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Go Native!

March 24, 2010

This article first appeared March 23, 2010 on Sustainable Industries Blog http://blog.sustainableindustries.com/category/built-environment/

“With one of the richest ecosystems on the planet, Oregon is also one of the poorest states in the nation—especially once you get away from the glitter of Portland,” bemoaned Robert Young, University of Oregon Assistant Professor of Planning, Public Policy & Management, at a recent lecture in Portland. His solution was to get more local—with food production, energy production, transportation systems and with the use of local resources in general.  “Depart from the current model of export, export, export,” he said.

I want to offer an addendum to this “get local” agenda:  Landscapes we design from here on out should get local too.  Let’s go native. Whether the site is in the urban core, rural or anywhere in between, I propose that any site certified by a “green” rating system should use only native species in its landscaping.

Serviceberry - a native tree

Serviceberry is a native flowering trees that could provide far more habitat to the native song birds whose numbers have been dwindling

Going native would help us recover native biodiversity and the ecosystem services that diverse native plant and animal species provide for free.  For example, native insects help us fend off invasions of destructive alien insects, pollinate plants, return nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals to the soil, aerate and enrich the soil and provide food for most other animals.  As communities strain under budget deficits, these free services may become even more important.

Going native would be more equitable to our native wildlife.  The base of the food chain for native wildlife is comprised of native insects and most of those insects need native plants to survive.

Finally, going native would also leave us less vulnerable to the myriad diseases and carriers that we have imported (and continue to import) on ornamental aliens—e.g., chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, dogwood anthracnose, pine blister rust, sudden oak death, hemlock woolly adelgid—and save us from the financial wreckage such infestations cause to the economy.

This week I learned about Drosophila suzukii, an Asian fruit fly that Oregon farmer Stuart Olson describes as “the most devastating insect I’ve ever seen in agriculture.”  According to the Oregonian, this spotted winged fruit fly lays its eggs in tiny holes it drills in soft fruit. The larvae eat the fruit from the inside, leaving behind nothing but a gooey mess. Originally imported into California from Asia, this pest moved into Oregon and Washington in 2009 and has already caused some fruit growers losses of 80 percent of their late-season crops and 30 percent of their income.  It may drive other countries to ban import of our fruit.

Portland AIA Center for Architecture

LEED Platinum Portland AIA Center for Architecture uses alien ornamental vines to shade its building and capture stormwater

We have a long way to go to get to my “go native” ideal—even in eco-city Portland.  On First Thursdays I often head down to Portland’s once industrial, now gentrifying Pearl District to take in the gallery openings. I regularly stop at the Center for Architecture, a former carriage house rehabbed by the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as its office, meeting and gallery space.

While Portland AIA is to be commended for devising a landscape that provides for both stormwater filtration and solar shading to this historic 10,000 square foot LEED-EB Platinum building remodel, I am dismayed that the chapter didn’t go further with the ecosystem services its landscape could be performing.  It chose to use two species of alien ornamental climbing vines in a two-foot wide planter box along the south-facing length of the building. Another species of climbing vine—Japanese honeysuckle—took 80 years to escape cultivation and start invading east coast forests where it strangles trees. English ivy and other invasive climbers have made me wary of such vines in the Northwest.  Native vine alternatives are virgin’s bower, orange honeysuckle and California wild grape.

Non-native plants at South Waterfront

None of these plants are native, despite their proximity to the river’s edge at Portland's South Waterfront LEED Buildings

By using several species of alien ornamental, rather than native plants, AIA fails to take full advantage of the opportunity to educate both its designer members and the public about the need for biodiversity recovery.  AIA is only one of the many LEED-certified buildings in the core area of Portland that included potentially problematic species in the landscape. Asian bamboos, Asian grasses and Nandina seem ubiquitous in LEED designs.

I also believe that landscapes of native species help to give visitors and residents alike a true sense of place.  They help distinguish where one is on the planet.  Because they attract more native insects, they attract more bird species—adding further to the sense of place one gets in a fully functioning ecosystem.

Although New Urbanism focuses on “placemaking,” the New Urbanist neighborhoods that I have visited fail in this respect too.  Most have landscapes filled with the same turf grass and the same species of alien ornamentals you find anywhere in the country.

Trilliums are one of the lovely native wildflowers that rival any of the alien ornamentals with which we fill our environment

I’m working on making the use of native plants a prerequisite, rather than a point, in the Sustainable Sites (SITES) rating system (http://www.sustainablesites.org/) in hopes that it will help to create a paradigm shift in landscape design. That potential would become even more pronounced with SITES integration into LEED.

Landscaping will play an increasingly vital role in keeping our communities livable and resilient as the climate changes.  To help us better address the effects of climate change, to help us provide a more authentic sense of place, to help us live more in harmony with the earth, to help our local economies thrive, GO NATIVE!

Mary Vogel is a Portland-based Congress for the New Urbanism-Accredited planning and urban design consultant offering sustainability services to local governments and private organizations.  She is a problem-solver who is helping communities become more efficient and resilient, more compact and walkable, more connected to nature’s services and more prosperous and self-reliant—better prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century.

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