On Monday, the City Council of Plymouth (Devon, SW England) published a video on Twitter with the following message: “We’re declaring a War on Weeds“. The video shows an “army” of men dressed in herbicide spraying equipment, holding big machinery in manly poses, with the aim to fight an “old enemy“. It also includes shots of pavements with a few innocent plants such as willowherbs.
The tweet prompted enormous backlash on Twitter (BBC Devon picked on the debate too: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-59067671), forcing the council to issue a response:
This brief response is interesting on many grounds. First, it tries to justify the action of removing plants by arguing that they are doing a great job elsewhere. “Rewilding”, creating wildflower meadows or reducing grass cutting is positive. But it’s also not the point. Urban plants along pavements or in tree pits play a specific role in our cities, very different from that in parks or semi-natural habitats such as road verges. Growing in highly concreted environments, they create micro-habitats and green corridors that form living and foraging grounds for insects, birds and many other animals. Along busy streets, they contribute to cleaning our air (did you know for example that the humble plantain is an expert in removing heavy metal pollution from car exhausts?) and also reduce flood risks by absorbing part of the run-off. In tree pits, they can actually protect tree roots and extend tree life by trapping moisture. To many people, they are also the only snippets of nature they may get to see in a whole day. Last year, when spraying was stopped due to COVID, I received heart-warming messages of people who discovered that they could actually see nature on their streets: a dandelion bringing a smile to their commute, a cute poppy for their child to look at…
Second, it quotes “months and months of complaints” as the reason for the campaign. I am not surprised, this is a reason I have heard from many councils: complaints take time and therefore money to answer and reflect badly on the council (politics). It would however be very interesting to find out 1) how many people actually sent those complaints (as in, unique residents) 2) what percentage of Plymouth’s residents this represents. Judging from the feedback to the video on Twitter, I would argue that some residents don’t agree with this decision (and some probably don’t care either way): are they being listened to? Do deciders within the council agree with the complaints, and therefore chose to act accordingly? Do they just act on habit – we’ve always sprayed, so let’s continue without reflecting on the practice?
Third, it mentions “structural damages“, “trip hazards for children and vulnerable residents” and “blocked drains”. Those are of course valid concerns, but from personal experience in other countries they are often linked to poor highway maintenance, rather than the plants being the cause of the problem. Plants grow on pavements because the slabs become disjointed, which is a trip risk in itself, plants or not. Gutters have to be cleaned regularly, plants or not. Some specific plants can cause structural damage: those with a woody root, such as tree seedlings. They are almost always invasive plants which should be removed anyway: buddleja, sycamore, tree-of-heaven. Training staff to remove those selectively would dramatically reduce the risk of damage to the infrastructure.
Finally, it highlights the efforts to create “environments for insects and pollinators“, but at the same time satisfying residents who want a “clean and safe city“. This is a revealing sentence. Plants are not “dirty” or “unsafe”. They do not “attract litter” or “encourage rats” as I am often told – our actions do. They are part of our urban ecosystem and we should acknowledge this. This requires a change of mindset: accepting a little more wilderness, a little less tidiness for the benefits of both wildlife and humans. I wonder how many of those people who have complained have bird feeders in their gardens? Do they realise, for example, that urban “weeds” are an essential food source for their beloved robins, goldfinches or sparrows?
Plymouth signed a “Climate Emergency” declaration in 2019. How can a “war against nature” rhetoric align with this plan? Biodiversity is an integral part of the fight against climate change and councils should really start listening to ecologists who have been saying this for years. Seemingly innocent actions, such as removing a few “weeds”, mowing a lawn or pruning trees have more important consequences that many people imagine.
It’s not about letting nature run wild in every street, as I’m often accused of encouraging. Cities are managed environments, but it is possible to find a balance between the needs of humans and nature. Ensuring access and safety, while still providing resources for birds and insects, and benefiting from ecosystem services brought by plants such as air cleaning. Countries around the world have already started changing their practices. In France, where the use of glyphosate on public spaces is banned since 2017, cities use campaigning to educate residents on the changing looks of their streets. “Weeds” are managed using alternative methods such as hot water, but it’s about more than a herbicide ban: there has also been a radical rethink in the way “weeds” are considered. Can some areas be weeded less often? Can using new types of pavement materials reduce the need to weed altogether?
I’m not a council manager, and I fully appreciate that there are budget considerations as well as complexities such as contracts that can make change difficult. But experiences from some cities, both in the UK and abroad, have shown that it is possible to manage streets in a nature-friendly way that works for people (and that reduces costs in the medium to long term). It’s time to work WITH nature, not AGAINST it. We are part of it, and we are only at war with ourselves here.
PS: If you are a local resident wanting to lobby your council for change, I would encourage you to contact Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK) which provides helpful advice.