Exploring The Connection: Native Plants & Climate Justice
Updated: Jun 14
How Native Plants Create a Better Environmental for Everybody
Photo Above: A monarch butterfly perches on top of purple coneflower, a native plant that provides food for a variety of pollinators.
By Andrew Sarpolis | June 14, 2021
Last month, the Oakland County Climate Campaign hosted a webinar titled “Native Plants are the Future: How Your Lawn Can Help Save the Planet.” In that presentation, we talked about climate change and our lawns, mostly from a beginner's context. However, we didn’t get as much time to talk about the climate and environmental justice implications in our one-hour presentation. For those who are curious, here is a bit more information about how native plants fight climate change, and how are they're related to environmental and social justice. Also, if you’d like to dig deeper on our general vision for the future, we have a two-page platform that goes deeper on environmental justice, native plants, and climate solutions.
First, it's important we go over a few definitions for those who are not familiar, starting with environmental justice. As it is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the: “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In the 1980s, scholars like Dr. Robert Bullard collected evidence that low-income, black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities suffered a higher pollution burden than the population average. While native plants can benefit all communities, some of their greatest powers can be unleashed in the places that need them most, namely these neighborhoods suffering from pollution and chronic disinvestment.
How does this work? In part, it has to do with what economists call externalities. Pollution and fossil fuel use in the urban landscape, along with large quantities of 'grey' infrastructure that are in poor condition, create what are called negative externalities (e.g. stressful environments, flooding, and disease). These manifest economically in a variety of ways, including increased healthcare costs and lower property values. Also, they show up in other ways that are not quantified but can reduce the quality of life, such as missed school days due to asthma or less time spent outside. Native plants, in contrast, generate positive externalities, including several which counteract these effects (mental health, stable ecosystems, flood control, cleaner air, lower energy usage). These provide value and wellness to people living around them.
Vegetative buffers (a fancy word for groupings of trees or plants) are an example of this phenomenon. Thick groupings of plants can act as a barrier against air pollution, lowering negative health impacts. This is important because environmental justice communities in our region are often situated near industrial facilities that release harmful pollution. The 48217 ZIP code in Detroit, for example, is situated next to coal plants, major roads, steel mills, a refinery, and other industrial sources which reduce air quality. Vegetative buffers provide a means of reducing harmful health impacts from these facilities (though it should be noted that they're not a replacement for transitioning to a cleaner world).
Greenery also has other beneficial effects on our psychological wellbeing, but access to quality green space is often limited in areas where urban stressors are the highest. Therefore, integrating more of it into our cities can have a host of positive mental benefits. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, the prevalence of green space has been linked to improved mental health and quality of life. It is also associated with increasing property values and lower rates of crime, providing a possible neighborhood-building tool.
Most urban green space still uses non-native plants to achieve this, however. This means lawnmowers (pollution, noise), chemical treatments, and lots of water must be utilized. These can amplify pollution and expose people to additional exhaust and hazardous substances. With native plants, it can be done while restoring the ecosystem and preventing pollution.
Climate Change and Environmental Resilience
This works because native plants have deeper root structures. They are adapted to our region’s pests and climate. Therefore, they can provide urban greenspace with less water, less frequent trimming and care, and fewer pesticides than their non-native alternatives. In fact, the average non-native lawn uses ten times more chemical pesticides than cropland. Also, non-native grass is the most irrigated ‘crop’ in all of the United States. When we pump water out of the river to be treated and used on these landscapes, we're firing up our power plants to provide the energy. When we drive lawnmowers around to different homes and parks, we're creating demand at the refinery for gasoline. Eliminating this demand stops the pollution that contaminates our communities in the first place.
Native plants also play a critical role in the food chain by bringing more nature into urban areas where it is least prevalent: birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Furthermore, water and sewer infrastructure are expensive. And, when climate change increases precipitation, which it has done in our region, it can stress our infrastructure beyond its designed capacity. In fact, our most intense storm events have increased up to 35% in precipitation. Native plants and rain gardens can absorb stormwater before it reaches our drains, capturing heavy rainfall that would otherwise overwhelm our sewers. This allows us to adapt to changing rainfall patterns and other climate effects, keeping our infrastructure affordable and resilient. This is of paramount importance in low-income communities. Expensive infrastructure upgrades can threaten to make water inaccessible. And then, resulting shutoffs can threaten the livability and health of neighborhoods.
According to the National Forest Service, native plants also are great carbon absorbers, and planting them can help us get closer to our goals on climate change. This is important because environmental justice communities stand to be hit hardest due to climate change. Furthermore, native trees can shade our homes and cities, cutting down on the urban heat island effect (where urban areas are hotter than rural ones) which is particularly significant in cities (and thus lowering our energy usage). A University of Michigan study found that: “benefits provided by a single urban tree can reach up to $2,200 over a 40-year span…”
If You Love Native Plants, Get Involved and Help the Climate
If you’re a native plant gardener, and you love your yard, you might want to consider getting further involved in fighting for environmental justice and against climate change. A study from the Indiana University and Michigan State University found that native plants are under threat from the climate: “…a new study looking at blooming flowers suggests that climate change may cause non-native plants to outlast native plants.”
Furthermore, many native species will migrate or struggle in our new weather patterns. Do you love fresh maple syrup from our local communities? Sadly, our maple trees are expecting to face significant challenges in the future. This is just one of countless examples.
If we want to protect the beautiful plants and animals that we see in our gardens, we must understand they’re part of a system that includes humans and our built environments. Consider becoming a climate advocate with a campaign like ours by volunteering at turnoaklandcountygreen.com. In doing so, you’ll be helping your garden and the people around you.
**The Oakland County Climate Campaign is a coalition which encourages views from a variety of sources for its blog. The thoughts reflected in these posts do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the particular member organizations of the Oakland County Climate, its affiliates, or other participating groups.**