Forgoing having a lawn to better reconnect with nature: the challenge launched by Nouveaux Voisins
The MIS spoke with Philippe Asselin, landscape architect, and Jonathan Lapalme, entrepreneur and strategic designer at Dark Matter Labs, because it is interested in this innovative project for its potential for systemic impact, but also as a field of experimentation in its multiple social R&D activities.
The urgency to regenerate biodiversity
“We don’t know our neighbours anymore.” This is the observation made by Nouveaux Voisins based on these figures: 50% ¹ of natural infrastructure have been destroyed in the Montreal Metropolitan Community since the early 1960s. With the disappearance of vacant lots, the population of birds and insects is particularly threatened and their decline is twice as fast ² as that of vertebrate species.
At issue is urban development and the dominance of lawn over natural green spaces. When these spaces are not paved over, they are often covered with grass. Fragile, water-hungry and regularly mowed by gasoline-powered machines, grass is a true desert of biodiversity, not very resilient to heat waves and whose maintenance is a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Image source: Unsplash
Grass is everywhere
Surrounding monuments, alongside highways, between buildings, in front of your home; since the 1950s, grass has been the standard in landscaping. In the territory of Greater Montréal alone, the area occupied by grass is estimated at 68,000 hectares ³, or 357 times the area of Mount Royal Park.
Why is it so popular?
“The aesthetic appeal of a manicured lawn, green and free of any other plant, is still very strong. For many, it remains the epitome of ‘a beautiful garden’. Citizens are unaware of the issues involved in their private yards and reproduce what is familiar to them, namely an immaculate lawn.”
It was from the observation of the demand for human-centred landscaping, which reflects a desire that does not take into account respect for nature, that the idea of Nouveaux Voisins was born: to take advantage of the considerable potential of landscaping by facilitating the conversion of grassed areas into spaces for biodiversity.
“Less grass, more biodiversity.”
Why the name Nouveaux Voisins (New Neighbours)?
“The name refers to other living species with which to cohabit in an urban environment and thus extends the notion of the neighbourhood beyond human beings. By learning new ways to landscape the land around one’s home, everyone can, in a concrete way, help create more biodiversity, and thus attract new ‘neighbours’, by choosing the plants that will grow there on the basis of the birds and insects that these plants attract for example.”
Photo credit: City of Montreal
But are people ready to put aside their aesthetic preferences in favour of a more luxuriant and less controlled nature?
“There are important trendsetters in the United States, we are seeing a movement that is gaining momentum. Residents are getting together and asking themselves questions about their impact, they are taking action by redesigning their gardens: they are letting the lawn grow, they are planting wildflowers that are sought by pollinating insects.”
“In Canada too, these ideas are making their way. For example, the awareness campaign ‘In May we let it grow,’ broadcast on the Nouveaux Voisins Facebook wall has been shared nearly 600 times. This bolsters our ambition to accompany this transformation in landscaping by proposing alternative solutions and developing a variety of tools to assist communities in their efforts.”
Using different levers simultaneously
To carry out their mission, the Nouveaux Voisins team has identified obstacles that need to be removed. They are located at several levels:
- A lack of literature on desirable plants and steps to follow; while there are some studies to draw on regarding the importance of grass minimization, they do not provide turnkey information on effective alternatives.
- The availability of plants. As native plants are not very popular in garden centres compared to ornamental plants, suppliers offer a limited quantity.
- Aesthetic standards. To make an alternative project visually acceptable to a clientele accustomed to an ornamental standard or concerned about the opinion of the neighbours who might view this new landscaping as untidy.
- Municipal by-laws. Some outdated regulations, such as maximum height of vegetation, can hinder green space redevelopment and even penalize residents who want to encourage biodiversity with fines of up to several thousand dollars.
Before/after : redevelopment of a street corner in Montreal by Nouveaux Voisins
An experimentation phase in 2019-2020 allowed Nouveaux Voisins to launch several lot transformation pilot projects in Montréal, interact with residents to raise their awareness of their impact, and document best horticultural practices to rehabilitate biodiversity.
All this learning will be compiled on a digital platform accessible to all. The Nouveaux Voisins team is currently looking for financial partners to ensure its development.
How to multiply the positive impact tenfold
“Just because the rules change doesn’t mean society is willing to accept it and is prepared to change. Social standards also play a big role when it comes to grass. But what will give the project a new dimension is the appropriation of new sustainable practices by a large part of the population. The positive impact will be multiplied tenfold by the community.”
How can you make people accept change when it requires letting go of the feelings of pride, respect for the neighbourhood, and reassurance provided by a perfectly mowed lawn, in addition to getting used to a new aesthetics? By working on social and cultural standards in relation to landscaping. The MIS, which supports projects with a high social and environmental impact in their seed phase, supports Nouveaux Voisins on an ad hoc basis in the design of their impact strategy, but also plans to support them on a more sustained basis, particularly in their approach to transforming the current narratives around grass.
As with AcadieLab, a project that promotes the emergence of sustainable solutions adapted to the communities involved and that targets, like Nouveaux Voisins, a transformation in values and behaviours, the MIS relies on several tools to offer an adapted support. For Nouveaux Voisins, the work around the Theory of Change is decisive. By mapping the different stages to produce change and mobilize an ecosystem, the objective is to provide resources to people who want to promote biodiversity so that they can take ownership of new practices, have strong support to sustain change over the long term, and have the resources to, in turn, influence the different stakeholders in their community.
MIS sees Nouveaux Voisins not only as a social innovation project with the potential for systemic socio-environmental impact, but also as an ideal testing ground for some of its social R&D labs. Considering that the implementation of Nouveaux Voisins and its scaling up depend in part on the reduction of certain systemic barriers, these are additional reasons for the MIS to support it as an experimental project in terms of regulatory and financial innovation.
Stay tuned for more information.
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