Ethics, Water Conservation, and Sustainable Gardens
How a botanic garden and arboretum in Michigan started “walking the talk” of environmental conservation.
By Robert E. Grese, ASLA, and David C. Michener
Robert E. Grese
Ethical issues concerning the use and abuse of water resources are among the most critical environmental challenges facing public
gardens. Here in Michigan, as with many parts of the United States, we have
taken the availability of clean water for granted for generations. The lakes,
rivers, and streams associated with the Great Lakes ecosystem literally define
our landscape. We are surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem
and have an abundance of groundwater resources.
At the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, where our staff manages four distinct properties totaling
more than 700 acres, every set of irrigation-intensive displays, every sealed hardscape, every eroded feature sends a message. How and where we use or waste
water, including the extent to which we rely on water-intensive plants, displays, gardens, and landscapes, clearly inform the visitor of the behaviors
we expect them to live by as well. Recognizing this, we have been asking ourselves how we, as a public university garden, should clarify and link
water-related issues to core practices, research, and education in public horticulture and responsible landscape management. How can we help the public
understand the relationship between our (and their) practices and water quality? How do we lead the way to change before there is a water crisis? Our
perspective is that our gardens and management should be the result of clearly articulated ethical judgments that we present to the public.
At our botanical gardens and arboretum we are not starting from an ethically neutral position—our gardens exemplify traditional models of
development and construction practices that increase impervious surfaces and
lead to an escalation in the amount of stormwater runoff. We must put our own
house in order. But ethics, rather than mere pragmatism, must guide our actions
and outreach if our audiences are to be persuaded by our practices. We have a
historic opportunity to showcase implementable new and retrofit examples of
scientifically sound, aesthetically compelling water conservation strategies.
We have come to understand this not only as an opportunity but also as a
profound means of demonstrating societal leadership.
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