For the City parks department, one of the trickiest issues in this move to a more sustainable Paris is the management of the grass in the capital’s public parks. As the title of this post suggests, lawns are traditionally maintained with lavish applications of pesticides and fertilisers, and a fierce regime of cutting, clipping and watering. How can you ensure that – without mowing, without chemicals – park lawns look appealingly sustainable, rather than simply unkempt and abandoned?
At our local park, Monceau, the parks department is trying two approaches. First, it is continuing to mow sections of the grass in great sweeping curves, leaving islands and swathes of longer, more mixed greenery. It’s the approach recommended in a seminal article by Joan Iverson Nassauer, who found that the wholesale reinstatement of native vegetation generates little positive response; people perceive something as beautiful and valuable only if they can see evidence of continuing human intervention. Basically, we need to know that the “weeds” are meant to be there.
Secondly, the parks department is putting up signs to explain what it is doing (regular readers of this blog will know my fascination with signage). Notices at the entrance to the park, for instance, explain that the site is now certified as being “ecologically managed,” preparing visitors perhaps for some non-traditional features. Once inside, other signs among the long grass gently explain that “we are letting native flora grow” or “we’re creating meadows to encourage biodiversity.”
But there is a danger in this approach. Christopher Lloyd (of Great Dixter fame) worried over a decade ago that, in an effort to produce more sustainable sites, authorities might start sponsoring worthy but unattractive gardens, designed to teach people environmental lessons, and with “little informative plaques” explaining why they looked so awful. And I think we are heading that way now at Monceau. Look at these recent examples, where gentle pointers about the advantages of sustainability have given way to stern prohibitions and ugly exclusion zones.