More than a few folks over the years have assumed that I am an expert as it pertains to sustainability in the landscape and lawn service industry.

I confess I am not. Even after I wrote a lengthy treatise on the subject on behalf of the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) about eight years ago, and bravely (too bravely, I now realize) presented on the subject at several major industry conferences.

Not that I feel like a fraud in accepting those assignments; I don’t. I’m profoundly interested in the topic and have studied and written about it for the past three decades. As each year passes, I’m more convinced that as our industry evolves and grows in size and knowledge, the public will come to appreciate what we landscape and lawn service pros do as a vital component in the environmental glue that binds our civil society together. And that’s the point most of us are missing when we tout the sustainable benefits of our industry — their undeniable but often overlooked value to our civil society.

I’ve come to understand this after many long walks around my small Ohio town. A series of mini aha moments have convinced me that I’ve been looking at the trees while ignoring the greater forest of sustainability (please overlook the cliché).

How could I have missed appreciating the handiwork of our industry — our green neighborhoods that we too often take for granted? The nicely maintained lawns? The tree-shaded sidewalks and streets? My neighbors’ flower and vegetable gardens. My community’s playgrounds and freshly mown baseball and soccer fields.

I’m not alone in focusing too narrowly on sustainability. Many smart people (smarter than me) in our industry make the same mistake. They focus on the most visible but largely fixable components of sustainability — chemicals, water use, greenhouse gas emissions — without appreciating our industry’s greater impact in making our communities nicer places to live.

In that regard, I favor the broader definition of sustainability based on the three equally weighted pillars of social, economic and environmental sustainability.

I am not as fond of: “Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I do not know how to adapt it to our industry.

ron hall sustainabililty

But, back to the parts of sustainability that most of us debate — our use of chemicals, such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, on urban landscapes; the use of potable water to maintain the turfgrass, trees and other ornamentals; and the emissions created by the gasoline and diesel-burning equipment we use to maintain properties. These are legitimate concerns, and issues that we must address. But, focusing too narrowly and responding piecemeal to each of these issues when they arise misses the bigger story about sustainability we should be stressing with the public. We’ll eventually fix the chemical, water and emissions problems.

We’re continuing to develop and use our products and equipment in ways that improve our urban environments without harmful effects. As for water use, if you’re not familiar with the newest water-conserving irrigation technologies and concepts, such as xeriscaping and biofilia, you will be soon.

Read more: Xeriscaping Without Borders

All of this points to our ever-growing role in enhancing the environmental benefits in our urban landscapes as well as restoring habitats damaged by industry or commerce back to their natural states. (If not us, who?)

Finally, and returning to the main point of this piece: You only need to see news accounts of the turmoil and the conditions (dust, dirt, destruction, conflict) that people in other parts of the world must endure to fully appreciate the importance of what we do in greening our neighborhoods. Have these images given you pause to consider what our neighborhoods would look like without lawns, shade trees, flowers, grassy parks and playgrounds? How different might our society be?

Social sustainability, even beyond the community service projects we provide, is something we fail to truly address in describing the value of our efforts to not only our clients, but our communities. Don’t get bogged down in conversations about chemical products, water use and emissions and fail to talk about our bigger role in the sustainability movement as neighborhood and community builders.