Many cultural institutions have green spaces, squares or parks in their vicinity. Even if your institution is not formally responsible for managing such an area, try to take care of it or create a green enclave inside the building. Modern trends in urban planning include non-human inhabitants and try to take their needs into account by taking care of, or conversely, refraining from intervening in, their natural habitats. Looking after nature in the city also improves the living conditions of human residents.
If your institution manages a green area, pay attention to how it is looked after by your institution and your neighbours. In all your activities associated with the ecosystem pay attention to what is happening ‘next door’ to support the change holistically and widen the area fit for animals in the city. The first step would simply be to refrain from adverse activities such as removing fallen leaves and twigs and excessively mowing the grass.
NOT removing fallen leaves and twigs
It is customary to think that fallen leaves constitute an undesired element in public and private green space – they are not aesthetically pleasing and they are regarded as a breeding ground for diseases and pests which threaten plants. As far as removing fallen leaves from the strips of land adjacent to roads, paths or park lanes is advisable, removing them from under trees and bushes has an adverse effect on the condition of soil and tree health. If we are obliged to remove leaves from roads and paths, it is important to choose non-invasive methods, i.e. sweeping them with a broom or raking. The leaves collected in this way may be left under the trees or placed in a composter. Putting leaves into plastic bags (even biodegradable ones) is as harmful for the environment as it is aesthetically displeasing. Decomposing leaves constitute a natural source of humus and retain water in the soil for longer. The minimum decomposition period of leaves in our climate is three years. The process may be accelerated using an organic fertiliser (e.g. from a communal composter). Bedding and freshly fallen leaves will attract small animals, which will be able to feed and spend the winter there. Among them are legally protected European hedgehogs and all types of shrews, as well as many types of insects.
To raise the attractiveness of the area, it may be a good idea to introduce shade-loving groundcover plants, such as ivy or ferns. After two or three years, such an area will practically not require maintenance, apart from periodical checks and possibly removing seedlings of trees. Moreover, most of these plants provide natural benefit to bees. It is also useful to plant bushes around groups of trees, as they will stop leaves from spreading in strong winds and will provide home to birds, many species of small mammals and insects, thus increasing the area’s biodiversity.
NOT mowing lawns
A lawn which gets mowed less frequently will retain water in the ground for longer and will create good living conditions for small organisms. It is particularly important in the summer, when excessively cut grass almost immediately dries, revealing equally dry ground and contributing, along with the rapidly heating anthropogenic infrastructure (concrete pavements, tarmac roads), to increasing the air temperature in the city.
Wildflower meadows are a good alternative to traditional lawns as they are easy to maintain and do not require regular watering or fertilising. It is enough to mow them once or twice a year, preferably in late summer or in autumn. They increase biodiversity in the city and the deep and extensive root systems of many types of wild flowers make them more resistant to drought and also fertilise the soil through the bacteria living on the roots. Wildflower meadows support pollinators such as bumblebees, butterflies, and solitary bees. Thus, they can save time, energy and resources, while simultaneously adding aesthetic qualities to the local environment.
You can read more about the benefits of wildflower meadows on the website of Fundacja Łąka.
Composters in parks are introduced at many Polish cities and municipalities. They are also popular among residents associations and housing cooperatives. You can find out how to make your own composter here.
Caring for the wellbeing of urban plants and animals
When you organise events in green areas, remember to respect their non-human residents. Loud noise during open-air concerts scares off all urban animals, especially birds. Excessive lighting (the so-called light pollution in the cities) changes circadian rhythms of animals. When making an outdoor installation, erecting temporary architecture or installing sculptures or objects, remember not to intervene excessively in the natural plant structure but rather try and adjust to it.
Supporting local natural ecosystems (green spaces, squares, parks) or creating new ones (community gardens, permaculture gardens) requires time (length of plant development cycle) and effort. With more advanced projects, take advantage of the specialist knowledge and experience of botanists. Refer to the advice available on the website of organisations promoting urban greenery, such as the Sendzimir Foundation; Bujna Warszawa initiative [Lush Warsaw]; or the local Greenery Department or Environmental Protection offices.
Community gardening can be an excellent tool for activating, supporting, motivating, educating and raising awareness of various groups, including employees.
Planting and caring for young trees
There is no need to convince anyone about the beneficial impact of trees on the climate and human health. However, it is important to act responsibly so that the tree can develop properly. Choose a suitable place (e.g. not too close to the façade or road, so that the root system can grow freely), prepare the soil and water it properly, nourish and protect the tree during the first years of its growth. The Warsaw Greenery Department has even developed its own tree planting system in difficult urban conditions, such as traffic routes, allowing for better soil ventilation, which is described in nine steps.
Treegators, i.e. perforated bags around trees, which allow the soil around the young tree to be slowly irrigated without excessive water evaporation, are very popular in urban parks.
The use of rainwater – rain gardens and retention basins
One method of utilising the valuable rainwater and reducing the risk of flooding in urban areas is creating rain gardens i.e. retention tanks in a container or in the ground, which, through appropriately selected layers of plants and soil-sand mixtures, keep rainwater in the ground, additionally cleaning it.
The Sendzimir Foundation provides a number of DIY instruction brochures on how to create a rain garden or a retention basin, i.e. a gentle depression in the terrain, where rainwater temporarily collects (up to two days).
Turning squares and courtyards into vegetable patches has a long tradition in Poland dating back to the WWII, when social workers helped residents start gardens in the courtyards of tenement houses. Currently, there are a few hundred community gardens in Poland and new ones are constantly created. A lot of cultural institutions and organisations decide to start vegetable gardens together with their audience. How to start such a garden? Useful information is provided e.g. by the Bujna Warszawa initiative [http://bujnawarszawa.pl/zakladanie/] or a publication by Wrocławska Rewitalizacja Sp. z .o.o. – Community Gardens. Good Practices Bank.
Bees can also be kept in cities and not only in gardens. Bee farms are increasingly present on the roofs of tenement houses, universities, offices, or even shopping centres. It is worth consulting an experienced beekeeper and choosing an appropriate site, queen bee of a gentle breed and swarming qualities to ensure the comfort of the bees and the safety of local residents. Read more.
At this stage, supporting the urban ecosystem requires more logistical and financial investment, as well as time. Architectural and botanical consultations will also be indispensable. It is also worth preceding such activities with observation, consulting the local community for ideas to take into account the diverse needs and perspectives of residents, including non-human ones.
The idea behind a permaculture garden is to grow plants which naturally occur in a given climate using resources which best serve the environment. A permaculture garden behaves like a system of interconnected vessels, and each part – rainwater, compost, branches and stones for building patches – is an element of a process chain. More information about permaculture gardens in Poland can be found here, here and here.
Structural substrates instead of tarmac
In order to increase the permeability and retention capacity of soil in the city, a structural substrate or other permeable hardened surface (i.e. gravel, stone, grass, earth surfaces) can be used instead of tarmac or paving slabs. It is also worth considering removing some or all of the old tarmac and allocating more space for vegetation, reducing traffic routes to the necessary minimum. Read more.
It is worth investing in irrigation systems adjusted to the landscape, which would transport rainwater through a network of canals, ditches, ponds and wetlands. A park or square designed in this way would certainly become a pleasant recreational area for residents and the audience of the institution. Similarly, a playground area may be designed using natural resources, such as stones, moss or grass.
Green roofs and walls of buildings in the city effectively hold rainwater in, preventing flooding during downpours. They also have a positive effect on the microclimate. They can reduce the costs of heating or cooling buildings. More about green roofs on the website of the Polish Green Roofs Association.
Saving old trees
A one hundred-year-old healthy beech produces 1,200 liters of oxygen per hour. This is more or less the same as 1,700 ten-year-old beeches. Old trees do not only offer a larger transpiration area (evaporation of water from tree leaves), and reduce the level of air pollution and noise, but are also a rich habitat for millions of organisms (fungi, birds, insects, small mammals). Even if an old tree is sick, has cavities, or is at risk of being windfallen for various reasons, it is worth thoroughly considering whether it should be felled. Young seedlings will never compensate for the loss of the richness of flora and fauna of the old tree shaped over many years. Instead of cutting them down, we can maintain their stability and longevity using modern methods of binding in the tree crowns, without risk to the safety of people and property in the vicinity. In exceptional circumstances, the tree can also be transplanted.