Philly’s Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces Bill

On October 30th, Jay Archer testified before the Philadelphia City Council on behalf of Toxic Free Philly and in support of City Council Bill #200425, Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces (HOPS), to ban pesticides on public land in Philadelphia.

The bill proposes to “eliminate the use of toxic herbicides on publicly owned grounds and establish transparent and public reporting protocols for all pesticides used on public lands.” 

If passed, this landmark environmental and public health legislation will finally standardize organic land management on city-owned parks and properties – the first step toward creating safe and ecologically valuable landscapes. 

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced the bill on September 10, 2020 with a team of co-sponsors including Parker, Jones, Thomas, Domb, Gilmore-Richardson, Johnson, Gautier, and Kendra Brooks

Learn more by reading the legislature and a fact sheet about the bill. 

Pesticides, Public Health & Public Land

Philadelphia currently has no record keeping system of the date and quantity of pesticides being applied to publicly owned lands. This is especially dangerous given the extremely toxic chemicals in the city’s landscaping arsenal and their indiscriminate impact on the larger environment and human health. 

Regularly used synthetic pesticides including Glyphosate and 2,4D have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, liver disease, kidney damage, reproductive issues and birth defects.  See the full chart of health impacts for the most 30 commonly used pesticides, developed by Beyond Pesticides. 

Public parks are a public good, where many Philadelphians find respite in the fresh air and greenery. They don’t realize they are walking, sitting and playing in areas of toxic exposure that compromise their health, especially for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. This proposed ban on pesticides on public land is a long overdue public health and safety measure.

A pesticide free park sign in Reno, NV. Photo by KUNR.org

Jay Archer’s Testimony

After testifying in front of NYC’s city council for a similar proposal in fall of 2019, Jay was approached by Toxin Free Philly to provide expert testimony, as both an environmental advocate and professional organic land care provider, at the Philadelphia City Council haring on the bill. Below is his testimony. 

Good Morning City Council Members.  My name is Jay Archer, I am a landscape ecologist and designer and the president of Green Jay Landscaping, an organic and ecological landscape company based in Rye, New York. 

Before starting Green Jay, I began my landscape career as a traditional synthetic lawn care provider. Over the last thirty years, I have witnessed the destructive impacts of pesticides on landscape environments and human health; it inspired my transformation to ecological, organic landscaping.  I am in strong support of the HOPS bill. 

So, what exactly is the issue with synthetic landscape management? Many of the most widely used pesticides in the landscape industry have already been banned in parts of Europe, Canada, and hundreds of municipalities in the US (see map).  For example: 

Glyphosate – the key ingredient in Roundup (the most applied herbicide in the world) –banned or restricted in municipalities around the world due to carcinogenic properties and residual in food crops. 

Dicamba — Banned or restricted for farming because of cross contamination in food crops and surrounding environment. 

2,4 D — Persistent endocrine disrupter, also linked to neurotoxicity, kidney and liver damage.  

No one anywhere can sincerely claim these products are safe!

Simple field test: would you want your children to apply these products or to be directly or indirectly exposed to them?

If you could smell them, either in concentrate or in the field, your nose would recognize them as toxic poisons!

What is the main use and objection to bans and restrictions on this generation of toxic chemicals?
The number one purpose for herbicides is to kill, suppress or eliminate plants.

Take invasive or unwanted plants and Roundup: Glyphosate is used because it’s cheap, dirty and easy. 

Is it cheap?

Not in terms of sustainability or resilience in the landscape.  

What about the real cost to human health?

In the midst of a epidemic of respiratory and immune system stress, when many of our children suffer from environmentally generated disease, from asthma to autism to leukemia, and adults from Alzheimer’s, cancer, etc, can we continue to believe there are no connections to how we treat our living landscape environments, where we work, eat, sleep and breathe? 

Why is it so convenient to ignore the social justice impact? Cities provide parks as a benefit to urban communities that lack green space, yet they contaminate those prized outdoor areas with toxic pesticides! Why not make a positive model to truly serve the communities who need it most. Demonstrate our collective good will, now!

In my career as a pesticide applicator, contractor and professional consultant, I have spent considerable time and funding attempting to eradicate weeds with synthetic chemicals. 

Many of these municipal projects are initially successful in temporarily removing vegetation, allowing for the installation of ambitious, expensive ‘ecological’ restoration projects. However, it soon becomes apparent that without funding for maintenance, the original vegetation/invasive species return. In part due to the negative effects on soil biology from spraying pesticides, poor planning and execution of replacement plantings, and lack of follow through with maintenance and management.

No one asked the question: why do the plants grow there?

Largest local case in point: Meadowlands Phragmites eradication program failure.

Phragmites is a non-native wetland reed grass that grows and spreads rapidly, especially in disturbed wetland or marsh environments. Millions were spent to attempt to remove the invasive species – at what cost? Scalping the marsh with machinery to remove the thick mat of rhizomes can impact the overall wetland topography and ecology; the other common method is applying herbicides, which in turn leak into the aquatic environment. These projects overlook the fact that Phragmites is so well adapted to cleaning pollutants from the water it became a dominant plant community and monoculture! Taking away the phragmities water filter is clearly unsustainable!

Tremendous amounts of labor and material cost on projects such as these have resulted in non-quantifiable long-term results. By killing soil microbes and naturally occurring soil organisms, we sterilize the ground, creating a habitat much more likely to be populated by more infamous invasives, who exudate hormones and enzymes to sterilize the ground/soil around them (ie. Norway Maples).

Many so-called invasive species are actually highly functional in providing ecosystem services.

Case in point: along all parkways in downstate New York, “invasive, undesirable” vines are choking the trees and altering the landscape; why, is it because these plants do a better job of growing with hydrocarbon exhaust in these auto-congested environments? 

Should we remove them? At what cost? Is it even possible? And then what?

If we intend to replace them, we must design improvements, starting with the soil biology. 

We must plant improved aggressive species in some cases.

In design, construction and consulting of ecological landscape projects, we need to look to the soil. Healthy soil, teeming with microbes, is the essential foundation for an organic landscape. 

Applying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides destroys the soil microbial communities that strengthen plants’ immune systems. Instead, synthetics provide quick but unsustainable nutrition, and by “eliminating pests,” they also destroy valuable pollinators and beneficial insects upon which our native plants depend on to complete their life cycles. 

Philly has done a good job cleaning up the water with successful storm water mitigation, riparian buffers, and rain gardens.  Organic landscaping is the future, now!

These organic land management systems, if properly maintained, will conserve, protect and preserve our precious natural resources for future generations. We need to turn our solutions back to nature, for example: bio-engineering and constructed or structural soils for green spaces in urban environments.  

Water, however does not clean soil. Plants clean water and soil and provide the biological diversity necessary to support life on Earth.

We cannot go backwards to a more pristine time in nature, certainly not by killing plants and soil biology, indiscriminately, with no regard for how ecosystems operate.

To survive the damage we have already caused by our disproportionately built environments (impervious vs. porous), we need every green space available to be a highly productive, Carbon Net Positive landscape environment. We can solve our climate challenges by putting the carbon displaced in the atmosphere to work for us!

For our environment to be healthy and resilient we need uncontaminated, highly biologically productive and functioning soil systems, plants and water working together to produce clean air and sequester carbon. In ecological terms, we look to regenerative landscape systems for the solution.

I have spent years of my life in the foolish pursuit of the weed free landscape, by killing it and myself, while pretending to embrace and cherish the natural environment, mostly in pursuit of profit. I am guilty…but I can change. 

I have changed my world. I live in a much better place, in every way because first:

I do no harm.

The time for excuses and objections are long gone. The technologies are here, now, available and accessible.

Don’t try to tell me we can’t live without these toxic pesticides. 

We live a fuller, healthier more productive existence without Clordane and DDT

I refer you to the EIQ or environmental impact quotient formula to reduce pesticide use. 

The solution isn’t more cheap, fast food; it’s investment in more successful enduring health and longevity! 

It’s not necessarily about product substitutions or one size fits all…that never worked! Environmentally sound policy and practices are economically sound and beneficial to all.

Let’s stop throwing our money away and at the problem. The public deserves healthy landscape environments to recreate in and reap the many benefits of the outdoors – not to suffer from undisclosed toxic exposures. 

I am in strong support of City Council Bill #200425, Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces.  Thank you to the Chair and members of the Committee for hearing my testimony. 

Jay Archer

Landscape Ecologist, Designer, President

Green Jay Landscaping

914-560-6570

Cover photo: M. KENNEDY/VISIT PHILADELPHIA™