Society for

Organic Urban

Land Care

Organic Land Care for Your Community

A Step-by-Step Guide for Community Members Working to Change Municipal Policies for a Greener Future


Organic Urban Land Care is much more than simply restricting the use of synthetic chemicals, it is working with natural systems to create healthy and resilient landscapes. It is a process of planning and caring for spaces with an ecosystem approach, relying on various elements of that ecosystem to support each other so there are fewer inputs needed and less waste produced. At its core, Organic Land Care is about increasing the biodiversity and subsequent resiliency and function of landscapes.

Most municipalities have recognized that diverse urban tree canopies are less susceptible to pest and disease pressures, both by breaking up pathways for the travel and transmission of pests and diseases and by minimizing the chances that a single pest or disease will cause extensive damage to an entire urban forest. There is growing awareness and acceptance of the fact that mixed species turf areas are less bothered by pests and diseases than monoculture lawns and are usually the first to return to active, lush growth at the end of a drought.

The next step along this path is an understanding of the function and benefits of diverse soil biology, how it helps increase resilience of other elements in the landscape, especially during unusually wet or dry periods, and learning how to replace current horticultural practices that harm soil biology with practices that support its function and diversity and are healthy for both the landscape and the people who spend time in it.

On its own Organic Land Care won’t fix all of the issues that municipalities will face with changing growing conditions but it is an important piece of the puzzle, complimenting and supporting green infrastructure, urban forestry plans, and improved green space design.

It can also help municipalities reduce the cost of maintaining and renovating landscaped spaces. Organic Land Care provides a toolkit for working with available resources to create conditions where soil biology provides plants and turf with the bulk of their required nutrients and water. It can help mitigate increasing pressures on storm water systems caused by intense rain events by maintaining healthy, stable, porous soils that hold water and allow it to infiltrate into the water table where it belongs.

Organic Land Care helps to create conditions that improve urban tree survival rates and life span and can keep the plants in green infrastructure projects healthy so that they can do their job of filtering water, cleaning the air and further stabilizing soils to prevent erosion and nutrient leaching.

What to Expect

With many municipal land use and planning policies being disrupted by the need for, or the requirement to develop, plans for climate change mitigation and adaptation, especially in relation to increased flooding and reduced summer water supply, this may prove to be one of the best times to suggest a new approach to green space management in your community.

Keep in mind that changing public policy is a slow process, one that requires time and persistence, but presenting your municipality with well supported information and an existing Standard that they can reference when developing project specifications and drafting contracts may prove to be a solution to challenges that they are already facing.

In most situations you will find it easier to gain support from your municipality if you can present solutions to problems that they have already identified. Spend some time researching what your council already has planned for upcoming projects and if there are any existing priorities that Organic Land Care can help them to achieve.

When starting conversations about changing how things are done, try to keep the focus on positive outcomes from organic techniques, manufacturers of chemical based fertilizers and pesticides have plenty of carefully phrased and targeted information that they can use to challenge claims of environmental and human health harms and conversations can quickly breakdown into a deadlock between competing claims split along political lines.

A good way to begin is by gathering information. Try to find out what policies and standards are currently in place and if there are any existing short or long term plans for changes. Also look into whether there is a framework or policy that you need to follow for making a proposal to Council. Compile supporting information for the changes you are proposing. Work on building up a group or team to support your efforts and help amplify the issues. If several Councillors hear similar things from their constituents it increases the odds that changes will be seriously considered.

And, finally, don’t expect immediate, extensive adoption of organic practices. Municipal governments have legal requirements that they need to meet regarding fiscal responsibility and large scale change in a short time frame can make them nervous. They may choose to start small with trial areas or pilot projects. Stick with it and follow up, find out if projects are implemented, cared for and data collected and used to fine tune and expand projects and inform larger policy changes. Check in, ask for updates and keep lines of communication open.

The Current Situation

A clear understanding of the current situation is a vital element for planning how to get from where you are to where you want to be.

A practical place to start your research on how public lands are currently being designed and maintained in your community is your municipal website. You likely won’t find a specific policy posted unless a sustainable or organic plan has already been adopted but you can likely find the contact information for someone who can answer your initial questions about current practices. If you can’t find an appropriate contact start with the general information desk, email address or telephone line. Let them know that you are looking for information on how municipal lands, including turf, garden areas, natural spaces and trees are maintained. They should be able to direct you to someone who can answer your questions.

Keep in mind that this is the research stage, taking the time to understand the existing policies and to research any information about products or processes that are described to you will help you formulate an effective case for change. You don’t need to be advocating for changes yet, just collecting information.

You can find a list of questions to help get you started on the SOUL website.

Some additional avenues of research can include:

  • Does your municipality have a strategic plan and are there any goals in it that organic land care could fit into or help them meet?
  • Has your municipality set environmental goals of any kind? Climate change, clean water, plant or wildlife conservation etc. or are there provincially imposed outcomes that they are required to meet?
  • Is there an Environment Committee? Have they set goals and do they have a plan in place to reach them?

Assembling Your Resources

When working to change opinions and policy you will need a variety of resources. Assembling them before starting to actively advocate for change will help keep things moving forward when you encounter questions and concerns. The process of assembling them is also helpful since it can be a good way to meet partners and allies.

Depending on your community and the changes that you are proposing, you will likely need a variety of resources. These can include examples of projects and policies implemented by other municipalities. You can find a list of resources on the SOUL website.

Local Resources

If available, landscape and garden professionals in your specializing in organic or sustainable practices area are a good place to start They will likely be well informed about local issues and challenges and be able to offer guidance and technical information specific to your region. Other places to find local partners, resources and advice are organic and natural food stores or cooperatives, contractors advertising green building services, schoolyard greening projects, local food programs etc. These are usually run by people who are concerned with how our choices and actions affect our environment and can make excellent partners in your efforts.

Experts

It can be very helpful to have contacts that you can reach out to with difficult questions or even to invite to provide presentations or as contacts for municipal Councillors of staff who are interested but need more information. Accredited and Certified Organic Land Care Professionals can be found on the SOUL website, along with a list of professionals across Canada who aren’t specifically associated with SOUL but offer or specialize in organic and sustainable garden and landscape services.

Online Resources

Research is continuously evolving and green infrastructure and organic land care projects continue to be implemented across Canada and around the world. Please check out the Resources page on the SOUL website for a list of articles and research papers that may be useful to you and/or your municipality.

Engage with Municipal Staff

Never underestimate the value of engaging with municipal staff. Many decisions and recommendations regarding products and processes come from staff before being approved by council. Staff are also likely to be the source of objections if change is being forced on them from above without proper consultation.

If feasible, try contacting the department responsible for grounds maintenance, possibly with the assistance of your Counselor’s office.

Once you arrange a meeting, present your ideas and listen to their concerns, recognize that they have a job to do and often face public backlash if there is a perception that they are not caring for public spaces properly. If specific objections are raised and you don’t yet have the information you need to offer an accurate, thoughtful response, ask if you can get back to them and do some more research or reach out the SOUL community with the questions or objections. Someone likely has some specific information on the same or a similar issue.

In several provinces pesticides have been banned for cosmetic use in residential situations. While a good first step toward organic care, if alternate practices aren’t implemented, the results are often not well received by the public. Asking to have synthetic fertilizers removed from the toolkit of municipal grounds crews may very well result in push back. It is essentially taking away what is a core tool in widely accepted horticultural industry turf care practices.

If you are taking away a tool you also need to be present a good idea of how maintenance programs can be adapted to the change in a way that will have good results without significantly increasing costs.

Build a Team

Depending on the current practices and opinions that you are working with it can take a lot of time and energy to create change. Take the time at the start to gather some like minded people to your team, either in person or through a social network. Multiple voices will also help you be heard when speaking to Councils or committees.

Try to find out if there is already a group in your community that is working toward similar or complementary goals. The connections you will make as you assemble resources are a great place to start. Ask people you encounter if they are interested in becoming directly involved or would like to be kept updated about your progress.

Social Media, bulletin boards and event listings are all good places to look for existing groups or to post about your efforts.

Citizen science projects that invite members of the public to collect information about the spaces that are important to them can also be a great way to engage people. Host a biodiversity count in a park or other public green space. Recording conditions and documenting changes over time, whether an increase or decrease in biodiversity, is both valuable scientific information and a way to encourage people to slow down and reconnect with the nature where they live. There are groups hosting bio-blitzes to record everything from bird and insect species counts to when trees blossom from year to year.

Linking fluctuations of biodiversity in natural areas to upstream land care practices can also be a good way to engage people working to save natural areas in your work on urban spaces.

You can find links to several bioblitz and citizen science projects on the SOUL website.

Staying Motivated

Changing policy is usually a marathon or a relay race, rather than a sprint. It requires sustained effort over time, sometimes years. It doesn’t need to be a full time job but it can be a significant commitment and having even a small team can make a big difference when it comes to staying engaged and motivated.

Build a support team of individuals who share your interests and values, recognize and celebrate milestones along the way.

Engage small groups. Encourage teams to adopt sites, parks, gardens and pilot projects, monitoring and, if appropriate, adopting or maintaining them. Ask them to invite their local Councillor, the Mayor or other people who can influence policy to events in their spaces and to send them updates on successes or needed changes and improvements.

Make a list of your reasons for taking this on at the start. Going back to that list when you encounter speed bumps, delays, opposition or apathy can help remind you why this endeavour is important to you. Add to and update that list if your reasons change or expand.

Record your accomplishments. Sometimes change can be slow and it feels like progress just isn’t happening. Take the time to notice and acknowledge forward movement and celebrate your successes.


Download a printer friendly PDF of the Organic Land Care for Your Community Guide.

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Organic advocates, experts and activists available to support, participate in or offer their experience or resources to local efforts to increase the adoption of organic land care practices within their community. Membership is free and does not require certification. SOUL does not certify the level of knowledge for members at this level. Member names, areas of expertise, website (if provided) and town or city are publicly listed. Email addresses are visible to other SOUL members. 

Annual Membership Fee: $0. Annual renewal is required to ensure that contact information remains current.

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