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Grounds for improvement

In the face of climate change and water shortages, grounds maintenance specialists, GRITIT, provide advice on what organisations can do to protect their green spaces and ensure they contribute to the business.

As the cold weather draws in, it’s always easy to forget what summer felt like, but 2018 proved just a little bit more memorable. This past June and July saw the UK facing extreme temperatures that were last seen during the record-breaking summer of 1976. As lawns parched and tinder-dry moorlands burned, speculation invariably revolved around whether what was being experienced was weather – a temporary anomaly – or evidence of a sustained shift better described as climate change.

During that long hot summer, the Environment Agency’s recently launched report, ‘The state of the environment: water resources’, suddenly seemed incredibly prescient. The agency’s first major report on water resources in England argued that “climate change and demand from a growing population are the biggest pressures on the availability of water”. It warned that action would be needed to “increase supply, reduce demand and cut down on wastage”.

Without action, the report argued that areas such as the south east could face major deficits by 2050. As the water supply situation grows increasingly serious, the agency is calling for water companies, consumers and businesses to help take on the challenge of unsustainable demand and wastage of water. One recommendation was to avoid water shortages by introducing personal water targets. For those owning and managing green spaces, it’s important to keep abreast of these developments and plan both for extreme weather conditions, and potential policy shifts aimed at saving water.

So how will climate change impact on grounds maintenance? The Royal Horticultural Society’s 2017 report ‘Gardening in a changing climate’ summarises the changes we are likely to see and is a helpful starting point. The report noted that even if the current legislative efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions prove successful, global temperatures may still rise by at least a further 1.5 to two degrees over the next 100 years. In this case the UK’s average temperatures in every season would increase. High year-on-year variability in rainfall would continue, and there would be more dry spells, particularly in the south. Winter would see more very wet days, particularly in the northern areas of the UK.

These conditions would become the new normal for those in the grounds maintenance industry, raising numerous practical issues. More weeding, mowing and pruning will be needed, for example, as the growing seasons become longer with warmer springs and autumns. Plants will have to be chosen for their resilience to these extended seasons and more extreme weather.

Water management will become an even more important issue. Grounds staff might want to consider more effective methods of capturing water during intense rainfall, and switch to planting schemes and ground cover that are better at retaining water and require less watering. For some properties it might be worth looking at irrigation systems, although these can be expensive and would only be worthwhile if hot summers become the norm.

Watering programmes could be incorporated into plans and specifications for grounds maintenance. These should dictate when additional watering for various different types of foliage should be triggered, and how this should be monitored. It would also be sensible to make emergency plans for particularly extreme conditions, when additional water may need to be brought on site and stored.

Warmer conditions will aid the spread of pests and diseases that will need to be managed. Heavy rainfall will wash out nutrients and cause nitrogen to be released more quickly from the soil, which will affect the way fertilisers are used. Higher temperatures speed up the breakdown of organic matter, while rapid changes in temperature and moisture content result in the rapid release of carbon from the soil. Increasing the proportion of organic matter in the soil will help to improve moisture retention and aeration, leading to more resilient soil structures.

Ultimately, grounds and water management will need to become more environmentally sustainable, and forward planning will need to extend beyond the next season.

Yet while planning for the worst consequences of climate change, it’s worth thinking about how organisations can use their green spaces to address environmental challenges, working proactively to help mitigate some of the expected changes. The grounds maintenance industry has seen a growing emphasis on the concept of ‘green infrastructure’. This is the move away from seeing green spaces as an overhead, instead treating them as an asset that can contribute towards health and wellbeing.

Many business organisations understand this to be fully compatible with their strategic goals through the creation of more productive environments for employees or customers. While some may regard this as another box to tick in their CSR agenda, positive action to promote wellbeing and corporate sustainability helps to build a positive image and is an effective part of being an attractive and marketable business.

Changing the way we manage our green spaces is important. When planning new developments or redeveloping sites, we should consider ways of minimising their environmental impact. Better planning of landscapes can play a vital role in reducing water use, alleviating flood risks, mitigating urban heat islands and contributing to carbon capture for cleaner air.

A good first step is to commission a green audit or survey of your sites that can be used to develop intelligent maintenance regimes to maximise the potential of green infrastructure. This will assist in forward planning and allow gradual changes to be made to ensure green spaces consume fewer valuable natural resources and contribute more to the organisation’s environmental performance.

About Sarah OBeirne

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