Your Pesticide-Free Roger Williams Park

Providence’s Parks Invite Neighbors to Join in Going Pesticide-Free

by Kristen Curry

We all enjoy the beauty that surrounds us when we visit Roger Williams Park, but have you thought about what’s under you as you run, walk, play frisbee, or picnic?

Several in the city have and a few years ago, the Providence Parks Department led the way in making Providence’s parks pesticide-free. This quiet benefit is something that all of us have enjoyed in recent years.

This spring, the City publicized efforts to ‘green’ Providence and invited neighbors to join in. During Earth Week in April, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza announced Pesticide Free PVD, encouraging city residents, property owners, and businesses to eliminate the use of harmful chemicals in lawns and gardens, as well as other home toxins.

Pesticides have links to neurotoxicity, birth defects, cancer, and more, says Leah Bamberger, Director of the Office of Sustainability. She hopes the campaign will raise awareness of the health and ecological implications of these products and encourage residents and property managers to switch to alternatives.

Providence has long implemented such best practices in its parks; the city’s Parks Department does not use pesticides as regular treatment in any city parks or playgrounds. The Roger Williams Botanical Center employs Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques and beneficial insects instead and has been ‘chemical-free’ for five years now. Though the Botanical Center is pesticide-free, they do use chemicals when necessary, opting for USDA-certified organic chemicals (neem oil) or toxic-free chemicals (soap sprays) that are part of the Center’s IPM plan. It’s important to remember that any chemical, organic or plant-based, can be harmful, depending on use.

Oh, and there’s the goats! The Botanical Center is also home to Jean, Salvatore and Vincent Van Goat who happily, and holistically, munch their way through invasive plants throughout the Park.

The idea to go pesticide-free started in the Providence Parks department about five years ago, as an industry best practice and way to make parks safer for visitors and users. Pesticide-free measures bring biodiversity to the landscape, making for better long-term park health. “It was a shift,” says Wendy Nilsson, Superintendent of Providence Parks, “but we were committed to it. We have a really dedicated staff at Roger Williams Park who care for the Park deeply. We’re obligated here to do the best we possibly can with the Park we care for.”

As you drive or walk through the Park, look for evidence of this healthy, biodiverse approach, from “leaving the leaves” to letting grass grow longer for biodiversity and plant health. Not only is Roger Williams Park the People’s Park, it’s a teaching park as well.

And it’s a well-used park, too. In the past year, Park use has been more important than ever, with a 300% jump in usage. “The Park was really a lifeline for so many to maintain some normalcy and a sense of community during pandemic and quarantine, even as we were all being told to avoid other people,” Wendy comments.

The Pesticide Free PVD campaign was also supported by a partnership with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, part of HBBF’s Bright Cities program to protect human health, pollinators, waterways, and a healthy ecosystem. Providence is a one of a small number of cities nationwide launching initiatives of this kind. Other organizations have joined with Pesticide Free PVD, sharing their commitment to eliminate chemicals, including Providence College, West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, the Blackstone Parks Conservancy, and Southside Community Land Trust.

The city also partnered with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island in efforts to limit chemical exposure, focusing on stormwater with training around green infrastructure for the park’s new innovative stormwater mitigation systems. Known for its beautiful properties across the state, Audubon avoids pesticides in its wildlife refuges and has also had a long presence in the capital city, with a partnership with Providence After School Alliance, providing after-school programming, and with the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership for summer camps for kids in Providence and free monthly bird walks through the Urban Bird Treaty Program, including one at Roger Williams Park. (The Urban Partnership is a partnership with the Parks Department, Partnership for Providence Parks and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.)

As Providence parks are pesticide-free, now they are challenging their neighbors to join them and perhaps even create their own garden pest plan.

It’s a big goal but Providence’s small size makes it do-able. “I think we’re pretty progressive and innovative here in Providence,” Wendy Nilsson says. “In Providence, we can do things. It’s one of the advantages of being in a small, well-connected city; our work is scalable.”

Join the Park in supporting the health of children, neighbors, pets, as well as the pollinators, birds and our broader ecosystem. To learn more or take the pledge to go pesticide-free, see sustainpvd.com/pesticidefree (and get a free yard sign!). #PesticideFreePVD

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