Sunday, March 2, 2014

Metropolitan Prairie Landscape Integration

(Typical outer city development pattern of forested or agricultural land developed into housing)


Metropolitans in America are home to about 80% of it's population, yet only occupy 3% of it's land which is mostly residential, commercial, industrial, and public. In the typical inner city neighborhood, or suburb or downtown, we'll have "pocket parks" in which land is held in the public's hand which may include recreation/entertainment facilities and natural areas. Within our neighborhoods and around places of work, often the landscape is under complete control using impervious surfaces such as concrete and black top, pesticides, herbicides, lawns, and formal styles of landscaping. For our community to experience nature as it exists "naturally" most of us must travel from our communities into some well preserved or restored large expanse of mostly natural vegetation such as a forest preserve, or prairie/wetland preserve that may be 5-100+ miles away. A direct consequence of this segregation of nature from our communities and places of work, manifests in the perpetuation of the  majority of or country's cultures having undeveloped attachments to the land and ecology with which they live with. This is a lose-lose for nature and human-culture. The mirror predicament, culturally, of being segregated from agriculture is that we've lost many of the benefits to humanity that comes with the raising of some portion of our own food recreationally and/or functionally. These two cultural deficiencies are being addressed through new movements of "Native Plant Landscaping" and "Urban Farming"-which includes suburbs also.  I believe metropolitans can produce a portion of their food locally, and they can also support much more biodiversity than they do in their current state, but the biggest benefits of integration of nature and agriculture into our metropolitan landscapes will manifest as the cultural attachment development-socailly and environmentally.

This blog post will focus on installing native prairie patches within our communities for cultural and environmental benefit. 

(A typical suburban residential landscape of cultivated plants, and lawns leaves little for biodiversity)

Land of Opportunity

In our current style of development and metropolitan land management, we use lawn to manage land along with impervious surfaces for more functional reasons. We as a country maintain over 45 million acres of lawn, resulting in an annual 40 billion dollar expense. This includes residential, public, commercial, and industrial. With over 67 million pounds of active ingredients in pesticides applied annually in lawn, 60-70 million non-target birds poisoned per year, 30-60% of residential water use for irrigation-more than any agricultural crop in America, contribution to local smog production from power equipment, and a large culprit of phosphorus and nitrogen run-off into our aquatic ecosystems perpetuating dead zones in bodies of water, there is a monumentally large opportunity for environmental health gain in the great reduction of lawn in our land management practices.

The nature of lawns, is limited. With most lawns being non-native our American foodwebs are undermined by this foreign vegitation dominance. Furthermore invasive plants, need for timber, lack of restoration/management-funding and support degrades our public areas of nature. The opportunity for nature and humans, in the idea that we include it's ecosystem components such as bioswales/raingardens for stormwater management, prairie for excess lawn reduction/land management alternatives, and native forest tree species for heat reduction, bears great economical and environmental value. 

Culturally in a nature integrated landscape, our children benefit from more physically comfortable play spaces in well forested neighborhoods, an abundance of nature to add to their childhood experiences, while retaining lawn for recreation use such has sports recreation fields and outdoor entertainment areas. Urban areas tightly packed with buildings may indeed be permanently committed to the extremities of urban heat island, but if we can learn to design with outdoor environment comfort and health in mind, this segregated design could progress in the future to a more balanced structure. As for now, aesthetically and environmental enhancements stand as innovative vertical gardening and greenroof practices that can bear significant upgrade. Yet, as expressed the health and size of the Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) pictured in the urban neighborhood of Clifton, Cincinnati, small urban lots still have good quality potential for integration. 

(Uncultivated Purple Coneflower-Echinacea purpurea thrives in many prairie landscapes)

Praire Land Management

The expanse of the American Tallgrass prairie once covered more than 170 million acres of land in America coming from the great plains states to as far East as Ohio in isolated prairie glades and plains. Grassland ecosystems support one of the highest diversity of insects, and temperate grasslands sequester over 100 tons of carbon per acre in the soil on average once they reach their carbon equilibrium typically 20-30 years after restoration. The Tallgrass prairie can be described as an upside down forest, with the majority of the competition occurring underground different taprooted, fibrous, and rhizomatous root systems compete at depths of 3'-9' commonly. This root competition is expressed by a controlled above ground growth and balance balance of diversity in a healthy prairie appearing as a non-homogenous structure of hundreds of different plant species adapted to flooding, drought, and fire.

State Highway departments are considering converting to prairie land management to reduce mowing costs and add vital pollinator habitat in the public right aways. In the commercial and industrial sectors prairies are taking root in place of large multi-acre lawn land management, but the movement is still undeveloped. In agricultural fields new movements of native prairies are being used for erosion control, pollinator strips, biomass production, and even sustainable  food systems innovation like in the work of the Land Institute

Drawing from elements of the prairie's structure, and incorporating them into a land management practice in which we utilize the weed excluding, aesthetically enriching, drought tolerant nature of the American tallgrass prairie gives local food webs a boost while reducing our lawn maintenance. Prairie land management as opposed to lawn management also the youth close access to good quality plot of nature to interact with, and also does not require pesticides, irrigation, nor fertilizers as long as it is managed and designed properly.

(Civic Garden Center in Cincinnati, Ohio will host an residentially tailored prairie workshop/class)

Prairie Workshop 

March 8th, 2014, the Civic Garden Center in Cincinnati, Ohio will host yours truly, Solomon Gamboa owner/operator of Pioneer Landscapes, as the teacher for a prairie installation/maintenance workshop. The 2 hour class will feature an indoor beginning session in which you'll receive informational handouts, and a presentation on site preparation, seed mix design, installation and maintenance of residentially appropriately sized prairies. Following the indoor session, we'll drive down the street to Eden Park and install a 3,000 square foot native pollinator focused prairie installation hands on. 

The intricacies of prairie establishment can be intimidating, but I will teach and provide resources for proper seed stratification/scarifcation, seed sources, design principles, and much more essential information so you can help your neighborhood integrate more natural landscapes into their yards.

Register here: "Plant A Prairie" Class

For non-local blog readers interested in learning more about this style of land management see my additional resource list below. 


  1. Fantastic post! You pushed every button, and hit the nail on the head. You might also enjoy Chris Helzer's book:

    1. Thanks for reminding me Ben, that's a good one, I read it through kindle. I'll add that one to the list.

  2. Thanks for this updated list. Waiting for more sites…
    Boom Lift