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We can make lawn grass greener, says plant biologist

‘There is so much awesome biodiversity work going on in the Chicago area,’ Rebecca Barak suggests
Rebecca Barak has been honored for biodiversity research by the Walder Foundation.

Perfectly manicured green lawns are common and cherished across the country, even in areas where water is scarce. But all the related maintenance of watering, mowing, fertilization and herbicides is environmentally damaging and actively contributes to climate change. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

Rebecca Barak, a plant biologist at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, is using her expertise in seed biology, restoration and biodiversity in tallgrass prairies to explore lawn alternative plantings that are both attractive and beneficial to the environment. 

Earlier this month, Barak received one of the first Biota Awards for biodiversity research from the Walder Foundation. She and four other scientists are being recognized for their research which aims to restore, protect and conserve biodiversity in the Chicago region and around the world. Each recipient institution will receive $300,000 over three years to develop and deliver solutions to biodiversity challenges.

Barak’s main collaborators are Lauren Umek from the Chicago Park District, Rebecca Tonietto from the University of Michigan-Flint and Liz Anna Kozik from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as students from Northwestern and elsewhere. The team will plant and study lawn alternative plots in public green spaces, explore options for establishing and maintaining these plantings, and share information to encourage planting lawn alternatives where appropriate. 

Northwestern Now spoke to Barak, born and raised in the Chicago area, about her research.

What challenges does the Chicago area in particular face?

People may be familiar with lawn alternatives for very dry areas, but Chicago is in this weird space. There are really dry periods and really, really wet periods. We have a lot of urban flooding. The typical turfgrass lawn is green in color, but it’s not green from an environmental perspective. These lawns require a lot of water to maintain, and, on the other hand, the roots are short and not good at absorbing water when it does rain. In our work, we are looking for plants that can survive with lower water input, but that can also absorb additional water, such as from flooding.

We are studying many different lawn alternatives — from turfgrass lookalikes to plantings that are more like a meadow — to see what might be successful. Many of the species we are testing are native plants that are short, green and grass-like but with deeper roots.

Who might benefit from your research?

Urban greenspaces can be done differently. The concept of lawn alternatives is out there, but there isn’t a lot of data to support why they can be better and what roles they fill. Our first goal is to determine what the environmental benefits to pollinators, plants, water conservation and climate change are. Then, what is the best way to establish and maintain these lawns? This will help individuals and land managers, such as the Chicago Park District, put lawn alternatives into practice quickly.

Lawns are not all bad, but we want to offer a menu of options to people interested in the environmental benefits of lawn alternatives. These types of lawns are gaining in popularity, and there are ways to start small. Communicating the options and benefits to the public is an important part of our work.

What local institutions are you working with?

We are working with the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Both are really interested in lawn alternatives and testing and sharing ideas. The park district manages more than 8,000 acres in the city of Chicago, and it is equipped to put the ideas into action quickly and at a larger scale. We already are studying plantings in experimental plots located in Marquette Park and Marian R. Byrnes Park. Plots at the Chicago Botanic Garden will be established this summer. There is so much awesome biodiversity work going on in the Chicago area, and we’re thrilled to be part of this work, rethinking lawns.

Barak is an adjunct assistant professor in the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and an assistant conservation scientist and seed bank curator at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She as well as two of her project collaborators are alumnae of the program.