The National Post reported yesterday on how City of Toronto bylaw enforcement officers destroyed a homeowner’s carefully tended but wild-looking front garden of native plants and wildflowers. Deborah Dale, a former president of the North American Native Plant Society, returned home to find her front garden destroyed in response to a neighbour’s complaint.
This incident brings up an issue that has been bothering me ever since I saw the beautiful roof garden of native grasses and wildflowers on the roof of the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina. When I commented to someone that this kind of native beauty would be an attractive, inexpensive solution to creating an easy-to-maintain and environmentally friendly front yard, especially for those little ones that aren’t worth mowing, they explained to me that the city requires all lawns to be trimmed to 20 cm from the ground. You need a rarely granted exemption to get around it.
To me, this bylaw is deeply misguided. In an era in which we are ever more aware of environmental issues, why would we insist on lawns that require intense watering and regular cutting with usually energy-sucking and carbon-dioxide-emitting mowers? This is the kind of bylaw we need to rethink if we are going to change ourselves into a truly green city.
It also speaks to a deeper issue I talked about in an article in the book The State of the Arts (the follow-up to uTOpia). Toronto often talks about wanting to be a “creative city”, and people seem excited that creative-cities guru Richard Florida is moving here. But we often forget that creative cities are going to be messy, unconventional cities, because creative people try things that are new and different. A creative city, for example, might accept that not all lawns need to be trimmed to a regulation height, and that it would be a good thing for some people to experiment with something different — in fact, it would be a contribution to the richness of the city.
Perhaps there would need to be some way of distinguishing between creativity and neglect, but I don’t think the current bylaw does so effectively – you could have a lawn of a few scraggly weeds, and as long as you kept them down to 20 cm you’d be legal. We need to re-think what constitutes civic-minded care versus neglect in a 21st century city.
Finally, I can’t help wondering, how is it that the city’s bylaw enforcement officers have time to destroy a carefully-tended garden, but don’t have time to get rid of those annoying illegal sandwich boards on sidewalks, or illegal billboards all over the city? I know there may actually be a reason — I welcome any explanations.
photo courtesy of Treehugger