Challenging the standards of ‘beauty’ for our landscapes

In my former life as a river restoration consultant, I worked on a number of projects that looked to improve habitat in rivers and streams for different species, improve water quality, and help address erosion and flooding concerns. One of the things I was less prepared for was how in more developed areas, our designs had to go beyond the science and also incorporate people’s perception of what a restored stream or river *should* look like. If a design or proposed concept was too ‘unconventional,’ it could open a can of worms with the local community concerned that the stream ‘doesn’t look right.’

People like curvy streams with more defined edges, clean, clear water, nice sight lines, desirable wildlife, and in many cases, some manmade ‘enhancements’ (trail nearby or recreational access for boating/fishing).

At first I was somewhat amused that we had to extend such effort – wouldn’t people just be excited that we were implementing actions that restored stream function and/or helped improve habitat? But I quickly learned that what people thought mattered a LOT. While the science indicated that adding some wood in the stream and reconnecting some floodplain to help flows spread out would likely lead to the best ecological outcome, it wasn’t the aesthetic that people wanted to see or deal with. That tension, between restoring function and fitting people’s perception of a ‘beautiful’ stream, was a tough balance to achieve.

Not surprisingly, this issue goes beyond rivers – we’ve formed all sort of perceptions of what ‘beauty’ looks like across different landscapes. One of the biggest examples? The traditional lawn. We expend much effort and great expense to care for lawns in our yards, parks, and along lakeshores. They are wonderful to recreate on, look tidy and orderly, and constitute the largest crop irrigated in the United States every year. We use more water on lawns than we do for growing food.

Which seems utterly bizarre when you really think about it, not only considering that we’re using so much water to sustain grass but also because lawns are an ecological desert. They offer nothing to native wildlife and serve no purpose in local food webs (ironically, we spend much effort to kill dandelions in our lawns, which serve as a first source of food for bees in the spring). Along lakeshores, the traditional grasses with their short-roots offer no protection to shoreline erosion and become a favorite resting place for geese (and their poop).

Agriculture also is fighting a similar battle of landscape function and ‘beauty.’ More and more studies are showing that implementing conservation tillage, cover crops, and/or other soil health building practices can lead to better yields, less expense, and less time in a tractor. Yet, look in the magazines and common marketing publications that farmers see and it’s the black and bare plowed fields that are still celebrated as ‘beautiful’ and proper versus ‘messy’ ones with residue or cover crops.

The beauty of a freshly plowed field (left) versus the growth of cover crops in a no-till field (right). Which one resonates more with you?

So. What can we do? How can we start challenging some of these perceptions of what makes landscapes ‘beautiful’ in our eyes? How can we adjust people’s expectations so they are more in line with an appreciation of the function of a landscape versus just how it looks?

One step is bringing light to the fact that our ‘beautiful’ perceptions are contributing to some pretty negative consequences that in the end, hurt us. The plight and decline of bee and pollinator species populations, which form the base of our food production web, has contributed to a shift in the public mindset, resulting in an explosion of programs and resources to help people plant more native plants and gardens. While no, most people won’t do away with their lawns completely, we can find a balance – converting lawn in areas you don’t really use to low maintenance native plant gardens or even ‘bee’ lawns.

A yard with a mix of lawn and native gardens.

For lakeshores, the pervasive lawn to shoreline has led to more nutrients and sediment-laden runoff making it to the lake, resulting in cloudy water and algal blooms. No lakeshore owner wants to look out over a muddy, scummy lake – the desire for clean water can help to convince many that having a proper lakeshore buffer of native plants is worth removing some turf.

In ag, switching land management practices is tough and can potentially be hugely expensive if farmers don’t have access to the right equipment. Yet, the promises of keeping soil on the land, building soil health, being able to better weather extremes of precipitation and drought, and better yield down the line is a compelling case to try something new.

The best way to change perceptions, however, is to start really showcasing these more functional landscapes as part of our daily experience – to normalize seeing them so people don’t think twice. The increasingly popular Lawns to Legumes program has enabled people to start seeing more native gardens in Minnesota yards. The Washington Conservation District just last week was awarded one of the coveted Lawns to Legumes grants to create pollinator neighborhoods in four different communities around Washington County. The Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District also has funding for residents to help create pocket pollinator gardens in Taylors Falls and the Chisago Lakes area. More and more people will see these landscapes, hopefully inspiring others who see what’s going on and want to be involved themselves.

Volunteer lakeshore stewardship programs like the statewide Lake Steward program help lakeshore owners work together to maintain or improve their lake’s condition by scoring shores, planting more native shoreline buffers, and adopting other good lakeshore stewardship practices.

Ag field days have exploded in recent years, with many farmers who practice cover crops and conservation tillage being willing to share their stories with their neighbors of how these practices have improved their operations. The Isanti Soil and Water Conservation District received a grant last year to help incentivize cover crop adoption – they sponsored lunches and field days where farmers could meet and talk to each other about cover crops.

The momentum is building, and our recognized ‘beautiful’ perceptions are changing, but there’s still a long way to go. Consider reaching out to your local conservation or watershed district to see what you can do to be part of the movement to change the standards of landscape beauty.