The process of getting native plants in a traffic roundabout – Part I

By Chan Mahanta

  • Member, Wild Ones – St. Louis Chapter
  • Resident of the Old Jamestown area of North St. Louis County of which the roundabout project is a part
  • Member of the St. Louis County Transportation Commission
  • Past president of Old Jamestown Association
Overhead view of native plants in traffic roundabout

Traffic roundabout with native plants, August 2017
Photo by Chan’s drone

Native Plants in the Old Halls Ferry Road and Vaile Traffic Roundabout, North St. Louis County

In 2014, I was appointed to the St. Louis County Transportation Commission to represent our ward of North St. Louis County. During the vetting process, someone forwarded to the County authorities a blog post called NoCo Gardens about our Tall Grass Prairie and Native Plants garden/environment. [Editor’s note: That blog post no longer exists.] Thus during the interview, the native plants subject came up.

I expressed the desire to the Director of Transportation to see if I may be able to interest them in taking up native plants in their highway landscaping projects. I was told that the department did attempt to take that up for landscaping vacant lots created by demolition of derelict structure in certain neighborhoods. But the effort ran into opposition from neighbors for reasons such as: Looked scraggly and unkempt, grew too big, and became a security threat, etc.

Native plants in a traffic circle

Native plants in traffic circle, April 2016
Photo by Chan’s drone

I tried to explain that plant selection is critical, and that it does take native plants a few years to take hold and look pretty. But it was not exactly the proper forum to discuss the subject in detail. The Director of Transportation however was gracious enough to let me know that the Old Halls Ferry Rd/Vaile Traffic Circle in our neighborhood was getting ready for construction and requested the Chief Design Engineer to take up the issue of the possibility of incorporating native plants in its landscaping with me.

Shortly after I was confirmed to the Commission, in my first meeting, the Engineer gave me a copy of the landscaping plan for the project.

I am an architect by profession and have worked with landscape architects and in small, uncomplicated projects, prepared my own landscaping plans and specifications. So, having reviewed the Transportation Department prepared landscape plan, I made some recommendations to replace their standard planting.

The Engineer replied that their in-house landscape design staff did not have the expertise to specify native plants. So I developed a detailed sketch and planting specs. and e-mailed it to them. They appreciated my assistance.

Some time after that, I got word that the project had already been bid, and the contract had been awarded and making changes at that time would have incurred cost escalation, which they could not entertain. That was a disappointment, but knowing about budget limitations on public projects, I did not press the matter any more.

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “The process of getting native plants in a traffic roundabout – Part I

  1. Thanks for the detailed report, Chan. Cool use of a drone!

    I have a few questions:
    Is there detailed notice of the subject of native plantings when meetings are called?
    How many constituents are interested and understand native plants in the public meetings you attend?
    Are the public works departments notified about the plantings requiring less maintenance?

    When the neighborhood in Kirkwood known as Sommet at Old Big Bend was being planned, the builders were set and approved to use traditional pipe and drain for the storm water management. Then someone educated them about rain gardens and they went back to the the planning department meetings and worked out the plans to switch to an alternative system of rain gardens and flow systems. The results are quite beautiful, and now rain gardens are appearing all over Kirkwood and the surrounding area.

    Let us know if we can help.

    • Hi Kathy:
      I used Asclepias tuberosa,Rudbeckia fulgida/umbrosa (orange coneflower), Sporobolus heteropsis (prairie dropseed), Rudbeckia subtomentosa and Baptisia australis. The band of green adjacent to the circular sidewalk was planted with the Highway Dept’s standard Liriopes. I did not change that in order to avoid having to deal with anyone complaining about plants hanging over the pavement.

  2. I am very familiar with the Kirkwood Sommet project Ana. I used to live in the Barrett Brae subdivision across the highway to the west. Anyway, to answer your questions, no, none and no :-). I just happened to run into the project as a newly appointed member of the St. Louis County Transportation Commission and because of my association with native plants in landscaping, which the director knew about, I got the opportunity to suggest the use of native plants in the landscaping of the roundabout. There was no public input about it that I know of. Our then Councilman liked the idea and pushed it through after the idea got shelved the first round. The folks at the County Transportation department were aware of the benefits of native plants in landscaping. But they had little experience with them and after their initial difficulties with such landscaping at sites of demolished derelict homes, had not pursued the idea any farther. I am hoping the Halls Ferry at Vaile Circle project will be a good example for them to build on in the future.

  3. A few other Wild Ones and I helped Scott Woodbury and County employees seed some of the vacant properties created by home demolitions. It is sad to learn the effort was not successful.

    • Hi Ed,
      I don’t know that they were not successful. I was told that there were complaints from neighbors on account of their scraggly and unkempt looks and heights, generating security concerns. If these were
      the complaints, I am sure these could have been addressed in subsequent efforts, using low rise plants and the all too familiar complaints about unkempt looks can easily be addressed using a band of grass, or liriope or mulched/graveled areas surrounding the native plants patches. Anyway, those were cited as reasons for the County’s dropping the effort. I took that into account in preparing the planting layout for the Roundabout and used potted plants for quick establishment. But still there were complaints of them not looking pretty enough. That is a result of people being unfamiliar with the traits of native plants requiring time to get established and look fuller and showier early on.

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