Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen - apart from being great travel destinations, what do these famous cities have in common? They’re just three of the cities adopting pesticide-free zones to protect human health and threatened species of wildlife.
It’s a movement that’s increasing in popularity across Europe, with smaller places like Ghent in Belgium, Lyon in Germany, and Brighton in the UK all adopting legislation that bans the use of pesticides in some or all urban areas. At the forefront of the Pesticide-Free Towns initiative is the Pesticide Action Network (PAN): a community of over 600 participating non-governmental organizations, institutions and individuals in over 90 countries ‘working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives’.
PAN UK policy officer Nick Mole explains, “Agriculture is the biggest user of pesticides, but they’re used elsewhere in our towns and cities. They use them on the streets, playgrounds, park, schools, hospitals - all the places where we live, work and play. We are exposed daily to pesticides just from going about our business.
“There’s absolutely no reason to use pesticides in our towns; we’re not growing crops so there’s not the excuse that we have to feed the world, not the excuse that they’re some kind of financial-economic incentive, and we’re not going to be overrun by dandelions if we don’t use them.
“The only things we do grow in our cities are our children and they are the most vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. There are 41 different kinds of pesticide that are used in towns and cities, and 11 of those are either proven, possible or probable human carcinogens, so we are spraying cancer-causing chemicals needlessly around the places we and our children frequent.”
Since 2009, Ghent in Belgium has been free from pesticides, instead using innovative public space designs and self-steering bristling machines to tackle growth. Social enterprise employees also keep hard-to-reach areas clean, while civilians are responsible for keeping the footpaths in front of their houses free from weeds.
In a recent webinar, Mayor Daniel Termont said, “The results are clear to see all around the city. The streets are obviously greener as we are no longer using chemical weedkillers: poppies, buttercups and daisies are peppering the edges of our pavements. Until recently, it was very difficult for bees to survive in our city. Now, Ghent has several beekeepers, who have found the city to be a healthy environment for keeping bees.”
Benefits to human health and ecosystems are evident in other pesticide-free towns and cities too. Gardeners in Copenhagen (winner of 2014’s Green Capital award) use wood chips or gravel to keep weeds away, in combination with burning or steaming techniques, but also allow some areas to grow and diversify.
In a letter to PAN, Copenhagen’s mayor for technical and environmental affairs Morten Kabell said “Chemical weed killing is becoming redundant, due to new knowledge together with well-known alternative methods and a changed consciousness about biodiversity. [Pesticides] could, according to us, be banned completely.”
In 2015, Barcelona approved a measure to eradicate the use of toxic herbicides like glyphosate (a weed killer that contaminates water sources) in public places, while, having spent years as one of Europe’s largest pesticide users, France is also adopting greener legislation. In 2016, lawmakers banned the use of pesticides in all public forests, parks and gardens. The law also prevented non-professional gardeners from buying the substances over the counter, and prohibited their use in private gardens from 2019 onwards.
Similarly, Paris has had pesticide-free zones for ten years while smaller towns and cities have also taken dynamic steps towards reducing pesticide usage. France’s third largest city, Lyon, has maintained 300 pesticide-free public parks and gardens since 2008, instead using alternatives like aphid-eating ladybirds and beer traps to reduce pest growth. In doing so, it saved €30,000 from being spent on pesticides and compost transportation every year and increased green spaces by 10%.
PAN UK’s Nick Mole is keen to get more local people involved in pesticide-free campaigns and the setting up of pesticide-free zones, which have sprung up in Brighton and Glastonbury. He says, “We’ve got about 35 active local campaigns running at the moment, but we’re way behind other places - they’ve got 400 pesticide-free towns and cities in France already. The French government has introduced legislation that will ban the use of all non-agricultural pesticides by 2019 because they care about the people. It’s a shame they don’t here. We really want to encourage people to start their own campaigns.
“We’ve seen time and time again that the people who are tasked with our wellbeing, our politicians and our government and our ministers are not actually going to make any change for us. So the only way to do it, is to do it ourselves.”
Join the conversation and find out how your town can become a pesticide-free zone here.