A Chemical-Free Park Sounds Like a Wonderful Idea — Here’s What One Town Discovered When It Tried to Do It

Feb 21, 2015 by


The transition to chemical-free parks was not so simple to pull off for the town of Durango.


It’s a question of values: Is it more important to keep a park weed-free, or to avoid using pesticides and synthetic fertilizer? And is it worth spending extra money to phase out pesticides while attempting to keep out weeds? Residents and city administrators in Durango, CO do not always agree on the answers, but the city is making an effort to take its parks organic.

Durango is not alone. Other cities and their residents scrutinize and sometimes argue over the use of herbicides in parks. From Missoula, MT to Stoughton, WI, citizens have taken issue with their cities’ management of parks. While Chicago still uses pesticides in some parks, it limits their use, refraining from herbicide use in 90 percent of parks. The city deals with weeds by informing citizens that the presence of dandelions indicates a safer park with no harmful chemicals.

Durango’s transition to organic was spurred by organic activists within the city. Katrina Blair, founder of Turtle Lake Refuge and author of The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, a book profiling 13 edible weeds that are universally common around the world, recalls how their effort started

“We started asking if the city would be willing to do just one organic park. And we called it a chemical-free park. Just as a trial. And the city was willing, so we did that. This was about seven or eight years ago. That actually was very successful. At Turtle Lake Refuge, we made compost tea using finished compost and worm castings, a little bit of seaweed and molasses, and we brewed this compost tea between 24-48 hours and we applied it to the park. We also gave the city bat boxes, to encourage the natural mosquito predators. And then we had weed harvesting parties.”

One chemical-free park soon became two, but when the activists asked for more, the city declined. According to Blair, the city felt like residents now had a choice to go to an organic park if they wanted, and that was enough.

The activists group responded by writing an ordinance for organic parks and putting it on the ballot. The ordinance was actually quite extreme, calling for all city parks, golf courses, and open space to go organic immediately. The city opted to avoid risking its passage by negotiating and then passing a more gradual approach to bringing the rest of Durango’s parks organic in exchange for removing the activists’ ordinance from the ballot.

That occurred in 2012. You can still see the testimony of Cathy Metz, Durango’s parks and recreation director, on YouTube, as she warns of the increased costs and increased weeds that would result from going organic.

After the moderate, slower organic plan passed, the city chose nine of its 33 parks that represented the various types of parks within Durango and began to switch them to organic. They hired a consultant, Chip Osborne, and initiated a three-year pilot program.

Speaking to Metz now, she confirms that her predictions were accurate. Organic management does cost more and require more labor, and the organic parks have gone from five percent weeds to 30-40 percent weeds. To aid with the increased costs, the activists raised $51,000 to help purchase the needed equipment for the city to make compost tea and apply it to the parks.

Metz makes it clear that the problem with weeds is not always just aesthetic. Weedy athletic fields can be more slippery and unsafe for athletes, and the city is required by state law to eliminate “noxious weeds” like thistle. “We are trying to bring in organic herbicides. We did an application of an organic herbicide this year and it was not successful,” Metz said. She emphasizes that the city has followed the recommendations of the consultant “to a T.”

But Blair sees the clovers and dandelions bemoaned by Metz in a different light. “I know the amazing value of all the wild weeds that are being sprayed with herbicides. I know how valuable they are for food and medicine and also how toxic the herbicides are to the honeybee population, the soil, the mycology, the birds, the human population. We were eliminating a really important resource and then on top of that putting toxic herbicides on the land.”

Blair also sees the harm in the use of synthetic fertilizers. “It’s a drug, and so once you put [fertilizer] on [the land], the soil doesn’t make those nutrients itself. It actually becomes addicted or dependent on these chemical fertilizers to stay alive. And that’s the difference with organic—the soil does it itself. It’s a very sustainable when you work with nature as the primary intelligence as opposed to a human chemically man-made substance.”

Blair’s statement is backed up by scientific research, which shows that synthetic fertilizer actually reduces the carbon and nitrogen found in soil over time, resulting in poorer, less fertile soil. Metz notes that the soil in the city’s parks was healthy at the time of the organic switch, but organic advocates typically focus on different measures of health than those who use conventional management techniques. While nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, organic matter, and pH are always considered important measures of soil health, someone using organic management would also consider the populations of microbes, earthworms and other soil organisms when assessing health.

The local issue in Durango is one that can be instructive to cities across the country. Should we be using hazardous chemicals like synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides on public land? The question is especially important in parks, where wildlife and birds take shelter and find food, and children play.

As is shown by the case in Durango, finding the right way to maintain parks organically might take some time to work out. Additionally, as shown by Chicago’s perspective that dandelions mean a safer park that is free of harmful chemicals, making a switch might also require a change in our attitude toward weeds. At least when they are not posing physical danger to athletes on athletic fields.

Blair feels that citizen involvement was crucial to making the change happen in Durango. “Honestly, to make change in a government it just takes usually some strong voices from the community and voices that don’t back down and are willing to stand in the fire of opposition. So we were a very strong force for seeing it go through,” she said.

To help residents revise their outlook on weeds, Turtle Lake Refuge holds an annual Dandelion Festival. Volunteers harvest dandelions and local breweries use them to brew dandelion beer for the festival (which includes non-alcoholic, kid-friendly activities as well).

Deciding how best to manage public lands requires citizen involvement, as shown in Durango, but also some level of public consensus. After all, if going chemical-free costs more, citizens may need to put their money where their mouths are to pay for organic programs. That might cost more up front to purchase new equipment and to maintain land as the soil transitions to organic and the city learns how to manage it in the first years. It might also mean learning to see dandelions in a new light, as resources (as Blair puts it) or markers of a healthy environment (as emphasized by Chicago) instead of as eyesores.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.”

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