Written by Alanna Wittet, GSI Partners Program Associate
For Lisa McDonald Hanes and Julie Snell of TEND landscape, “designing with maintenance in mind” serves as a central mantra to their work. Consistent and site-specific maintenance by a knowledgeable crew ensures a system’s functionality and performance, ecologically and aesthetically. This is especially true for green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) practices that serve to not only sustainably manage stormwater, but also to deliver additional environmental, social, and economic benefits over time.
Unfortunately for a lot of GSI projects, there is a disassociation between its concept, the design and what is required to maintain its high performance. TEND landscape is well aware of this issue and believes greater attention needs to be focused around educating and planning for the full lifecycle of a GSI project, understanding upfront the full investment necessary for maintenance.
“Think of all the work that leads up to construction,” says Snell. “So much planning and so many resources have already gone into the process and project before the shovel goes into the ground or a tree is taken off the truck. Already, there has been a great investment in that tree and most people don’t think about that.”
Every step of the process has an impact on the investment’s immediate and long-term functionality and therefore its success as a GSI practice.
Creating an understanding of this leads back to maintenance and the need to bring it to the forefront in planning with an elevated value.
“There is a triple bottom line value in every tree, shrub, or perennial planted on a GSI site,” states Snell. “Failing to take care of it during its first year and not formally planning to take care of it throughout its full lifecycle is putting your investment at risk, rather than taking measures to ensure it has the opportunity to continuously perform well.”
To change perception and value norms within the industry and the public requires alternate structuring of contracts and funding. “You need flexibility both in capital and maintenance contracts and in the funding to create room to adapt when working with living systems,” says McDonald Hanes. “Adaptive management, being able to respond to lack of growth or unforeseen issues, needs to be factored into the contracting process to protect your GSI investment over time.” She suggests that new models for contracting can help to optimize the way contracts are developed and managed, allowing for a greater response to conditions and the ability to delegate to those with appropriate skills to fulfill contract specifications.
Sufficient and thorough budgeting is necessary to consistently and effectively implement maintenance contracts. Thinking about maintenance needs upfront during the contract development process can allow public officials (or private developers) to budget and contract for all components of the project so it is a full package. According to Jimmy Kreider of LandStudies, Inc., “Public bid project maintenance is typically wrapped up into the requirements of the job, but not explicitly referenced as a line item,” which takes away from its value and how it is perceived within the contract.
LandStudies asserts this is where education is of the utmost importance. “All maintenance requirements must be spelled out specifically and then enforced.” While it is hard to predict how much the overall maintenance costs will be, making them separate line items will at least work to delineate their importance within the contract and as a result, reserve funding specifically for its execution.
Changing the way financing and budgeting plays into GSI projects may also be in order to bring maintenance to the forefront.
“We may have to push back in the way we are looking at funding [GSI]. Typically there are capital funding dollars and then additional funding needs to be obtained to cover maintenance,” says Snell. “One idea is to dedicate a percentage of your capital dollars for the project towards the vegetative system’s establishment so you are able to respond to anything that might come up in the first year. Flexible funding allows you to respond to things that you are seeing on the ground.”
Restructuring or eliminating plant guarantees from contracts, and adding in dedicated maintenance could additionally help elevate the value of plant care. Snell notes, “The idea of a plant guarantee is for the contractor to supply quality plants upfront, plant them properly, and take care of the plants through the first year after installation. After that year of establishment, if plants have not thrived or have died, the contractor replaces those plants. But this approach does not necessarily provide an incentive for high-quality care, as the contractor has included a premium plant bid cost and can just take his or her chances, providing little or no maintenance and replacing any plants that aren’t thriving at the end of the contract. If this happens, the owner is left with brand new plants that have not had the benefit of a year’s care to root in and establish. The landscape is then back to square one without a plan for establishment.
A better way would be to forego the standard plant guarantee, allowing more dollars to go toward maintenance, so plant establishment is valued and supported from day one. To support this, the skill level and capacity of contractors is of huge importance, which speaks to the need and opportunity to elevate the value of the workforce by building skills.
With this, there also needs to be a change in the way maintenance work is perceived. TEND believes that maintenance is largely undervalued and often perceived as work that anyone can do; that is not the case. “Care for living systems takes knowledge and skill; an average laborer may not know how to properly take care of landscapes,” says McDonald Hanes. “Especially in the urban built environment, you can’t assume nature will take its course or that just anyone knows how to address the specific stresses that a landscape will encounter.” Snell adds, “Caring for landscape is a high skill job. We should hold that up by requiring special training and set qualifications for taking care of these high-performance systems.”
Creating a shift in thinking and practice is a challenge for any industry, but especially in one that has traditionally been perceived as having a low barrier to entry. TEND feels, “Gardeners are stewards of the environment. Landscape contractors are gardeners on a larger scale and should be trained and regarded as such.”
How do you set high standards to elevate value without alienating the job pool?
Shifting attitudes of necessary skill and procurement can help drive change. TEND sees great opportunity for public entities to take the lead on this by setting rigorous standards for maintenance. Rebuild Philadelphia, for example, could take the lead, by setting robust project specifications that include maintenance procedures and staff qualifications, only contracting with or providing priority to contractors that meet certain standards. Additionally, TEND believes there are opportunities for labor unions to take the lead on setting training standards and qualifications, similar to those offered by some union journeyman or apprentice programs, which would build value within the trade.
Currently, landscape specific training is not required for union laborers assigned to the landscape labor category. Some staff members are trained in-house or on the job by their employers, but an industry standard does not exist. Getting back to how qualified labor is valued, the base rate for union landscape laborers is set at a lower rate than the rate of a general laborer. With the training requirements established, this could change.
Taking steps to build value within current practices and in setting standards to shift perceptions not only works to optimize the success of GSI as working systems, but also the reach of their impact beyond the physical sites themselves. In valuing maintenance, you are valuing all the work and individuals behind the project’s actualization, and as a result, allowing the project to deliver additional social, environmental, and economic benefits. Advancing the industry and success of GSI requires innovative thinking and practices that challenge industry norms and create alternatives that strengthen and support its implementation, therefore maximizing its triple bottom line benefits.