Before You Begin
Before you begin a sustainable landscaping project, there are a few things to consider:
- Where you could implement a project?
- What level of investment might be needed?
- Are funding sources available for installation and maintenance?
- Who will do the work?
- Are there liability considerations?
- What is the internal business case for the project?
Grey v. Green Spaces
Undervalued, or “grey” spaces
Undervalued areas on corporate campuses, like turf grass and oversized parking lots, are areas that require maintenance and resources without providing significant environmental or social benefits—and a good example of the linearity of our current economy. These areas cost property owners time and money through maintenance and the use of chemicals. Parking lots require plowing, de-icing, and patching and lawns are mowed, watered, and often treated with fertilizers and herbicides. These uses can have harmful environmental effects without adding proportional benefit to those working near these spaces. Focusing on changing these undervalued spaces provides an opportunity to make structural and operational changes that follow a more circular framework.
Natural, or “green” spaces
Natural habitats are those in which the cycles of nature are allowed to play out while also providing direct benefit to the owners and users. Natural habitats require less maintenance once mature, improve air and water quality, provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and provide educational, health and wellness opportunities for others. For the Coalition, these areas could include native vegetation, pollinator habitats, urban tree and shrub canopy, and other landscaping options.
Type of Investment
To have organizational support, we know that landscape changes need to be cost effective. There are various ways to calculate a return on investment depending on how broadly an organization is able to value the benefits and estimate related costs with the status quo approach. There are also various time scales for which benefits unfold. For example, payback on native landscaping such as prairie can take two or more years, while urban tree canopy takes longer. Part of these cost savings include environmental benefits, especially around decreased irrigation needs through the use of drought resistant plants.
Landscape changes require sustained investment. Native landscaping often involves different kinds maintenance, including mowing and burning, then facility managers may be used to. Trees can require more watering. Particularly in the first several years, there can be increased maintenance costs for upkeep and care of the changes, as well as a need for educating employees while the landscape matures. Ensuring enough financial resources are allocated to these changes will be important. If your organization is looking to implement these changes, most consultants or vendors for these types of projects will be able to help you understand what these costs might look like for your organization and your implementation options.
Depending on the location of the project, different sources of funding may be available. Some municipalities and watershed districts offer partial or full cost grants. To determine in which watershed your proposed project is located, use the watershed locator tool from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Use this map to see where particular watershed districts are located.
In addition, these projects have financial benefits. For example, Target Northern Campus in Brooklyn Park receives agricultural credits as an organization uses the property to harvest native plant seeds. By keeping all of their stormwater onsite, they also have reduced their stormwater fees.
Depending on what you are considering implementing, and the way you use your location, there are several kinds of challenges that you could encounter.
With all kinds of landscaping, there are employee and contractor safety and injury concerns that can result from equipment and tasks related to maintenance.
Changes near walking paths or entrances to buildings could increase the number of insect, rodent, and reptile interactions with humans.
For example, General Mills’ visitor entrance had prairie vegetation on an island in the early to mid-1990s. Some important visitors walked through the island and were unhappy with the aesthetics and wildlife changes. However, there are non-native, non-invasive species that could be a good fit for areas with higher aesthetic needs.
Access and Walking Paths
In locations where human access is needed, like at water treatment facilities or transmission areas, areas may need to be kept clear for employee and equipment access.
For example, at the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services’ (MCES’) wastewater treatment plants, areas around tanks and other process areas need to be planted in short mowed vegetation, like traditional turf, for worker safety, secure footing, and equipment access. An early prairie project at the Seneca Wastewater Treatment Plant involved installation of native plants directly adjacent to process tanks. The dense vegetation interfered with staff ability to mobilize maintenance equipment, and staff complained about tripping hazards. Eventually the prairie around the process tanks was replaced. MCES’ views this as an important “lesson-learned” about appropriate locations for prairies.
Types of Facility Use
Certain kinds of landscape maintenance procedures may not be feasible depending on the other facility uses on your property.
For example, at Target’s northern campus, where prescribed burns cannot be used on their prairie due to the possibility of smoke entering into their data center through air-intakes.
Some landscape projects may not be accessible to employees or the general public, depending on the security needs of the property.
For example, if you own a chemical plant and portions are fenced off, access may be limited for security reasons.
Leadership and Transition Planning
Changes can come from corporate leadership, and hard infrastructure can limit what is possible for particular portions of land.
For example, leadership may decide that the installed prairie is no longer viable to maintain. If that is the case, having a transition plan is valuable.
Additionally, some turf grass areas have sprinkler systems already built-in. If facilities management wants to ensure the sprinkler system remains functional in the future even if native prairie is implemented, watering will need to happen every so often to prevent clogging in the system.
Regulation and Funding Sources
Some facilities may have greater difficulties in changing land uses again in the future depending on regulatory or funding source restrictions.
For example, if publicly-owned land is used for parks, recreation areas, and wildlife or waterfowl refuges, the public entity may be required to convert an equal or greater amount of land in another location if, in the future, it needed to develop or reuse the original parcel of land for its original public purpose or another public purpose (such as an airport facility or public roadway).
Another funding example could be a project using funding from a watershed district. Some contracts require that the landscape change remains in place for at least 10 years.
Cross-Campus and Property Opportunities
Corporate campuses and public spaces feature thousands of acres of undervalued infrastructure and turf that could be better utilized to provide ecological and sustainability benefits. Each project provides benefits, but these benefits can be multiplied with greater habitat connectivity with adjacent properties. Working with nearby organizations and others in the region to implement their own projects can expand the environmental and community wellbeing benefits.
Target Northern Campus includes 34 acres of managed prairie and eight acres of clover for bees. These landscape changes are part of a broader system, including the nearby Oak Grove Park. At 3M’s Cottage Grove plant, savanna oak prairie has been restored by Friends of the Mississippi River to continue protecting the Mississippi River. It is part of a habitat corridor used by millions of birds.
Additionally, the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services’ Eagle’s Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, adjacent to 3M’s Cottage Grove plant, also uses native prairie as its primary landscape, creating a connected habitat along the Mississippi River.
Creating larger areas of habitat conservation and restoration through cooperation with neighboring landowners can create opportunities for better landscapes that are more attractive for government and non-government funders of conservation and restoration work. Think about how your property connects to a broader network of properties to realize greater potential. Without connections to broader landscapes, these will only be habitat islands which support smaller populations and less diversity than connected habitats.
In the urban and suburban landscape, habitat fragmentation can be mitigated through the development of buffers, corridors, and stepping stones. For example, pulling development back from the waterfronts and implementing natural buffers could create a vast network of habitat. Corridors are like habitat highways for populations of animals and plants to travel between habitat islands. Installing “stepping stones” of habitat is like creating a highway for species that do not necessarily need a physically congruous highway, like pollinators, but do need habitat along their route. Buffers, corridors, and stepping stones connect what would otherwise be islands of habitat and promote larger populations of plants and animals and biodiversity.
When thinking about the value of habitat restoration, conservation, and preservation, work with your city natural resource department, your county soil and water conservation district, and/or reach out to University Extension to find an expert consultation. Conservationcorridor.org provides much more information, supported by scholarly research, about the use of conservation corridors on the landscape. This article, Urban Connectivity: Recent research on species linkages in urban green spaces, provides examples about the real-world impacts of urban development on habitat fragmentation.
Additionally, there is also the opportunity to provide for more sharing opportunities with other property managers within companies. For example, 3M’s Cottage Grove facility is not 3M’s only facility. By allowing managers to share examples across properties, more ideas and resources could be gleaned and acted upon.
Cross-Functional Changes and Opportunities
There is a systems nexus between energy, water, land use, biodiversity, food, and equity. While thinking about changes you can make to improve water quality and quantity, it is important to consider other improvements that could be combined into a more holistic approach that can provide benefits to you and society.
One great example of a purposeful cross-functional system is the implementation of solar with pollinator habitat. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a guide on how to implement pollinator habitat with solar gardens. A pollinator-friendly solar installation can be certified as a “Habitat Friendly Solar” project through the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources.
Pollination is a critical service that promotes healthy ecosystem and supports humans. Global crop production would decline as much as eight percent if pollination services were absent, jeopardizing global agricultural markets, and evidence suggests that pollinator populations are suffering worldwide due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and pesticide application. Because of this importance and the ongoing threat for many countries and municipalities, pollinator conservation has become a big concern.
One way to enhance solar sites is using them to promote pollination. Adding pollinator habitat by planting native species on and off solar sites is becoming mainstream. This can not only enhance pollinator abundance and diversity, but provide other ecosystem services, including pest control, carbon storage, and erosion reduction. Minnesota and Maryland are two states which have enacted policies to support solar pollinator habitat in the form of certification programs.
Like selecting vendors for other projects, there are a variety of criteria to consider when determining which company that can help you accomplish your goals. These considerations can help you as you navigate this sort of contract, especially if this is your first time selecting a landscaper, green roof, or arborist. Here are some of the ideas Coalition members have found to be useful for their vendor selection.
Set goals for your project and check in with facility managers to ensure goals are aligned.
Whether it’s native landscaping, green roofs, trees, or a mix of changes, think critically about what you want a vendor to do for you. Do you want to reduce the stormwater on your property? Are you looking to plant additional trees? These differences can make a difference for who you select, or how many different vendors you need to be searching for. While you have sustainability goals in mind, see where those goals have overlap with facilities management and others who will need to sign off on moving a project forward.
Define expectations, both short and long term; summarize in a Request for Information (RFI) and compare that to the vendor’s previous work and vendor capabilities.
If you are looking for guidance in what would be most appropriate for your site prior to contacting a vendor, reach out to your watershed district, or county conservation staff, or university extension.
Some Sustainable Growth Coalition members recommended that completing conceptual work with a landscape architecture firm and then solicit vendors for the design-build construction; this will help you to ensure you have the right solution to the goals you are looking for.
Request a portfolio of previous, similar work. Think about what you want to see from the vendor in terms of design sketches or photos. Looking at what vendors have done for other clients can help you understand what you are looking for and even spark ideas for what your property might need. Make sure you define your expectations, especially as these projects can take several years. Ensuring your vendor is in it for the long haul and can also provide some maintenance training and support will help provide continuity for the project. In addition, pay attention to the possible vendor’s seed source; competent contractors will list where the seed is harvested from. A good rule of thumb is to have locally sourced seed from within a 120-mile radius.
Vendors who employ certified landscape architects can help you with ensuring you are not missing anything you may not think about, especially if this is your first project. For native landscaping projects, Request certifications such as SITES – owned by the U.S. Green Building Council, like LEED, “The Sustainable SITES Initiative is a set of comprehensive, voluntary guidelines together with a rating system that assesses the sustainable design, construction, and maintenance of landscapes. It is used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, architects, developers, policy-makers, and others to guide land design and development. The SITES v2 Rating System can apply to projects at various scales, with or without buildings. Project types include open spaces, streetscapes, commercial and educational/institutional campuses, residential neighborhoods and yards, military, and more.”
Use an RFI/RFP Process
Use a Request for Information (RFI) process to determine what vendors to send Requests for Proposal (RFP) and process and request references from past projects.
Define decision criteria, including similar past work; experience in working on the specific type(s) of project(s); seed source; working relationships with local agencies; pricing; length of commitment; the level of support provided to purchasing organization to support the longevity of the project. Use the pricing and commitment details to determine who to move forward with.
Long-Term Vendor Need
Most projects require ongoing maintenance; for prairies, the first four years of maintenance are critical for project success. See if your vendor is able to implement and maintain your site, not just implement. If that’s not possible, Coalition members recommend finding another vendor who can help with maintenance.
Comparisons and References
Though these projects typically result in a return on investment, these projects can be expensive and take many years. Asking for references can help you understand how well other companies have found it to work with your possible vendors.
Example: Comprehensive Landscape Design by Barr Engineering
An example of a comprehensive landscape design comes from Coalition member, Barr Engineering Company. Lockheed Martin called on Barr to create a master site plan for its campus in Eagan, Minn. The 52-acre campus consists of a large central office building surrounded by large parking lots for 2,000 cars and mowed turf. The master plan showed how to implement innovative practices to reduce the campus’ carbon footprint and energy consumption by:
- Reducing pavement and capturing stormwater through infiltration, which provides water for the landscape and reduces irrigation needs.
- Reducing the urban heat island effect by shading pavement.
- Reducing building energy consumption by shading east and west windows and planting windbreaks.
- Producing energy on-site through the use of solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and a wind turbine.
- Reducing fuel, chemical consumption, and water use associated with large expanses of lawn by incorporating native grass, shrub, and food-producing plantings.
To provide an attractive landscape for 1,500 employees, the plan creates views from the building that looks out over a scenic landscape containing wildlife habitat and offering opportunities for walking. The plan also contains a strategy to produce food on-site for employee use and set an example of sustainable landscaping that employees can incorporate into their own property.
Type of Investment
Center for Urban Forest Research. ND. “The Large Tree Argument: The Case for Large-Stature Trees vs. Small-Stature Trees.”
McPherson, E. Gregory., et. al. 2006. Midwest Community Tree Guide: Benefits, Costs and Strategic Planting PSW-GTR-199. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Albany, CA.
Pizzo & Associates, Ltd. ND. “Turf to Prairie: The economical choice.”
Prairie Nursery. ND. “Comparative Life Cycle Costs of No Mow Versus Traditional Lawn Over a 20 Year Period.”
Prairie Restorations, Inc. ND. “Cost Estimates for Prairie Restorations, Inc. Contracting Services.”
Cross-Campus & Property Opportunities
American Public Health Association. November 5, 2013. “Improving Health and Wellness through Access to Nature.”
Macie, Ed. April 22, 2016. “Urban Forests: The Benefits Outweigh the Costs.” Land Grant University Extension website.
Aizen, Marcelo A., et al. 2009. How much does agriculture depend on pollinators? Lessons from long-term trends in crop production. Annals of Botany, 103 (9), 1579-1588. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcp076
Feltham, H., et al. 2015. Experimental evidence that wildflower strips increase pollinator visits to crops. Ecology and Evolution, 5(16), 3523- 3530. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1444
Garibaldi, Lucas A., et al. 2014. From research to action: enhancing crop yield through wild pollinators. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12 (8), 439-447. doi: 10.1890/130330
Maryland General Assembly. 2017. Maryland State Bill 1158: Solar generation facilities−pollinator-friendly designation.
Macknick, Jordan, Brenda Beatty, and Graham Hill. 2013. Overview of Opportunities for Co-Location of Solar Energy Technologies and Vegetation TP-6A20-60240. National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Golden, CO.
Minnesota State Legislature. 2016. Minnesota House Bill HF 3353: Solar site management.
Potts, Simon G., et al. 2016. Safeguarding pollinators and their values to human well-being. Nature, 540 (7632), 220-229. doi: 10.1038/nature20588