Pesticide-free towns and cities - citizen power in action

Herbicide being sprayed to keep a footpath in a residential area free of weeds. Photo: Nick Mole / PAN-UK.
Herbicide being sprayed to keep a footpath in a residential area free of weeds. Photo: Nick Mole / PAN-UK.
Local authorities around the world are going pesticide-free following an initiative by a small town in Canada 25 years ago, writes Keith Tyrell. Now the movement is coming to the UK, with campaign groups setting up in towns, cities and rural communities to keep pesticides out of our streets, parks, playgrounds and allotments.
All of the pesticide-free towns and villages that exist today are the result of community action. Each local authority has only taken the step in response to pressure from its citizens.

Nearly 25 years ago, the small town of Hudson in Quebec, Canada (Pop 5,135) became a world leader when it introduced a by-law banning the use of chemical pesticides within the town limits.

This radical step was the result of a grassroots campaign led by local doctor June Irwin.

In the 1980s, Dr Irwin linked health problems she was seeing in her patients with heavy pesticide use on lawns and gardens. She attended every single town council meeting for six years until the by-law was passed.

Fast forward to today, and over 170 towns in Canada - including big cities like Vancouver - have similar by-laws and eight of the ten provinces in Canada have introduced legislation banning the cosmetic use of pesticides.

Some 80% of Canadians - around 30 million people - now live in places which restrict pesticide use. And the reductions in pesticide use have been massive: In the first year after Toronto's ban, for example, use dropped by a staggering 88%.

The pesticide-free movement is not restricted to Canada. Thousands of other towns across the world from Belgium to Japan to the USA have either already stopped pesticide use in public areas, or have set targets to do so.

In France alone, there are over 900 villes sans pesticides. In fact, France has gone one step further and introduced national legislation that will ban the use of all non-agricultural pesticides by 2020.

The approach to going pesticide-free varies from country to country and from community to community. Some towns have introduced sweeping by-laws that ban all pesticide use with their areas - including on private land.

The rural Italian community of Mals, for example, earlier this year banned all pesticide use - even by farmers on agricultural land within the council's area. While others have chosen to restrict pesticide use in public spaces and schools.

Why go pesticide-free?

The movement is largely driven by concerns over the risks that pesticide use poses to human health and the environment. In Canada for example, the Canadian Cancer Society has been a vocal supporter of the campaigns. And with good reason: pesticides have been designed to do one thing - kill living organisms.

The problem is that they do not only affect the pests or weeds they are targeted at. They can also harm other organisms that come into contact with them - a wild pollinator, pet dog, human being.

In fact, 13 out of the 15 most widely used pesticides in UK towns and cities have been linked with cancer. Many have also been shown to cause a range of other illnesses from neurological diseases like Parkinson's, to birth defects and behavioural problems like ADHD and autism.

Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides. Physiologically they are less well equipped than adults to withstand pesticide exposure. Their skin is more permeable so the chemicals pass through more easily; they take in more air, water and food relative to their body weight; and their systems for dealing with toxins are less well developed and so less able to prevent damage.

All of the pesticide-free towns and villages that exist today are the result of community action. Each local authority has only taken the step in response to pressure from its citizens.

On top of this, their behaviour also puts them at greater risk. Crawling or playing in areas treated with pesticides, or putting contaminated objects in their mouths makes them more prone to exposure.

In spite of these well-known risks, pesticides are used in areas where children spend a lot of their time like parks, playgrounds and even schools.

And why are they so widely used? The answer is: mostly for cosmetic purposes. The vast majority of pesticide use in urban areas is to control weeds. Yes, we would rather expose ourselves, and our children, to cancer-causing chemicals, than see a dandelion in the wrong place!

But it need not be a choice between weeds and health. A whole raft of effective non-chemical alternatives exist. From manual and flame weeding to more modern techniques like hot-foams. And it does not need to cost more. Simply more thoughtful planting of pest resistant varieties, or plants that suppress weed growth, or even introducing wildflower meadows, can all cut pesticide use at minimal cost.

Many pesticide-free towns have enlisted the help of volunteers to help with weeding in local parks and found that it has created a new sense of community and revitalised these areas - as people feel a greater sense of ownership and involvement for their open spaces, they care for them and use them more.

We can do it too - with active campaigning by local communities

So can the UK go pesticide-free? Technically there is no problem. It is no more difficult to go pesticide free in London than it is in Copenhagen, but changing an ingrained reliance on chemical controls will require a combination of local pressure and political leadership.

In UK towns, the vast majority of pesticide use is by local authorities. While a by-law may be the ideal option, this can take time. A quick start would be for councils themselves to switch away from chemical pesticides when managing public spaces. This would not need a new law or regulation, just a decision by Councillors to stop using them.

Achieving this will require communities to get active. The common feature behind all of the pesticide-free towns and villages that exist today is that they are the result of community action. Each local authority has only taken the step in response to pressure from its citizens.

So if you don't want pesticides sprayed where you live, play or work, then you have to organise yourselves and launch your own local campaigns. Get together with your neighbours, ask your local schools to stop spraying and write to - or even better meet with - your local Councillor(s) or MP to get them to act.

This last point is crucial. Securing change is much easier if you have a political champion. Paris became pesticide-free more than a decade ago when its new mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, saw it as a key part of his green vision for the city. He brushed aside objections and claims that it was not be possible and drove the policy through.

If you're an allotmenteer, you may also be able to get your allotment association to declare itself pesticide-free by talking to your fellow vegetable growers and making the case at its annual general meeting. Many allotments already are pesticide-free anyway and will need little persuading. As for those that aren't, all the more reason to make them so!

It's also important to get buy in from the people who manage our public spaces. Councillors are not experts. They rely on their parks managers and highways officers to tell them what to do. We need to persuade these professionals that it is technically possible, will not mean more work, and ideally not cost any more money.

Thankfully, we have evidence from hundreds of towns around the world to answer all of these concerns.

Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) has now launched a campaign to encourage UK villages, towns and cities to go pesticide-free. Over the next few months we will be producing the materials that local people need to set up their own local campaigns and providing the evidence to persuade our local politicians and Council officers that going pesticide-free is achievable.

A handful of local campaigns already exist in Brighton, Bristol, Cornwall, London, and Newcastle, but we are hoping to see dozens more set up and we want all of them to collaborate and share their experiences.

With a groundswell of support we can end the use of pesticides in our urban areas and make them safer places to live, work and play.



Keith Tyrell is Director of Pesticide Action Network UK.


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