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Weed lot or natural area? 

City says the former, mows down 'Wildlife Habitat.'

click to enlarge NO HABITAT: City-cleared lot.
  • NO HABITAT: City-cleared lot.

This summer has been a trying time for anyone in Arkansas trying to keep his lawns and plants alive. With the stifling temperatures and lack of rain, it's hard to find a green lawn anywhere (unless, of course, you find yourself in one of those gated oases that don't spare the sprinklers).

For Little Rock sustainability designer David Anderson, however, this summer has presented him with a different challenge. For the past two years, Anderson has worked in a vacant lot owned by his landlord to cultivate a National Wildlife Federation "Certified Wildlife Habitat," a term that signifies the site provides food, water, cover, and a place for wildlife to raise their young. Those seeking certification apply through the NWF's website; the certificate costs $20. NWF signs reflecting certification cost extra.

At the end of July, Anderson and his roommate, Ryan Denham, awoke one morning to find a crew sent by the City of Little Rock bush-hogging the lot where they had been growing some domestic plants (artichokes, tomatoes, squash, etc.) and wild edibles (such as dandelion, wild onion, sassafras, mimosa, gardenia and hibiscus) through composting and allowing the plants to come back on their own. Upset, Denham posted a photo with a description of what had happened on his Facebook page, which was then reposted on Occupy Arkansas's page. Some readers were outraged; many questioned the legitimacy of the city's actions.

The vacant lot is west of the convergence of Interstate 630 and I-30, near MacArthur Park. Anderson said he had been observing the "progress of a natural landscape and ... how to grow domestic veggies in a wild way" and intended to partner with local groups to measure ozone quality near the lot and study natural wildlife habitats in urban spaces. He hoped his observations would prove that the lot was providing a clean air buffer between the high-traffic highways and neighborhoods.

The city had cited the landowner for code violations at the lot, which is zoned residential. "We've had trouble with that lot for the past couple of years," Assistant City Manager Bryan Day said. "There was a complaint, but I'm not sure where it came from. We tried to work with him and give him some suggestions of how to bring it up to code. He refused to cooperate and so we cut it down." The situation was not helped by this summer's drought, as the tall and dry grass could instantly become kindling if a stray cigarette ember found its way into the field. 

Anderson agreed that "it looks pretty rough sometimes." He said he had been harvesting the grass as hay for the birds he keeps in his back yard, and "eventually would have cut it down, but cleaner ... not as dirty as it was done."

Mark Robertson, chair of the Little Rock Sustainability Commission, would like to see city lots promote bio-diversity in a wide range of forms and shapes. "Vacant lots could certainly be that but so could a back yard — how it is managed has to be part of the equation. There is a place for them, and as with most things the devil is in the details."

The job of Little Rock's Sustainability Commission is public education on "everything from electrical vehicles to stormwater management to energy code," Robertson said.  

Little Rock's commission can look to Fayetteville as an example of how to introduce the idea of natural areas to neighborhoods. In June, Fayetteville became the first city in the state to become an NWF-certified "Community Wildlife Habitat." Fayetteville has an Environmental Action Committee and the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Foundation to advocate for the wildlife habitat project. Anderson points to Fayetteville's progressive landscaping ordinances and says that for him "[t]he big lesson is that everybody expects a yard or a lot to look like a manicured grass lawn, and I'm trying to get away from that."

The mowing of Anderson's lot is "water under the bridge, lesson learned," Day said. "David can continue doing work but we're going to have to have a better management plan."

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