3 Things You Can Do To Combat Climate Change

Landscape architect Diana Balmori makes the case for why the industrial lawn is a "toxic field of conformity."

"With Death of Forests, a Loss of Key Climate Protectors," read a recent New York Times headline for an article about how killing forests heats the world. We can see climate change all around us. The Department of Agriculture’s 1990 map of climatic zones for plant hardiness placed most of New Jersey and all of southeastern New York in Zone 6. As of 2007, warmer winters have made the entire region on average 10 degrees hotter, shifting the area to zone 7. Temperatures have risen in Connecticut, too: One can now grow bananas in the Nutmeg State.

As a designer of major urban landscape projects in such disparate climates as Texas, Spain, India, and China, I have observed that no city, whether we’re speaking of governments or citizens, has found a way to deal with climate change, even though shifting weather has consequences across the globe. Government has failed us. With a few exceptions—Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his green program, PlaNYC 2030 being one of them—politicians are paralyzed. In short, they have not put into action ways of addressing cities that can be understood by the people who live in them.

And yet cities are the prmary drivers climate change. They are heat islands. The sun heats roofs and streets 50–70º F hotter than the air temperature. Rain runs off pavements. Urban pollution washes into rivers and streams. River edges erode. Communities flood. And cities keep growing: In 1995, 50% of the world lived in cities. In 2025, it will be 60%. Much of this growth is in developing countries, where little is being done to prevent pollution, which further compounds climate change. The stakes are clear, but misinformation abounds. Radical change requires radical solutions, which in this case, are surprisingly easy to implement. Given our present situation we need to take actions as citizens, each one on the basis of their specific abilities. These are my suggestions.

1. Plant a Freedom Lawn.

The industrial lawn, staple tableau of the American Dream, is actually a toxic field of conformity that poisons everything around it. It consists of two or three species of grass, which are fertilized with nitrogen and phosphorus, and sprayed with herbicides. Rainwater washes these chemicals into groundwater and rivers. Algae blooms; fish, insects, and plants die.

By contrast, what I would call a Freedom Lawn is composed of a diverse mix of grasses and wildflowers and includes clover, to to fertilize the lawn without chemicals. Polluting runoff is eliminated. The rich plant mix fosters worms, butterflies, and birds.

2. Cultivate a green roof.

Bare apartment and office roofs reflect the sun. Over a 24-hour period, temperatures can fluctuate by 180 degrees. Hot winds drive dust and dirt into the air. During storms, roofs send polluted rainwater into the drainage system, and sewage can overflow.

But rooftop deserts can bloom into oases. Green roofs absorb 90% of the sun’s energy. Rooftop plants filter dust and dirt, and evapotranspiration returns up to a third of the rainfall to the air. Roof temperatures drop, air conditioning use is reduced, and roof life doubles.

3. Install surface drainage systems.

New developments around cities increase the volume of water to be drained. Underground pipes send the drainage water straight to rivers and streams, carrying surface pollution. As a result, big storms cause floods and make sewers overflow. Surface drainage systems, like the one in Minneapolis illustrated above, reduce runoff by retaining water at the peak of storms and averting floods. In addition to providing parkland, the plants on the banks and in the stream clean the water before it enters into ground- or river water.

These designs are available today. They have been tested, and they achieve results. In partnership with landscape architects and bioengineers, we, as citizens of cities and the world, must advocate for change. Any one of us can plant a Freedom Lawn, thereby eliminating chemicals and reducing runoff. Any one of us can start a green roof, making the city cooler, cleaning the air, and stemming runoff. With a few allies, we can go further, reaching out to neighborhoods and entire cities, and constructing ways for nature and humanity to thrive and co-exist in a better, sustainable world.

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  • jmco

    I have a totally green lawn. It is lush and thick and virtually weed free. How did I do it? I let the grass grow very high in the later winter and early spring. My neighbors are out there gassing up and mowing way too early. I let my yard get shaggy as a dog. Then, when I can't take it anymore, I hold out another week or two still. When I do cut it, I set the mower cut as high as it will go. (Always buy a mower that sets the highest. Cheaper mowers don't go as high.) 
    I also don't bag. Never. I mulch it right back into the lawn. I keep the mower high and let the grass grow longer all Spring long. This means I cut the grass once for every 3-4 times my neighbor, who keeps his lawn putting green short, cuts his. In summer heat of July and August, I hardly ever cut it and leave it long. In mid to late fall, I do something that sounds crazy but, I lower the mower. Not a whole lot. But I cut the (now lush and thick) lawn shorter to force the roots to grow.
    Yes, I get some dandelions in the spring. But they grow to compete with the grass and then get lopped off. If they make it at all. Usually the grass shades them out. The only problem is invasive creeping charlie brought in with some fill by a neighbor. It has made it into my back yard. There is no good solution. It likes shade so, it is with the slow growing grass. It is faster growing than the grass. There is no natural chemical to get rid of it. One day, when the dog is gone, I'll just have to spray it and reseed. But, I can live with it for now. And cut it with the grass.
    Just keep your grass too tall in spring. Make it look like the house is abandoned for a few weeks past when it should have been cut. Then keep it on the highest cut. In mid to late fall, cut it shorter. You'll have an all natural, lush green lawn.

  • Mattythesaint

    Sorry - the 6th line of my second paragraph, after the parenthesis should read: "and are aimed"

  • Mattythesaint

    This is a great post to get people thinking and the comments are thoughtful as well. However, this neglects the evidence that the suburbs far outpace most of cities per capita when it comes to consumption & CO2 emissions. While the CO2 outputs of cities are still far too great, cities as well as their governments also seem to be more open to measures that would help curb emissions.

    The suburbs are the real problem. I'd love to see ideas that reimagine the suburbs as more eco-friendly and sustainable. But as one comment already mentioned, changing the mindset is the hardest part, especially when lobbying efforts on behalf of fossil fuel are so powerful. They're supported not only by energy companies, but railway companies (who have a vested interest in coal as it's their main cargo and primary source of income), aimed not only at suburban and government communities, but economically depressed ones as well. The campaigns focus on instilling economic fear, claiming that legislative measures
    designed to curb emissions will bankrupt those struggling to pay their electric bill.

    In addition to the ideas contained herein, green ideas must be proselytized with the same vigor in the suburbs that they are in metropolitan areas. More importantly, though, the malfeasance of the energy lobby must be exposed to those who don't know any better. They aggressively keep people ignorant in the interests of their own profits and we'll all eventually pay for it.

  • Sven Heesterman

    There are 3 things that can be started in a day that will have a bigger impact:

    - Do not throw food away
    - Eat less meat
    - Buy the best quality

    If you are able to buy just enough food so that none gets wasted you have a very significant impact on your part of the worldwide energy usage

    Your body can only absorb about 2 oz of the goodness in meat, the rest passes through your body unused. If you do not eat what can not be used... (previous sentence)

    Good quality stuff retains it's value and will not get thrown out.

  • Wittsworld

    Sadly, the really difficult design problem is how to persuade the large fraction of the population that refuses to accept that climate change is occurring. 

    Not much will happen on a large scale in the long-run until a majority of voters demand action and vote accordingly. When this does happen, politicians will get motivated because their jobs will depend on it. 

  • Michael Miller

    Does using clover alone provide enough nitrogen to support healthy plant growth? If I recall correctly, isn't that the main element used by plants for food? I know too much can cause nitrogen burn, but too little can malnourish them and provide fruit and vegetables with diminished size and nutritional value. Would building the garden above grown with runoff collected in a basin and reused (similar to some hydroponic systems) with measured nitrogen fertilizers better provide for the plants?

  • Todd Walker

    I'm glad this article advocates direct action individuals can take. In democracies, we cannot simply say "Government has failed us." without also acknowledging "We have failed." Putting solutions in the hands of the government without also taking responsibility for finding and advocating those solutions abdicates responsibility. In a democracy, we are the government and are responsible for its success or failure in any endeavor.

  • Steven Leighton

    "And yet cities are the prmary drivers climate change. They are heat islands." ... not sure that the link between cities and CO2 is as clear as the link between personal consumption of energy and CO2.

    Yes cities are heat islands ... but heat islands are not  drivers of global climate change.

    Personally I'd have to dig up the street to have any kind of lawn. The British did that during WW2 to grow food-- it was called "Dig for Victory" -- we might be doing that by law in 50 years.

  • Phillbert

    Whilst I like your idea of doing away with the industrial lawn as you call it, and commend your idea to include nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover, I think you should go further and encourage everyone to grow some of their own food on their plots.

    The benefits are manifold: kids getting exercise and an understanding of where food comes from, community spirit as a surplus from one garden can be swapped with neighbours, more CO2 capture than standard lawns, and a reduction in CO2 expended through trips to the mall (actually, factor in the amount of travel and industrial oil-based fertilisers removed from the full supply chain if just 10% of people did that and you'd surely come to a very large number indeed.)

    On top of all of that, individual households would spend less on food and gas, which would benefit them financially too.  Money doesn't grow on trees, but food literally does.

    Oh, and use your run off to water it all.