Cities join ‘organic parks’ movement


Grand Rapids Grows Green Weekend drew interested community members to city parks to learn more about lawn toxins. Courtesy Midwest Grows Green

It turns out a whole lot of people care about preventing the further use of pesticides and herbicides in public spaces.

A number of organizations near and far partnered recently to help the cities of Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and switch to safe and sustainable products in six city-owned parks:

  • Highland Park, 523 Grand Ave. NE, Grand Rapids

  • Kensington Park, 902 Curve St. SW, Grand Rapids

  • Ted Rasberry Athletic Field, 1050 Sheldon Ave. SE, Grand Rapids

  • Heartside Park, 301 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids

  • John Collins Park, 650 Lakeside Drive SE, East Grand Rapids

  • Manhattan Park, 331 Cascade Road SE, East Grand Rapids

The Wege Foundation provided a one-year, $5,000 grant to the city of Grand Rapids to support the project, while Londonderry, New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Organic gave the same sum to East Grand Rapids — in addition to in-kind services — as part of Stonyfield’s nationwide “Play Free” initiative to convert public lands and parks to 100% organic turf management.

Concerned local residents in step with a national outcry provided the impetus for the project.

Dawn Wigert is a member of the Greater Grand Rapids Sierra Club Grand Rapids and its Growing Green Grand Rapids initiative formed to address the problem of lawn pollution.

She said her passion for safe lawn care was spurred in part by the death of her husband a year ago, who contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after working in the lawn care industry for a number of years.

“I’m not saying it’s directly related, but a concern for health reasons is why we started our group to talk about lawn toxins,” she said during a lunch forum at the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department on Sept. 20 as part of the Grand Rapids Grows Green Weekend.

Wigert was doing research one day and discovered Midwest Grows Green, an initiative of Madison, Wisconsin-based IPM (Integrated Pest Management) Institute of North America.

She was looking for external support for persuading area parks departments to go natural in their lawn care management, and Midwest Grows Green turned out to be the perfect organization with its mission “to accomplish large-scale lawn and land care behavior change” through community engagement and by urging individuals and companies to sign a pledge to reduce their use of pesticides and fertilizer.

Growing Green Grand Rapids formed the partnership with Midwest Grows Green and ultimately secured the Wege Foundation grant to help the city of Grand Rapids implement the change.

Also through awareness raised by Growing Green Grand Rapids and other factors, East Grand Rapids came on board, receiving the grant from Stonyfield Organic, which is partnering with Midwest Grows Green on implementation of the turf changes.

Confirmed health impacts

Ryan Anderson, community outreach specialist with IPM Institute of North America and leader of the Midwest Grows Green project, organized the Grand Rapids Grows Green Weekend Sept. 19-21 and led the lunch forum at which Wigert spoke on Sept. 20.

He said Wigert and other community residents are not alone in their concern over the effects of pesticides.

“Looking at human health alone, studies have linked pesticides to various neurological, behavioral, hormonal, reproductive and immune system disorders,” he said. “Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, studies found 19 of them are carcinogenic, 13 are linked to birth defects, 21 to reproductive effects, 15 are known neurotoxins, 26 are linked to liver and kidney damage, and 27 are known asthma triggers.”

He added glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and a lot of lawsuits have followed up because Roundup is one of the most-sold herbicides on the market,” Anderson said.

A jury found unanimously in the 2017 lawsuit “Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto” that the company Monsanto’s weed-killer product Roundup caused Johnson’s terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after he worked for years as a school groundskeeper where the herbicide was used. Johnson was awarded $289 million by the jury, a sum later reduced to $78 million by the judge.

Despite the legal battles, Anderson said carcinogenic pesticides will continue to be used in places where humans live, work and play.

“The EPA found that 82% of urban homeowners will apply pesticides on their lawns, and the National Wildlife Federation did a study that found that the average urban homeowner will apply three to 10 times more pesticides per acre on their lawns than most farmers will use on their crops,” he said.

“This high use of these products has far-reaching effects for our children, our pets, our pollinators and our water quality.”

Anderson said home lawns and public parks carry an especially high risk for children, who are still developing and may be more at risk, and who also do things like roll around in the grass or even put it in their mouths, making them “more susceptible to pesticide exposure.”

Converting the parks

To convert the Grand Rapids parks to organic, Lakeview, Ohio-based Logan Labs performed soil testing and Easton, Pennsylvania-based EarthWorks Natural Organic Products provided fertility consulting to determine how best to balance the chemistry of the soil and nourish it with carbon-based fertilizers.

Then, about four weeks ago, the city’s parks department aerated the soil in the pilot parks and applied product.

A tour of Heartside Park on Sept. 20 revealed lush, healthy grasses despite it being an area of high foot traffic.

East Grand Rapids plans to test organic products and approaches over the next three years at John Collins Park and the soccer field at Manhattan Park.

“We appreciate Stonyfield Organic’s support as we transition our traditional lawn care materials to organic in two of our parks,” East Grand Rapids Mayor Amna Seibold said. “We are continuously looking for ways to protect and preserve our community’s natural resources, so this is a wonderful opportunity to learn new methods available.”

Midwest Grows Green and Osborne Organics are providing technical support to East Grand Rapids as part of Stonyfield’s donation for the implementation of the parks.

“East Grand Rapids can keep their parks organic by increasing cultural controls of core aeration, overseeding and mowing high that builds the soil, turf and plant system at every step,” Anderson said.

Moving forward, both cities will follow a detailed natural lawn care management plan set forth by Midwest Grows Green during the pilot.

“Grand Rapids Parks’ citizen-led and adopted strategic master plan is framed around our distinct environment, ecology and the proper care and stewardship of the city’s valued public open space,” said David Marquardt, director of the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department.

“This … opportunity allows us to take an important step toward more proper care and stewardship of our environment and public parks and open spaces.”

Steve Krogman, park operations supervisor with Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, said the $5,000 grant has all been spent on the new organic products, which he hopes will last through next year.

A plan for expanding the initiative beyond the pilot phase has not been announced.

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