Calgary’s roadside naturalization plans could save the city more than $6 million over 20 years and set the standard for future planting, according to the results of a city pilot project.
A briefing note that went to Calgary city council’s Executive Committee on Oct. 11 showed that while naturalizing city roadsides and boulevards may cost slightly more upfront, in the long term there’s a financial and ecological benefit to doing it.
While establishing the naturalized roadside landscape cost $3,200 per hectare for the first two years, compared with conventional landscaping ($1,000), the annual maintenance cost per hectare of naturalized roads was $400 per hectare less annually. This is due to fewer mowings needed for those areas.
Further, they logged roughly 3,000 pollinators per hectare, which also helped feed native bird populations.
This data was collected during a nearly three-year pilot project done by the City of Calgary, in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture Landscape and Planning and the Faculty of Science Zoology program. The project, funded with a $450,000 grant from the Council Innovation Fund back in 2020, wanted to demonstrate a proof of concept that determined the cost and benefits of naturalization compared with conventional landscaping.
“We have a bunch of… more than 1,000 hectares that Roads manages around the city along major roads, and it just has no added value there to the environment, to bees and other things, climate resiliency and so on,” said Ethan Askey with the City of Calgary’s transportation department, back in 2020 when the project was first pitched.
Askey said at the time they envisioned a future state where the roadsides looked like urban meadows rather like a golf course.
The test area evaluated by the city was a five-hectare strip of 16 Avenue NE from 52 Street to 68 Street. FULL REPORT BELOW.
Broader vision for naturalization
Back in 2020, Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra brought up the idea of national seed banks for each city to help spread naturalization across Canadian cities.
Now, Carra said this is evidence naturalization could work across Calgary.
“In the future, the dream is that instead of having grasses that we have to mow, you have patches of native flora that support pollinators and all of that stuff,” he said.
Carra noted there are elements of it already on Memorial Drive around 14 Street. Further, there’s a stretch of Sarcee Trail SW between Richmond Road and 16 Avenue NE that hadn’t been mowed for 20 years. Further naturalization efforts – trees, and native flowering species – have continued to flourish along that stretch.
There’s a solid financial argument for it, Carra said.
“We’re having that conversation about converting some of our least viewed but mowing-intensive grasslands, like the boulevards and stuff to natural terrain and paying back,” he said.
“We’re starting to get there in terms of proving out that this is actually the best way to go.”
Carra recognizes, however, a segment of the population just isn’t going to like natural grasses and flora along major routes.
“You need to basically slowly convert people to appreciating and celebrating the natural environment that we wiped out,” he said.
Finally, Carra said they can take this evidence and use it to inform upcoming land use bylaw changes. That could impact how boulevards and roadsides are landscaped in newer communities. He said many developers are already ahead of the curve, some are waiting to see it pan out, and others are dead set on naturalization.
“I can take you to probably three examples being built right now reflecting those three states of the bell curve,” he said.
“It would be delightful to just snap your fingers and step into the best new world we can instantly but unfortunately, that’s not how organizations change and markets change.”