Education

UNI-based Center for Energy & Environmental Education urges 'good neighbor' lawns and fields

University of Northern Iowa

A “Good Neighbor” sign showing that no weed killers were used is shown at Seerley Park in Cedar Falls. The sign is part of an initiative to reduce unnecessary urban pesticide applications.
University of Northern Iowa A “Good Neighbor” sign showing that no weed killers were used is shown at Seerley Park in Cedar Falls. The sign is part of an initiative to reduce unnecessary urban pesticide applications.

Green grass is back — or it’s at least coming for most of Iowa — and with it impromptu soccer games, backyard Frisbee, sprinklers, slip n’ slides and, of course, lawn care.

Supporting that work, along with the play so integral to community parks, school playgrounds, child care centers and neighborhoods — and making sure both happen safely — is the goal of Good Neighbor Iowa, a growing statewide program conceived at the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education. Specifically, the program — launched on Earth Day 2017 — strives to reduce unnecessary urban pesticide application for the good of water quality, biodiversity, pollinator protection and child health.

“It’s a public health campaign,” said Audrey Tran Lam, environmental health program manager for UNI’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education. “And we’re really focused on the child health component — reaching out to schools child-care centers, parks and other places.”

Just 2 years old, the program has enlisted pledges to be pesticide-free from nearly 350 entities that manage urban landscapes. That includes 188 parks, 62 institutions, 56 child care centers and 35 schools in three school districts, including the Iowa City Community School District.

Additionally, 900-plus residential properties have committed to stop using pesticides — an umbrella term the program employs to include insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides and fungicides.

Altogether, the program has protected an estimated 20,000 children from pesticide exposure and prevented about 62,000 pounds of the active ingredients in pesticides from infiltrating Iowa watersheds. And more are joining the movement daily, like Center Point Parks and Recreation. Good Neighbor Iowa this month announced that entity’s five-acre Wakema Park henceforth will be managed without weed killers.

“We are looking forward to this adventure, and are always interested in ways to increase safety,” Center Point Parks and Recreation Coordinator Molly Stuelke said in a statement.

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In justifying its mission, Good Neighbor Iowa cites research connecting common lawn pesticides with adverse health outcomes — especially in kids — like prenatal and childhood cancers, chronic illness, neurodevelopmental delays and behavioral disorders.

“The public health evidence is quite clear (and the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees),” according to a program summary. “Children’s exposure to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.”

The project also protects rivers, streams, pets and even bees by supporting biodiversity.

“Bees are a keystone pollinator species,” according to Good Neighbor Iowa. “However, urban bee populations may be undermined due to pesticide exposure.”

Based on its research and commitments from schools and parks across the state, Good Neighbor Iowa has created interactive online maps enabling Iowans to search for participating entities, check out chemical use in their community and register to ditch the herbicides.

The map shows dozens of participating parks and schools in the Iowa City area, although almost none are in Cedar Rapids to date. Participating residents pepper the entire state, and Good Neighbor Iowa spells out ways for more to get on board.

For starters, the program challenges property owners to ease up on the “weeds” and “embrace diversity.”

“Not all laws have to look like a golf course,” according to Good Neighbor Iowa. “Violets, clovers and dandelions don’t hurt anyone, but pesticides can.”

It also spells out five ways turf managers can go pesticide-free:

l Mowing tall — By keeping grass no shorter than three inches, it develops strong roots to compete against weeds.

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l Overseeding and composting — Late August and September are the best times in Iowa to rough up bare areas and seed them.

l Weed pulling — Doing the hard work of weed pulling and digging can be tedious and time-consuming, but Good Neighbor Iowa suggests it’s worth it in that prompt weeding can remove the plants before they reseed.

l Aerating and composting — Aeration followed by overseeding, along with composting, on areas of compacted high foot traffic, like athletics fields, can break up soil and free up turf grass to grow more easily.

l Reducing and converting — Allowing certain spaces, including general lawns, to transition into native Iowa prairie plants and rain gardens can provide many benefits, including supporting local wildlife and reducing maintenance work and cost.

Good Neighbor Iowa is holding a public workshop on Thursday at the Cedar Falls Public Library, where Iowa City Community School District Grounds Manager Ben Grimm will offer suggestions for healthy management of park and school turf.

Residents in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville can buy yard signs promoting their decision to go pesticide-free at New Pioneer Co-op locations.

For more information, visit Good Neighbor Iowa at https://goodneighboriowa.org/ or the Midwest Pesticide Action Center’s awesome resources at http://midwestpesticideaction.org/what-you-can-do/all-resources/#Home.

To register for Thursday’s event, visit the Lawn and Order event page.

l Comments: (310) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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