THUNDER BAY – Residents could have more leeway to naturalize their yards and garden on city boulevards, after city council voted to review Thunder Bay’s yard maintenance bylaws Monday.
Councillors unanimously endorsed the review following a citizen deputation from resident Kyla Moore, who presented a detailed report advocating reform of the current rules.
Her requested changes, supported by the city’s EarthCare Advisory Committee, would move away from strict requirements to maintain turf grass – but wouldn’t throw away basic aesthetic and maintenance standards, Moore assured councillors.
“It’s not just leaving your non-native turf grass to grow long – that’s kind of the opposite of what naturalization is,” she said.
Instead, she said the changes would promote biodiversity and reintroduction of native plant species, beautify neighbourhoods, sequester carbon, and decolonize city bylaws.
The current bylaw is “highly restrictive,” she argued, because it doesn’t allow naturalized lawns or alternatives to grass on boulevards – the city-owned strip of land between a person’s property line and the street.
Residents must keep grass or weeds trimmed below 20 centimetres, the bylaw dictates, or landscaped with “commonly accepted horticultural or landscape architectural elements” like trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and stonework.
Only grass is allowed on city boulevards, though that hasn’t stopped several hundred local residents from starting boulevard gardens already, Moore said.
Councillors voiced support in principle for the proposed changes, and thanked Moore for her work offering a detailed report on the issue.
Some councillors, like Mark Bentz and Albert Aiello, asked how the city would ensure boulevard gardens weren’t abandoned or neglected, though Bentz expressed support for the concept.
Cities can allow greater leeway in how yards are managed without allowing a free-for-all, Moore emphasized.
Some municipalities require residents to follow specific guidelines or register their boulevard gardens – a provision that appealed to Aiello.
Councillors Brian Hamilton and Andrew Foulds said a registration system should be simple and reduce bureaucratic burden on residents, while Hamilton suggested it could also involve notification of neighbours.
Cities including Guelph, Windsor, and Waterloo have supported yard naturalization, while others like Toronto and Kitchener allow boulevard gardens.
While non-native grass can have value, Moore said, the overreliance on it supports the “cultivation of monoculture… use of harmful chemicals, and petrochemical consumption and pollution through regular maintenance.”
A naturalized yard, on the other hand, is one that’s “been allowed to re-establish a reproducing population of native species, through a combination of natural regeneration and deliberate plantings of native species,” according to the municipality of Chatham-Kent.
The change would also dismantle colonial rules, Moore argued, saying current regulations are often arbitrary and enforce “colonial aesthetic values.”
“The City of Thunder Bay is beautifully framed by stunning natural habitat that has evolved here for thousands of years,” she stated. “Many of these natural plants have uses as foods, medicines, and other purposes for the Ojibwe peoples whose legacy is very much a part of the Great Lakes watershed.”
The city should “allow and encourage residents to bring some of this natural habitat into their own yards,” she said.
She suggested the city should invite Indigenous stewardship perspectives and knowledge systems as it reviews the bylaw.
The changes would help meet goals in the city’s Sustainability Plan, Net Zero Strategy, and Climate Adaptation Strategy, said Foulds, a member of the EarthCare committee.
“Not only are there these huge environmental benefits, but there is also a beautification and pride aspect [for neighbourhoods] that shouldn’t be underplayed,” he said.
Councillors voted unanimously to refer the proposed changes to city administration for review.