Britons Debate Merits of Weedy Sidewalks

With many city councils ditching chemical weedkillers, public response is mixed.

wildflowers on sidewalk

Peter Doerr/EyeEm/Getty Images

A recent story in Brighton, England, highlights a key issue when it comes to sustainably managing weeds in towns and cities: People have divergent opinions. Some welcome weeds as part of "rewilding"—seeing the importance of increasing biodiversity and welcoming wildlife. But for others, weeds on pavements are a dangerous tripping hazard and problematic when it comes to mobility. 

Controversy Over Weeds and Glyphosate Use

In recent years, city councils' management of weeds has become a controversial topic. Treehugger readers may well be familiar with the furor surrounding the use of glyphosate weedkillers. As for weeds themselves, opinions on this topic diverge greatly. Many farmers—and city dwellers worried about weeds—see the use of weedkillers as a necessity. But others are deeply concerned by the ecological and health-related issues surrounding such products.
Every year, a great many councils across Scotland, England, and Wales spray hundreds of liters of herbicides on weeds in public green spaces, road edges, and sidewalks, as well as on council grounds. A report last year stated that half of Scotland's 32 councils had no plans to cut back on the chemical. Edinburgh, Highland, and Falkirk councils did declare plans to cut back, and weedkillers containing glyphosate were banned in Midlothian; however, two years after Midlothian banned the controversial weedkiller, its reintroduction was allowed in "restricted spots."

Feelings on both sides of the debate are strong. Some councillors in Midlothian urged members to accept that it was not practical to introduce an overall ban at present. Others tried to have the ban lifted last year, claiming it had led to an increase in complaints from members of the public about weeds and that people had slipped and fallen on overgrown paths. Councillor Colin Cassidy, who led the call for the ban in 2019, said, "I’d like to apologize ... to the people of Midlothian and put on record for my children and my grandchildren that I tried to have this banned."

The situations in both Brighton and Midlothian show the difficulties inherent in this issue. With strong feelings on both sides, it is clear that reaching some sort of middle ground is key to finding a sustainable pathway forward. 

Reconciling Human and Environmental Needs

Environmental and social justice concerns both come into play when dealing with council-led weed management and rewilding. There is an urgent need to make our cities more wildlife-friendly and to halt biodiversity losses. It is also important to make sure our towns and cities are safe and healthy places to live. Science has yet to confirm conclusively whether or not glyphosate is a danger to human health, but while there is an element of doubt, this is surely something to consider very carefully. 

Safety, however, also involves thinking about accessibility for those with mobility issues, in wheelchairs, or in strollers. In our race to make cities and towns more eco-friendly, we should remember that these are places where people with many diverse needs have to live their lives. 

Fortunately, there are ways to reconcile these things. As many movements are showing around the world, it is possible to create human environments that are wildlife friendly, biodiverse, and sustainable. And these environments can be safe and accessible for all. 

Curbside rainwater management schemes, wildflower areas, community parks, and gardens can all play a key role in "rewilding" projects. And these projects need not affect accessibility or cause any safety concerns. 

Winning over the public to council rewilding—and to any local sustainability efforts—requires bringing everyone to the conversation. While we may not always share the same priorities or goals, listening to each other is important. 

The challenge is that weeds are not really the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is with a lack of funding for local authorities. Rejecting the use of glyphosate and other weedkillers should not mean that sidewalks become choked with weeds. The issues are muddled by a lack of funding for basic maintenance of public spaces and a staggering infrastructure gap. Council upkeep can be maintained organically, as long as the staff and funding are in place. 

When councils can maintain their towns and cities, nature and people can live in harmony and everyone wins. Sidewalks choked with weeds will win no one over. But well-maintained, green, and biodiverse public spaces may turn the tide of public opinion and help everyone work together to create the thriving, sustainable towns and cities of the future.