June 15, 2017
Tony DiGiovanni CHT
LO Executive Director

On May 9, I had the pleasure of delivering one of the keynote addresses at the annual Grey to Green Conference in Toronto, Ont. The audience was comprised of government, policy makers, green space advocates, engineers, architects, landscape architects and others interested in advocating for the value of green space.

Steven Peck, president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, started the conference and is also the visionary responsible for bringing together a very diverse group of organizations to form the Green Infrastructure Coalition (see greeninfrastructureontario.org).

Although diverse, the thread of passion that ties the many groups together is the idea that ‘living’ green infrastructure is important (and absolutely crucial) to improving and enhancing our quality of life.
In a way, it’s odd we had to form a coalition to advocate the importance of green space. Our ancestors did not have to consider the benefits. Their very livelihood was based on learning to feed, clothe, heal and shelter themselves using plants. It is only recent generations that have lost touch with nature due to most of our population residing in concrete jungles. This trend will only get worse. I often quote the Bruce Cockburn lyric, “If you stare at too much concrete, you forget the earth is alive.”

Our common vision is a world where gardens, urban forests, landscapes, turfgrass, green space and natural areas are indispensible — a world where living green infrastructure is valued because people are aware of the social, economic, health, lifestyle, therapeutic, recreational, tourism, aesthetic and even spiritual benefits.

The Green Infrastructure Coalition agreed on the following definition: Green infrastructure is defined as the natural vegetative systems and green technologies that collectively provide society with a multitude of economic, environmental and social benefits. This includes: urban forests and woodlots; bioswales, engineered wetlands and storm water ponds; wetlands, ravines, waterways and riparian zones; meadows and agricultural lands; green roofs and green walls; urban agriculture; parks, gardens, turf, and landscaped areas.

It also includes soil in volumes and qualities adequate to sustain green infrastructure and absorb water, as well as technologies like porous pavements, rain barrels and cisterns, which are typically part of green infrastructure support systems.

Plant Blindness

In 1998, researchers James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler introduced the term “Plant Blindness.” Their research found when people are shown pictures of different landscapes, most people would notice the animals and other objects before the plants.

Even though plants fuel life on Earth, they are somehow unappreciated and unnoticed. Something unappreciated and unnoticed has little value. Our collective job is to cure plant blindness and help the public and government understand what their ancestors knew intuitively.

Recently, I came across a serious example of “plant blindness.” The Landscape Ontario office overlooks Hwy. 401. The Ministry of Transportation is widening the highway and decided to expropriate two acres of our land. The offer made was $400,000 per acre for land zoned “Prestige Industrial” and $40,000 an acre for land zoned “Greenlands.” In the eyes of the real estate industry, “greenlands” are practically worthless. Of course, we fought back and made the case that greenlands are crucial and valuable, especially for managing storm water, producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. To our surprise, they listened to our argument.

One of our most important jobs as an aligned community is to provide clarity about the values and benefits that living green infrastructure provides to society.

From a nursery/landscape/horticultural perspective, below are some statistics most people don’t know.

A number of years ago we asked Deloitte to determine the economic impact of the landscape and horticulture sector. Surprisingly, they found our sector employs over 140,000 people. In comparison, Chrysler Canada employs 10,000, Royal Bank of Canada employs 80,000 and Loblaws 136,000.

When you factor in the public side of horticulture (3,700 municipal governments looking after parks systems and street trees, plus the many conservation authorities), I estimate there are 280,000 people employed in the green infrastructure profession.

The Deloitte study also found:
The public spent about $6.3 billion on horticultural products and another $1.8 billion on landscaping services in 2009. There has been over 36 per cent growth since then.

Trees, shrubs and other plants grown on farms have a “farm gate” value (the value at the farm) of about $2 billion and the only farm crop that attracts GST. In Ontario, our farm gate value is higher than corn, wheat and soybeans and about equal to fruits and vegetables, which can also be argued are “green infrastructure”.

Deloitte calculated horticultural production, services and equipment contribute $14.48 billion in economic impact to Canada’s economy on the private side. I estimate this to be in excess of $25 billion with the public side included.

The living green infrastructure sector is a well-kept secret. We are way too humble a group. It is time to shine our light because of how important green infrastructure is in making the world a better place.

All indicators point to continued growth of the sector as long as the public understands the immense value of living green infrastructure. Our collective job is to tell our story of benefit in ways that will be heard. Imagine how many jobs and economic benefit we could stimulate by curing “plant blindness.”
Tony DiGiovanni may be reached at  tony@landscapeontario.com.