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Reading the Trees: How Landscaping Promotes (or Undermines) Sustainability

Reading the Trees: How Landscaping Promotes (or Undermines) Sustainability

  • You consider many things when picking a healthcare provider. Their landscaping should be one of them.

According to the CDC and others, climate change has negative human health impacts: increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease; injuries and premature deaths from extreme weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes and floods; changes in the ranges of food The US healthcare industry is responsible for 8.5% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. This means that the industry dedicated to “do no harm” – the people and places that should be caring for us and our loved ones – actively contributes to environmental issues that make us sicker. Some healthcare institutions have acknowledged this and are working towards mitigating their effects on climate change. But while some of that mitigation work is visible (public awards, LED lights, public reporting on carbon emissions), the majority of that work is invisible, especially for smaller clinics or providers.

It’s possible to learn a lot about an institution’s commitment to the planet’s health by their approach to landscaping. The simple choices made about their grounds are a manifestation of their feeling and respect towards nature, and by extension, towards the lives of their neighbors and community, both human and of the wilder variety. To be a better climate-smart, healthcare consumer, here are some obvious physical things to consider when choosing a healthcare provider.

  1. How much concrete do they have? Concrete is a great choice for accessible movement, but too much concrete is a flagrant dismissal of local ecology and can cause harm. Vegetation absorbs water during rain. Concrete, asphalt and roofs all deflect it. If your municipality’s storm drains share the same sewer system as your plumbing does, these systems can be overwhelmed during intense rainfalls by the deluge of rainwater, leading to discharges of untreated sewer water. Too much concrete in urban areas shows a disregard for the community. Prioritizing pavers, green roofs and green spaces shows accountability for the pressures caused by facilities.

  2. How much grass lawn do they have? Large swaths of mown lawn add little value to an ecosystem. Lawn grasses have very shallow root systems, which pale in comparison to the extensive root systems of plants native to your area. Because of this, mowed lawns capture less water during extreme rainfall events. They also support less life than gardens with flowers and trees. “Do no harm” also applies to the bees, butterflies and birds that are vulnerable to climate change.

  3. What kind of trees do they have? If they are older, do they look healthy? Do you see signs of care, like recent clean cuts from pruning? Pruning trees is like an annual check-up and shows that the institution values their trees as important parts of their infrastructure and community. If there are only new/young trees, what kinds of trees did they choose? Are they all the same species or is there a variety, which supports a greater variety of life? Take a close look: did they plant maples or oaks? Maple trees are often prioritized in landscaping because they grow more quickly than oaks. However, oak trees made up many of the forest ecosystems that used to stand where our cities are today. Maple trees suggest a priority on image and the present; planting oaks is an apology for the past and a hope for the future.

  4. If there are flowers, what kinds? Boxwoods, Russian sage and English roses feature in practically every strip mall in America. Did your provider plant native species instead? Native species suggest an institution’s embrace of the community and the life it contains. In season, are blooming plants cared for and humming with pollinators? Any of rabbits nibbling the garden beds? If not, your provider could have sprayed insecticide, many of which have human health impacts. While the level of exposure needed to cause personal harm is high, I question whether the use of these chemicals belong at places devoted to health and healing.

  5. What do the grounds look like in the winter? Is the grass bright green? Some grasses hold their color during winter, but nitrogen-based fertilizers can be used to portray carefully curated perfection over the reality of dormant plant life in winter. These fertilizers can run off into water systems and lead to algal blooms that choke out life in local ecosystems and negatively impact human health. Did they leave dry plant stems or clear cut all of the dead growth? During the winter, insects rely on these dry remains and fallen leaves to survive. Removing all of it at the beginning of winter decreases the food sources for next year’s birds.

The impacts of climate change caused by hospitals and healthcare facilities require enormous work: to increase utility efficiency, move to renewable energy sources, decarbonize the supply chain and reduce waste. Landscaping choices may seem trivial in the grand scheme of sustainability, yet they reveal visible evidence of an institution’s awareness of the climate challenge and commitment to its solution. Our decisions, as consumers of healthcare, have the power to help drive climate change work. All it takes is for you to stop and smell their flowers.

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