Forum: Do Appearances Matter in Minneapolis Parks?

A related overview of our conversation of Sustainable We forum #1 focuses on the politics of pesticides — how are they regulated federally, enforced locally? Another article to come will look at why the Minneapolis Park Board allows them in some cases, and what the Park Board might be considering as revised policy. We also talked at length about how language is important so we don’t mislabel all pesticides as bad?

One consensus that came from the group discussion related to the issue of cosmetics. Are chemicals that are largely used to maintain beautiful lawns that important?

One beekeeper said, “Many are changing what they view as beautiful.” Given the reality we’re learning about — the impact on pollinators, human health — she said, isn’t it time to reach a better understanding as policymakers and residents/ consumers about how to minimize chemical use even more? For example, clover on golf courses. “I’m sorry if you’re a golfer in this room,” she said, “but it’s a recreational sport. People are sick. Bees are dying. The impact of combining chemicals is something we don’t know much about. There are 80,000 chemicals? [reference to earlier comment] That’s crazy to me.”

Another participant said, a few years ago we wanted all lawns to be a limited height. But that policy was changed a few years ago, when more residents said, “that’s no longer our aesthetic.” He believes Minneapolis is ready for a more complex vision of what we want our parks and yards to look like. “It’s okay if they aren’t perfect. If our ballfields aren’t lush. We’re coming to a different understanding of what a good looking ecosystem looks like.”

As many in the room indicated, that mandate doesn’t come from City Hall, or even the Park Board. It comes from residents who let their expectations be known.

“This didn’t happen because politicians just decided it would be a good idea… It’s this dynamic of people pushing from below.”
— Howard Zinn

How Is Policy Decided?

Prior to the forum, I asked Sharon Lotthammer, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Center, to comment on how regulations around pesticide safety are decided when the science about toxicity impact seems so mixed. [More on that in a future article as well, including comment from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.]

A Harvard study published in the October 2015 Pediatrics journal found that there might be a link between certain toxins and cancer. “Childhood cancers are increasing year by year in this country, (and) there is disagreement about what is contributing to that, but pesticides have always been on the radar,” said Chensheng Lu, an associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the research. This analysis “is confirming that pesticides may play a role, possibly a significant role, in the development of childhood leukemia and lymphoma.” Yet he added that it is hard to say if exposure to these chemicals is definitely a risk factor  — another example of the lack of black/white definition that makes it hard for consumers to know what to trust.

Lotthammer said, “This is definitely a challenging area of science. In some cases, the scientific studies simply haven’t been done yet to investigate the effects of specific chemicals, or combinations of chemicals, on humans or the environment. In other cases, studies may be contradictory or inconclusive. Policy makers and regulators are regularly called on to make decisions based on the best information/science available at the time, which is often incomplete. That’s where considerations such as risk tolerance and level of protectiveness come into the discussion, and these factors are more about societal values than scientific knowledge. Science can [with enough research/data] tell us what impact can be expected from a particular chemical, or what the risk is for a negative impact occurring, but science doesn’t tell us what level of risk or impact is acceptable – that is a policy decision, and different societies view those policy decisions differently and the elected officials generally reflect that societal approach.”

With that as backdrop, three members of the Park Board — including panelist Brad Bourn — were on hand to discuss how they make policy decisions. (Again, more on that to come.)

Bringing Up Cosmetics

It was Integrated Pest Management expert Dr. Vera Krischik, of the University of Minnesota Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, who named a potential solution first.

After explaining why Europe regulates differently than the United States (story coming), I asked Krischik if she had a solution for updating what she described as an old system of assessing safety data and risk assessment.

Maybe we don’t have to generate stronger, reliable and more conclusive data to make decisions, she said. “You can avoid the whole argument of ‘does the system work?’ by asking ‘do we need chemicals?’ I think that’s very valid. How much pesticide do you want to put into the environment for cosmetic reasons?”

Park Board Commissioner Scott Vreeland, a forum participant, believes that Minneapolis is on a continuum “moving considerably toward a more natural landscape.” The Park Board has been approving more use of native plants, with much less turf grass, to get away from pristine campus-like environments. “I think we’re seeing a sea change about aesthetics in Minneapolis.”

It wasn’t long ago, he added, when the biggest political complaint the Park Board faced was when it stopped approving the mowing of lawns. “Now residents expect to see flowers, plants, clover, dandelions.” And, he added in private conversation with me, he’d like to see more conversation around ecological restoration, to rejuvenate some of the biodiversity we’ve been losing.

Park Board commissioner John Erwin agreed that Minneapolis is on a progressive track. He personally joined the Seward Co-Op 15 years ago after he visited a cancer center and realized the correlations. He believes we need more public awareness around the impact of home applications — such as how killing ants and wasps with pesticides impacts bees.

Many in the room expressed confidence that consumer pressure is leading to policy changes. Such as when Minnesota became the first state to make the use of phosphorus on lawns illegal.

St. Thomas environmental science professor Adam Kay also commented on the discussion about aesthetics — including suggesting that Minneapolis could create the first non-chemical progressive golf course — which you can listen to here:

Much more to come on this particular topic.

Subscribe to to stay informed.

— Mikki Morrissette

Next Forums




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *