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Roadside Spraying

by Matt Morris
Yellow flowers, Kaikoura Range
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"If our hard-to-maintain streets were reconfigured into green spaces we would want to spend time in, people may actually consider ‘their’ spaces to extend beyond their fenceline and into a shared environment," says Matt Morris of the Organic Garden City Trust (Christchurch, NZ).

Auckland City Council has already made the decision to cut back on their use of toxic sprays. Sprays are seen as a cheap way to maintain city assets but look at it another way, and it's false economising. Matt Morris explains why.

Workable and Realistic Alternatives
Most people checking out this website will have heard, one way or another, that there are many concerns about current disposals of human-made chemicals into our environment. In particular concerns have centred on chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

The Organic Garden City Trust has developed and supported many projects that aim to rectify the problems caused by chemicals, that are known to be toxic, or are suspected of being toxic, by providing workable and realistic alternatives.

Often these alternatives, because they require a different way of looking at things, actually enhance the environment. As we have found in the schools we work in, the community gardens we are involved with, and the commercial properties we promote, the environment not only becomes ‘healthier’ (meaning better soil quality, more efficient use of water, greater recycling of nutrients and much improved biodiversity), but also more attractive, and, why not say it, more vibrant and thus better for the soil.

Working With the Council
Since our beginnings we have been discussing with the Christchurch City Council ways that they could reduce the amount of toxic sprays they apply to our streets and parks, as part of the overall picture of this organic city. Results are slow in coming, but we remain optimistic.

The reasons results have been slow in coming are two-fold: one is cultural and difficult to alter. A particular mindset seems prevalent that deems sprays as ‘normal’ and alternatives as a bit ‘weird’ (in Freudian terms, ‘other’).

The second reason is cost: chemicals sprays, though not cheap, look in the balance book to be cheaper than supposed increased labour costs or costs of new plant like steam machines and frame weeders.

What it Costs
Nothing much can be done about the cultural mindset, unfortunately so we are focusing on costs. There are three fronts to attack the ‘cost criticism’ factor on:

  • an improper accounting system
  • inadequate city design and
  • community involvement

These could eliminate many of the perceived increases in labour costs.

To begin with the first of these, both the Organic Garden City Trust and Soil & Health Canterbury Waitake question the kind of accounting which has a purely monetary focus. There are also environmental and health costs associated with using toxic weed management.

The Literature
The literature on this is vast and many interesting reports can be read in ‘Soil & Health’ magazine. Two other documents are of particular interest: the report presented to City Streets Unit of the Christchurch City Council in 1996, and the 1999 Weed Management Policy from Auckland City Council.

The first report condemned the use of certain sprays. The report, written by Sustainable Cities Trust, stated among other things, that, "the fate of herbicides sprayed on hard surfaces is not fully known, however, it is suspected that they, or their by-products, wash away as run-off into the city’s drainage systems. Herbicides sprayed on soil may get through to groundwater at varying rates and may take 10-15 years before groundwater is contaminated. Canterbury already has a problem with pesticide contamination of groundwater from rural pesticide use. Die off of non-target soil microbes may cause [sic] imbalance of soil ecosystems leading to decreased fertility and/or emergence of a new ‘pest’. Accumulation of chemical components of herbicides through the food chain may occur causing mortality or sub-lethal effects. The report goes on with further warnings.

The second document, the new Weed Management policy from the Auckland City Council, includes copious statements from doctors supporting claims that a particular herbicide may be dangerous to humans. Talking about this herbicide, one doctor noted that his patients experienced "vomiting, diarrhoea, elevated temperature, fatigue, cramps in feet, dizziness, migraine, tiredness, frequent waking during night, night sweats, watery discharge from sinuses, achy burning joints, tender gall bladder, chest pains, loss of appetite, raised blood pressure, etc."

Auckland City Change of Mind
This is simply one quote among many in Auckland City’s report. The net result was that city’s commitment to decrease their reliance on chemicals and go for non-toxic alternatives. This is an excellent example of a council looking at the true costs of their actions, and choosing an alternative that actually takes into account the other costs involved, both environmental and human.

Future Design
One aspect of the city’s "need" to spray is actually quite possible to circumvent, and this brings me to my second point: city design. Not being an engineer it would be foolish of me to presume too much, but judging by what we have, one or two suggestions wouldn’t go amiss. Currently a lot of spraying is defending the asset, i.e. gutters and footpaths that have cracks in which weeds are able to gain a foothold and do damage. Perhaps more constant upgrading of these areas to prevent cracking would be a better option. More interesting and lively options are also possibilities.

Waterways and Wetlands
Waterways and wetlands have been turning some of our drains into open channels supporting native plantings and wildlife. This is an excellent improvement. Imagine if these channels could line our streets and be integrated with walkways and cycle-lanes. Imagine if these areas could incorporate both home and community gardens.

Concreted areas that are prone to self-destruction and require high labour input and chemical use to maintain could become vibrant areas which, though requiring a large initial outlay, would ultimately be almost self-sustaining and end up saving money.

The Garden Beyond the Fence
The community is another resource that needs to be drawn on to reduce costs of weed maintenance. Hand-weeding a gutter or footpath takes only a few minutes every couple of weeks — it’s not a lot to ask residents to do. Sustainable Cities actually endorsed the idea of a ‘Street Pride Project’ for individual streets which would raise the profile of this idea and award streets for their efforts. This is one level of action.

Again, I would take this further and suggest that if our hard-to-maintain streets were reconfigured into green spaces we would want to spend time in, people may actually consider ‘their’ spaces to extend beyond their fenceline and into a shared environment. While some areas would become established native plantings, which are inherently low maintenance, some residents may wish to plant vegetables, herbs, flowers and so on and be responsible for maintaining them.

These ideas are no doubt a little challenging for many people, but there is a certain logic to them I find appealing. They are exciting ways of reducing spray use in our streets, and limiting costs associated with alternatives.

For further information about the Organic Garden City Trust, please phone us on (03) 365-5038 or email us at:

Christchurch City Council No Spray Register

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic