Your Village: Is the way Iowa City maintains its rights of way harming the environment?

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Prairie plantings along Mormon Trek Blvd. in Iowa City. — Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa

Why does the city mow rights of way? Wouldn’t it save money and sequester more carbon if they let the grasses grow long along roads? — Ofer, Iowa City, via Facebook

“We’re obligated by provisions of the city code to maintain clear sightlines, for reasons of traffic safety,” Iowa City Parks Superintendent Zac Hall told Little Village.

But the city’s approach to maintaining its rights of way goes beyond just cutting the grass, Hall explained.

“We’re definitely interested in finding out what we can do different,” he said.

A right of way is the area of grass bordering a public road, typically the area between the sidewalk and the street. Property owners are responsible for the upkeep of the rights of way adjacent to their property. The city is responsible for maintaining the rights of way in areas where it is the adjacent property owner, or where there are no adjacent property owners, such as center island medians. The city also maintains the rights of way along Hwy 1 and Hwy 6, as part of an agreement with the Iowa Department of Transportation.

“We are looking at areas where we can decrease our mowing frequency, or make it into a no-mow area,” Hall said. “One example is on Mormon Trek. As you head north past the university, the end-caps of those medians were designed and planted with prairie dropseed and other native vegetation.”

“But we do have to mow them throughout the season, or at least, decrease the height of that vegetation. Because people will call and complain about the height of the plantings.”

Some of the calls are about the plants possibly obscuring views of traffic, but others are aesthetic objections.

“It’s something that folks either like or hate,” Hall said. “We’ve definitely had mixed reviews.”

The city is also considering introducing different types of grass in the rights of way.

“We’ve been doing research of our own with different bluegrass varieties that are supposed to be a low-mow or a no-mow grass,” Hall explained. “We’ve planted them in a test lot, and in a few selected areas, but the research isn’t finished yet.”

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Regardless of the type of grass, how it is mowed can affect carbon sequestration.

Research conducted at Purdue University demonstrated that leaving the grass clippings in place after a mowing, instead of raking and bagging them, can increase the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil.

According to Hall, Iowa City leaves its grass clippings in place after mowing a right of way.

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