By Belinda Baxter
Growing up in an ecologically-minded family in West Auckland, Andrea was immersed in nature. Her desire to share the beauty that she knew was possible – even in the most built-up urban environments – was a motivation for becoming a landscape architect.
Her vision was to design urban spaces to be in harmony with nature. As she entered her final year of study at Auckland University, the plight of pollinators worldwide, especially the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) became a focus. She was inspired to design her senior year project to help pollinators thrive in urban environments.
That project won her the environmental award that year, high praise from her tutors and encouragement to turn her project into a reality. She went on to establish Pollinator Paths – whose mission is to support communities to create biodiverse habitats that provide nutrition, homes and pathways for our most essential of workers – our pollinating insects, reptiles, birds and bats.
Andrea says that, up until recently, nature has been largely ignored in the planning and design of our urban areas. Low maintenance, wind-pollinated (read “allergy-causing”!), fragmented plantings are the token city norm. She finds it disheartening that school kids are taken on day trips to the native forest remnants that fringe the city limits, only to quickly forget what nature looks and feels like because there are few reference points in their everyday urban landscapes.
It is Andrea’s desire to bring nature back into the city and make the “new normal” one of healthy interaction with our planet’s other inhabitants; to help heal the human/ nature disconnect that has resulted in the unhealthy planet, climate and people we have become. Andrea has a unique skill set that makes her perfect for this role. A qualified landscape architect, seasoned musician and performer, Andrea has taught drama to kids and has been part of travelling environmental shows in schools. All of which was great preparation for spreading the message and inspiring others to aid her in her work with Pollinator Paths.
Why do we need pollinators in the city anyway? Can’t we just buy food from the supermarket? Well, the food we buy from the supermarket is grown with the help of pollinators. Without pollinators there is no food. Pollinators are under enormous pressure worldwide from monoculture, pesticides and a general lack of biodiversity and habitat. With cities’ sprawling concrete and bitumen structures bisecting the country, pollinators’ movements are limited by disconnected habitats and a lack of corridors or pathways to enable access to food and allow them to do their jobs as pollinators.
Pollinator Paths organise planting events, getting communities involved in their urban parks and reserves from a pollinator’s point of view. Before it can get to that stage though, there is a lot of work to be done. The proposed pollinator paths need to be identified first (this can be done by concerned community groups), council regulations and policies need to be examined so appropriate measures can be decided upon, funding needs to be found, planting plans must be developed and plants have to be procured along with any materials needed for bug hotels (see below).
With our society’s obsession for neatness, natural habitats like leaf litter and rotting branches don’t often get the chance to decompose in gardens and provide homes for bugs. Bug hotels fill this gap using man-made objects like masonry blocks which are filled with leaves, hay and sticks. It’s a bit of a compromise – they look neat and human-afied but provide the necessary habitat for bugs and reptiles. It’s also a lot of fun for kids to construct! Left: This multi-storied bug hotel is more of a deluxe version.
Covid has made it difficult to organise events this year, so many initiatives have been shelved until things settle down, temporarily slowing things down for Pollinator Paths, although not for Andrea herself, who has recently relocated to Wellington. She has had a warm welcome there, with projects already in the pipeline!
Andrea often found projects in Auckland, such as the use of redundant berms as pollinator friendly spaces, very frustrating as plans were often thwarted by Auckland Transport and local authority rules. Wellington on the other hand encourages berm planting and even supplies native plants! Looks like the first berm planting party will be in Wellington. Sorry Auckland! Sadly, Andrea’s story highlights the arbitrary nature of some council policies and the need for rules that support the ecology of our planet ahead of any other considerations.
Andrea is also concerned that even some of our most protected significant ecological areas (known in council plans as SEAs) seem to be negotiable at times, which is disappointing when these protections cover such a small percentage of vegetation that should be protected in Aotearoa. Areas such as this should be valued, with their protection worked into the design of a proposal or development in a way that it can be fully appreciated.
She says that council policies and resource management legislation need re-examining pronto – they need to be updated to reflect the current state of the world’s ecology and today’s needs. We are losing the last of our old growth forests and valuable individual trees because developers see them as being “in the way” instead of valuing them as a very unique garden prop or feature. This is short sighted thinking at its finest, especially at this time of the Anthropocene. Longer term planning is essential, she says, as she points to the shining example of Cornwall Park’s 100 year master plan in the middle of Auckland. Long term planning allows for more of the really important stuff to be achieved as the bureaucracies are minimised so time, energy and money can go into creating landscapes that will truly benefit current and future generations.
To have someone as qualified and passionate as Andrea managing Pollinator Paths is truly a bit of luck for local councils. Her work is high quality and she is philanthropic in her approach. Recently, Pollinator Paths has become a registered charity with the help of a lawyer who was inspired to contribute by Andrea’s passionate approach. Andrea’s enthusiasm is infectious and more people are getting on board, giving their time and expertise as they can, in a heartening display of generosity which will give Andrea some much needed respite as she juggles her paid job with her philanthropic passion, and ensure the growth of Pollinator Paths.
And there is definitely room for growth. As green as we like to think we are, New Zealand has lost a lot of its biodiversity in the last century due to urban settlements and extractive pastoral farming systems. Without fully knowing what we were doing, we have simplified our habitat almost to the point of collapse. Each plant and creature are part of an interwoven web that ensures life continues. Our obsession with killing bugs, monoculture and chemical farming has upset the balance and we are following our northern hemisphere cousins who are experiencing less bug splatter on windscreens, and the accompanying decline in bird populations as a result of lack of food. Birds provide pollination, bug control and their poop is an effective natural fertilizer – one reason you will see some regenerative agriculture operations planting sunflowers, wildflower meadows and other plants not normally seen on our conventional farms. Mother Nature had a plan all along!
There seems to be a lot of insect phobia these days, which I guess is to be expected as we have disconnected from nature and so see fewer bugs on the daily. Andrea, a self-confessed bug lover, admits that even she will freeze if one runs up her arm or across her bedroom wall! Her advice though, is NOT to reach for a can of fly spray. “Sure, we don’t want them in our house. They’re not pollinating anything in there!” she laughs. Instead, grab a glass, scoop them up and deposit them outside where they can get on with their essential work of making our world a healthier happier place. We really don’t want to follow China’s lead where they require human pollination of fruit trees using paint brushes because they have killed so many of their pollinators they no longer have free workers!
If I understand anything from talking with Andrea it’s that we have to get used to a bit less neatness, re-wild our backyards, learn to love bugs and provide a variety of plants to create biodiversity, staggered flowering and subsequently more constant food sources. We also need to look to nature to see how it’s done and then get out of the way and let nature do her thing.
Andrea recently presented a TEDx talk on creating pollinator paths, which can be viewed here.
Find out more about our pollinators and how to support them on the Pollinator Paths website.