phosphorus in fertilizers is that after you apply it to your lawn, a good rain is likely to wash it away…and into your local storm sewer (even if the grate is raised). Once in the storm sewer, here in Sudbury, it ends up in one of our many lakes. In many cases, the lake might be a drinking source for the community, like Ramsey Lake.

Now, phosphorus makes things grow. Too much P in the water (snicker) and you get something called blue-green algae, which produces a toxin. Blue-green algae tends to prevent people from accessing safe drinking water. It’s a health hazard.

So, if most lawns don’t really need phosphorus to begin with, and if fertilizer run-off from lawns contributes to the growth of blue-green algae in lakes, including our drinking water sources…why on this blue-green Earth do we continue to tolerate the application of phosphorus fertilizers on lawns? Maybe it’s time to end this practice.

Here in Sudbury, the good news is that there’s a local effort underway to convince our Council to ban the application of phosphorus fertilizers. But again…it just makes sense…let’s just do it.

I mean, the province banned pesticide-laden lawn care products for health and safety reasons, showing us that these kinds of things can happen when they’re in the public interest. Pesticides and chemicals from lawns also used to get into our drinking water sources. Applying them to our lawns are activities that we just don’t need to be doing any more: we know better now that these practices are dangerous, perhaps not individually, but certainly cumulatively.

Which brings me to another issue…if we know that chemicals are problematic when they get into our water, what about all of the people who continue to wash their cars in their driveways? Their phosphate-laden run-off goes directly into the storm sewer….into our water. Commercial car washes are required to recycle their dirty water…but not the casual residential car washer.

The time has come to end this practice. Not only is it selfish, it looks bad. I cringe when I see people engaging in this kind of activity. It’s potentially more offensive than two-foot high grass on a front lawn, because it’s something that we should know better than to do now. If you really want to wash your car, take it to a location where you’re not going to pollute my water.

To my knowledge, we don’t yet have a local effort underway in the City to address this issue (but maybe it’s only a matter of time). Surely, though, the City is quite capable of figuring out that residential car washing is a dangerous practice which needs correction.

At the end of the day, sidewalk removal, idling cars, phosphorus lawn fertilizers, and shameful driveway car washing are all more egregious than allowing your grass to grow more than 20 cm. The time has come to take a close look at what it is we want to achieve in our communities, and whether the practices we have in place are helping us to get there.

6 comments:

Oemissions said...

years ago i attended an International Permaculture Conference in Oregon
Fukuoka from Japan was there, Bill Mollinson and many others including a woman from LA who turned her front lawn into a veggie garden,put chickens in her backyard,composted and installed solar panels on her roof with a slideshow that showed the whole neighborhood eventually did likewise and formed an organization that took over an empty lot to grow more food
In Victoria,BC a whole neighborhood has taken over the boulevards to extend their gardens and the kids freely snack on things

Ramsey said...

Unfreaking believable! A 20 cm grass height bylaw???!!! I'm surprised then that I didn't get a notice of non-conformity! My grass was about 12 inches high and was going to seed! Who knew there was a bylaw? A useless one at that! Sorry for all the exclamation marks but I just can't believe it! If I hadn't cut my grass, I would have had such lovely wildflowers blooming throughout. The only problem would have been it wouldn't have looked like every other lawn in the neighbourhood and ,well, we can't have that, can we? E-gad!

saskboy said...

My blog post on the same subject.

Anonymous said...

The neighbours are likely happy

Sudbury Steve said...

I suspect that a few neighbours might be happy...but others probably could care the less, as they probably subscribe to the idea of "minding their own business". Plus, we're talking about grass here. It's not as if this were a safety issue.

Making your neighbours happy should not be a legitimate reason to create public policy, especially poliicy which runs counter to the public good.

In the future, we're going to have to take a close look at the practices of the past, and determine which ones were promoted profligacy and waste -- and get rid of them. While a grass cutting by-law won't be at the top of my list, it's certainly now on the list (now that I'm aware that it foolishly exists).

If that upsets the neighbours, well, they can either get with the times, mind their own business, or sit on the porches and stew.

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