October 15, 2009
Tony DiGiovanni CHT
LO Executive Director

About a year ago, Nick Close, landscape architect for the Ministry of Transportation, came by my office with a PowerPoint presentation that depicted many years of plant failures on Ontario highways. As a landscape architect responsible for the plant material, he was frustrated. He knew the huge benefits that plants provide, especially on highways, yet the harsh conditions make it an unfriendly place to grow plants. I asked him if he knew of any successful plantings. He pointed to one example in Ottawa, where a reforestation-style planting proved very successful.   

This discussion gave birth to an idea that we should encourage the Ministry of Transportation to initiate a pilot project. The plan called for research and demonstrations to find the best processes and plant species that would survive and thrive on Ontario’s highways. From our talk came the idea that the research portion should be managed by Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

This fall, because of the foresight of the Ministry of Transportation and Minister Jim Bradley, the site preparation for this research and demonstration project will begin at the intersection of Highways 401 and 427. Planting will take place in the spring.  

One exciting component of this research project is that some of the plants are being grown in retractable roof greenhouses. This is significant, as many plants in nurseries are started from liners (starter plants usually in seedling or budded form). Many of the liners are grown in Oregon and shipped to Ontario growers. The Oregon climate is great for starting plants.   

The liners for this research project are being grown in Ontario in retractable roof greenhouses. If things go as planned, not only will this project find the plants and processes that will lead to planting success on Ontario’s highways, but we will be building a local liner nursery production industry at the same time.   

The larger vision  

Landscape Ontario is hoping that this initial research and demonstration project will blossom into the development of a North American Centre for Highway Greening at Vineland. This could be a first. It also fits with Vineland’s world class vision. The centre could be a catalyst for documenting the huge environmental and safety benefits derived from planting along highways.   

If highway authorities would dedicate a fraction of their budgets to centralized research and innovation, they would save a huge amount in remediation and maintenance costs and at the same time generate enormous health and economic benefits.  
Research could deal with many fundamental issues, such as plant selection, soil media, cultural practices, plants for noise barriers, the role of highway plantings in the environment, the role of plants in reducing accidents due to snow drifting, planting design, plants for windbreaks, plants for erosion control, plants for filtering emissions, the role of plants in reducing carbon dioxide, highway plantings and tourism, the role of plants in filtering salt accumulation, highways and climate change, water retention design, economic benefit of highway plantings, filtering highway water runoff, the role of highway plantings in oxygen production, etc., etc.   

Environmental and societal benefits

Consider the environmental and societal benefits that would occur by research into these issues. I would like to focus on a couple:
  • Emissions: Most of the emissions on highways are in the form of carbon dioxide. Many people are aware that carbon dioxide influences climate change, however, they sometimes forget that carbon dioxide is like a fertilizer for plants. Plants trap carbon dioxide. In fact, plant growth is enhanced in carbon dioxide-rich environments. As a huge side benefit, plants produce oxygen and filter the air.
  • Dust and particulates: There is a huge amount of dust and particulates generated by the constant movement of vehicles on highways. Have you ever thought about where the tire dust goes when tires wear down? It has to go somewhere. The truth is we are covered in a fine dust of particulates, including tire dust. We are constantly breathing in dust and particulates. What is not commonly known is that plants, especially evergreens, trap and filter these particulates. This is another reason is why greening our highways is important.   
  • Benefits to society: There are many other benefits that will come from greening Ontario’s highways. We are hoping that the Ministry of Transportation and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre will assume a leadership role in educating Canada on what benefits will be derived from such a process.   
Bruce Cockburn has an excellent line in one of his songs, “When you stare at too much concrete, you forget the earth is alive.”  We are excited to be involved with this Greening Ontario’s Highways Research and Demonstration project and want to thank the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and Vineland Centre of Research and Innovation for the foresight and leadership and remembering that the earth is alive. It’s all part of all us understanding that it is important to be “Green for Life.”
Tony DiGiovanni may be reached at tonydigiovanni@landscapeontario.com.