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Bees, trees, and fields of green: How City Light practices environmental stewardship in landscaping

Garden of small yellow and blue flowers with a sign that reads "Pollinator Work Zone"
Pollinator garden at Seattle City Light’s Magnolia Substation (photo credit: Christina Orrino)

Seattle City Light’s Landscapes Team, part of the Vegetation Management group, is responsible for maintaining the landscaping on more than 55 City Light properties. This small-but-mighty team of six puts City Light’s value of Environmental Stewardship into practice every day as they work to make City Light spaces not only beautiful, but beneficial to the natural environment.

Since 2018, the Landscapes Team has transformed the grounds of three utility-owned spaces to foster sustainable pollinator habitats. Typical landscaping practices can require large inputs of water and the use of chemicals to achieve urban aesthetics that the public has grown accustomed to seeing. Many of these chemicals are harmful to organisms and our waterways, and the resulting solid grass lawns add little to biodiversity.

Instead, City Light’s Landscapes Team has implemented examples of eco-turf across a few of the utility’s substation properties, and are actively working to educate the public about how conventional landscaping can be detrimental to the environment. “City Light’s Landscapes Team is a small group of environmentally conscientious professionals who are working to shift the paradigm of conventional landscaping culture in their daily work practices,” explains Landscapes Supervisor Christina Orrino. “We incorporate best management practices, habitat conservation, and sustainability for the benefit of the community and the environment.”

Here are some examples of how City Light’s Landscapes and South Right of Way teams are fostering environmental health at our properties:

Conservation Mowing on the Chief Sealth Trail

Close-up of a Savannah Sparrow on a branch
Savannah Sparrow at the Chief Sealth trail (photo credit: Ed Newbold)

The South Right of Way Team is responsible for maintaining the land that runs below our transmission lines. In 2018, the team decided to reduce mowing along the popular, 4.5-mile Chief Sealth trail to preserve important features of the natural habitat for animals that live there. As an area designated for the Conservation Mowing Pilot Program, this meant that certain areas would not be mowed during primary bird nesting season, mid-April to the end of July. This method has proven to be effective for bird and pollinator habitats. In fact, in 2020, a local resident reported seeing migratory Savannah Sparrows for the first time along the trail. Their presence is believed to be due to the mowing change, overall enhancing a better habitat for the species. The Right of Way Team plans to continue the practice of conservation mowing in this area.

Breathing New Life into the Creston-Nelson Substation Site

Creston-Nelson Substation's previous yard with dead yellow plants and a bare lawn
Creston-Nelson Substation before (photo credit: Christina Orrino)
Current Creston-Nelson Substation grounds with bright shrubs and flowers
Creston-Nelson Substation after (photo credit: Christina Orrino)

A ground mat replacement, which occurred on the south side exterior of the Creston-Nelson Substation, meant that the landscape suffered some damage. Wire mesh ground mats extend outside the substation walls and deep below the landscape for grounding purposes of the station. Several trees and perennials were impacted in this process. The City Light team came to the rescue to work on the restoration of the land. Our gardeners amended soil with compost and put a pollinator-specific plant palette into place to accommodate for all seasons.

Across the street from the substation lies nonprofit Common Acre, where City Light Arboriculturist Heidi Asplund has been providing ongoing support with The Green Line, a community stewardship project taking place in City Light’s transmission corridor in upper Rainier Beach. Previously primarily occupied by invasive weeds, the Green Line has been reimagined as a community-centered space, that the public can safely use and enjoy. Local community groups, like Duwamish Alive!, have held events over the years to get resident volunteers involved. At the Community Tree Planting in fall 2019, volunteers planted 20 pollinator-attracting Cascara trees.

Duwamish Substation Gets a Facelift

Torn up yard with cut down trees at the Duwamish Substation
Duwamish Substation before (photo credit: Christina Orrino)
Duwamish Substation grounds planted with green, yellow and purple plants and shrubs
Duwamish Substation after (photo credit: Christina Orrino)

The Duwamish Substation landscape was originally overrun with ivy and blackberry bushes. While contractors were prepping to install a new security fence, they mistakenly removed several healthy trees. The Landscapes team came in and installed a new irrigation system for the site. They also planted larger trees to replace the ones that were removed, along with perennials and other pollinator-friendly plants. Although in an industrial area, this location receives a lot of foot traffic: general pedestrians, dog walkers, and bird watchers. A co-benefit to the implementation of eco-turf at the site is that these residents now have a beautified landscape to admire. Crew members who work at this substation continually compliment the bright colors and environmental improvement. Community members, too, are delighted with the space. One expressed that they “have made a point of driving this way now just to look at the flowers.”

Transformation at the Magnolia Substation Site

Magnolia Substation undergoing exterior restorations
Magnolia Substation during renovation (photo credit: Christina Orrino)
The completed pollinator garden at Magnolia Substation, including tall grass and flowering shrubs
Magnolia Substation after (photo credit: Christina Orrino)

Decommissioned in the early 2000s, the Magnolia Substation was overdue for some enhancements. City Light’s Environmental group remediated the site to remove soil contaminants. The Landscapes group followed with the restoration, which included a new irrigation system, eco-turf seeding, and garden beds. Seasonal wildflowers, shrubs, and perennials can all now be seen at this location. The team also planted various trees to enhance this site, including three “Eddie’s White Wonder” species to replace the original crabapple trees that were removed. They planted 11 “Dawn Redwoods” alongside the street, which was an exciting addition, as this species is not often seen throughout the city. Although the two planted cherry trees did not survive, they are still being used as habitat trees for the local creatures and to honor the landscape.

The work on this location took place from early 2020 to June 2021. With a holding pattern due to the pandemic, the surrounding community was eagerly looking forward to the removal of the fence and can now enjoy the completion of this project.

The Work Ahead

City Light’s Landscapes team has the special ability to heal spaces that have suffered natural or human-made devastation. Key benefits to restoring these sites after environmental disturbances include a more beneficial habitat for diverse species, increased water conservation, lower gas emissions from excessive maintenance, increased benefit to the surrounding community, and steps towards overall reduction of the utility’s carbon footprint. Feedback from both internal customers and community residents on these projects has been extremely positive, and the projects allowed for ample opportunities to educate and engage residents during the process.

The Landscapes team will continue to monitor the vegetation of these locations and looks forward to implementing sustainable eco-turf practices at additional City Light properties in the future. Stop by and enjoy the flowers if you’re in the neighborhood!