Urban Stewards: The Creation of Neighborhood Maintenance Districts. An Ecosystem Services Proposal for Cities

Cities across the country are struggling to provide public services in this time of economic difficulty. While there is growing recognition of the potential environmental improvements that could be provided by the use of ecosystem services in cities — services like trees, infiltration zones, climate appropriate landscaping and so forth — paying for the requisite transformation of the urban fabric and for its subsequent maintenance is a challenge.

But perhaps there is another way. Many urban residents today use gardening services to maintain their yards. These services take care of the outdoor irrigation, mow and fertilize grass, plant and maintain flowerbeds, blow leaves, dust and debris and may put it in green waste bins for composting. Depending on the amount of labor and the region, fees for such services vary, but residents from single family homes to multiple family apartments with outdoor vegetation commonly hire gardening services for routine garden work. This expenditure of private funds for a private service offers a tremendous opportunity to create neighborhood benefits through the establishment of neighborhood improvement districts, similar to business improvement districts. Such a program could capture the individual private expenditures to implement neighborhood natures services infrastructure. Street trees could be planted and maintained for individual and neighborhood benefit, infiltration zones could be created that would capture stormwater and runoff for groundwater recharge or irrigation purposes, benefiting the individual property and the neighborhood, and climate appropriate vegetation could be planted to better reflect local and regional rainfall constraints. Not only would the individual property receive the environmental benefits, but if implemented at a neighborhood level, the sum of these benefits would be significantly greater than if implemented in a scattershot way at the individual level: consistent shade along the streets, less flooding or waste of water, reduction wateruse and mitigation of potential water shortages, reduction of the use of fossil fuel inputs to mow and fertilize plantings, less pollution and impacts to public health.

Private gardening services thus have the potential to provide significant neighborhood level benefits that include:

  • Maintenance of the urban forest to reduce the urban heat island effect The development and maintenance distributed projects to reinfiltrate stormwater and dry weather runoff.
  • The creation and maintenance of green streets including bioswales, rain gardens, infiltration planters, permeable pavement and other Low Impact Development techniques.
  • Reduction of water-intensive landscaping in planting strips and front yards and to better watering practices.
  • The regular cleaning of stormwater drains to reduce trash Total Daily Management Load (TMDL) other TMDLs and potential flooding from trash-blocked stormdrains.
  • Keeping green waste on site for mulching—enhancing rainwater capture.
  • The reduction of the amount of fossil fuels used to maintain urban vegetation.

A Neighborhood Urban Stewards program using the existing garden maintenance workforce for neighborhoods, funded by voluntary “Neighborhood Maintenance Districts,” modeled on Business Improvement Districts, could provide individual and community nature’s services benefits that would greatly enhance environmental quality in neighborhoods.

Background

As cities advance green infrastructure strategies, programs and projects, a skilled workforce will be necessary. To date, the hiring of many cities has not kept up with the needs of the green infrastructure maintenance it has in place, such as street tree maintenance. An additional and parallel workforce could be responsible for the maintenance of the existing, and new infrastructure at a neighborhood level, chosen by neighborhood organizations (neighborhood councils, neighborhood committees, city council-organized entities), and trained by local community colleges. Community colleges could develop a Neighborhood Steward certificate program for these gardeners. The potential labor force would consist of the current numbers of gardeners who already provide gardening services in cities. Such a program would provide additional skills and knowledge to an existing workforce in water management and other green, skills and responsibilities.

Neighborhood level implementation is the appropriate scale for such services, as it reinforces neighborhood identity, cooperation and sense of community in the city. Such services would simply be additional to those rendered to private residences today.

Since there is a large, employed workforce already paid for privately, this proposal suggests building on an already existing and compensated workforce to provide the green infrastructure maintenance services needed as cities advance their green infrastructure strategies, programs and projects.

Existing nonprofits could be enlisted to implement the program.

Advantages

This approach would be voluntary and not require new fees. It would not substantially increase the costs that residents already expend for “gardening” services. It could measurably reduce GHGs generated by this sector by:

  • Concentrating the client base, reducing driving from location to location;
  • Reducing overall water consumption in cities for outdoor irrigation with watering being done by trained, neighborhood level stewards;
  • Reducing the amount of fossil fuels used in maintenance in the city – requirement that for certification, all blowers, mowers and other machinery be electric.

Additional benefits: Such a program would build on an already existing workforce, provide this workforce with additional skills, offer it an opportunity to organize itself into an association and obtain and offer receive health insurance as an association. As an association, it could then begin to develop its own self-certification programs and training programs.

It would engage neighborhood level groups and organizations in the management of their own green infrastructure, thereby elevating green infrastructure into their awareness and responsibilities.

Cities would have a workforce of neighborhood stewards to implement programs that currently it does not have the personnel to execute. Such stewards can be responsible for cleaning stormdrains, but also prevent other pollution that gets carried to sea through intercepting bad practices, spills, and other occurrences that they might find.

If existing nonprofits involved in green infrastructure could be enlisted to develop and implement this program, it would offer them an opportunity to further their work in the city.

Critical Issues

There maybe some city union objections – though there is no sign of new funds that would be available to the city agencies to employ city workers to accomplish these tasks.

Neighborhood organizations may not be equipped to implement such a program.

Not each resident will want to participate; there could be both free riders and also those who like working in their gardens themselves.

Gardeners can have long-standing relationships with their clients who will be reluctant to have a service imposed upon them by the neighborhood.

It may reduce the size of the gardening workforce as efficiencies are found.

There will be neighborhoods that do not have the capacity to support such services.

The scale of a neighborhood will have to be determined such that stewardship can be provided effectively and efficiently.

Neighborhoods will have to accept green infrastructure changes (this will come sooner or later, this proposal is simply one way to achieve such a change).

It formalizes an informal sector.

Money will have to be provided, initially, for this program:

a. For the neighborhood councils to implement the proposal

b. To recruit and to train the stewards and to provide them with new equipment or low interest revolving loans to obtain it.

c. To help underwrite such services in low income neighborhoods

Implementation

A workshop of nonprofits and city agencies working on green infrastructure, as well as a subgroup of neighborhood leaders could be brought together to discuss the proposal and to flesh it out.

This program could be pilot-tested in several neighborhoods of cities through the creation of 2 year demonstration programs where neighborhood organizations are active and have a track record of interest in green infrastructure management.

It could be implemented by an existing nonprofit that has ties with such neighborhood groups.