Infrastructure on the Horizon
The U.S. Congress passed a massive infrastructure spending bill in 2021, calling it “a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness.” The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a bipartisan deal that is designed to rebuild America’s transportation, energy, information, water and wastewater systems, and much more.
Infrastructure projects are expected to begin in the next year, and they include rebuilding roads, bridges and railways; improving ports, airports and roads; expanding access to clean water and high-speed internet access; and fire prevention. These projects are predicted to add 1.5 million jobs per year to the economy.
So, what’s in it for landscapers?
While the precise details of infrastructure spending will be worked out over the next few years, the legislative priorities indicate which sectors of the economy will see a boost. Landscapers and equipment dealers have many reasons to be optimistic. Several elements of infrastructure spending have the potential to boost the landscaping industry.
The planning of new infrastructure projects will begin with designs from landscape architects. Modern design dictates the use of more green spaces, grass, trees, green canopies, as well as sensitivity to native ecosystems. It will be up to the landscaping industry to help build these spaces and keep them maintained.
Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said in a statement that the infrastructure spending package includes critical victories for the landscape architecture profession and the communities it serves.
“The bill creates new programs that will allow landscape architects to lead projects nationwide, including the Healthy Streets initiative, and programs to eliminate invasive plants, create habitat for pollinators on highway rights-of-way, plan and design wildlife crossings and more.”
All of this could be good news for landscapers, arborists and equipment companies as communities create and maintain more green spaces. An article published in Landscape Architecture reported that infrastructure spending includes provisions for invasive plant elimination, with $250 million over five years set aside to eliminate or control existing invasive plants along transportation corridors, create habitat for pollinators near highways and design new wildlife crossings.
“Investments at the federal level providing funding for increased nature-based green infrastructure, tree plantings, and pollinator support are beneficial for those in the landscape and tree care business,” said Kris Kiser, president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) and TurfMutt Foundation. “These contractors are creating and maintaining those living landscapes in cities across the country.”
It’s estimated that $500 billion has been earmarked for road and bridge programs. It’s currently impossible to predict exactly how, and where, much of this federal funding will go because states still need to apply for grants for specific projects. Still, it’s a good bet that road and bridge projects will have a positive impact for landscaping companies and equipment manufacturers.
The projects will undoubtedly create opportunities for landscaping activities. Modern roads and bridges are designed with more attention to cityscaping and green elements. Not only does this help cities foster attractive features that add to their livability for business and residents, it’s also more ecofriendly, as it reduces the amount of heat being generated and reflected into the atmosphere.
Green spaces related to roads and bridges could include new or improved road verges, grass on the side of overpasses and over culverts, wildlife crossings, cityscaped trees and ponds, beautification projects and more. In essence, after the concrete for these projects is laid, it will be lined with grass, trees, flowers and waterworks — all of which will be created and maintained by landscapers.
The Healthy Streets program aims to boost urban canopies, reduce urban heat islands and mitigate flooding. According to an article published by Bloomberg, the infrastructure bill expands federal support for Healthy Streets programs to the tune of $100 million a year for five years. This would put money into expanding the tree cover for the poorest neighborhoods, where sidewalks are more rarely shaded from trees and other vegetation. Healthy Streets funding could cover the purchasing and planting of trees and development of tree canopy expansion plans.
Joseph Fearn, landscape manager at the University of Kansas, contends that the definition of infrastructure should include the landscaping industry. With transportation infrastructure (roads, rails, runways, etc.), benefits are achieved that go beyond transporting people or things from one place to another, including development, economic growth and livability.
“Enhancing or expanding green space can help provide many benefits,” Fearn explained to TurfNet. “Plants provide multiple environmental advantages, such as helping mitigate pollution, decrease stormwater runoff, provide cooling in cities, and sequester carbon. Plants and landscaping also improve the livability of an area through aesthetics, providing opportunities for recreation, supporting healthy living and creating a sense of wellbeing.”
WILDFIRE PROTECTION AND RESTORATION
A fact sheet produced by the White House in November states that the infrastructure act is the largest investment in the resilience of physical and natural systems in American history. More than $50 billion is dedicated to protecting against droughts, heat, floods and wildfires. Further investments are also set aside for weatherization.
This spending includes $3.3 billion for wildfire management. In addition to improving incentives for wildland firefighters, the legislation will provide funding to make forests more resilient to fire. This includes $500 million for each of these initiatives: thinning projects; planning and conducting prescribed fires; developing and improving fuel breaks where fires can be stopped or lulled; and mapping and defending at-risk communities.
Wildfire Today breaks down the $3.3 billion further, including those that could have an impact on landscapers:
$100 million for planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
$500 million for mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
$200 million for post-fire restoration
According to Dayle Wallien, conservation partnerships director at the National Forest Foundation, wildfire restoration may include seeding with native grasses. This is not only to control erosion, but also to keep invasive weeds from taking over and impacting habitats. Planting shrubs and trees may be necessary when natural regeneration could take decades or more.
“Controlling erosion and stabilizing soils, especially on slopes, is a critical first step on landscapes where fire has burned intensely,” Wallien explained. “Post-fire restoration may also mean infrastructure repairs for years to come.”
Invasive vegetation can be the first plants to recolonize after a fire. They can displace native plants and decrease biological diversity, impair wildlife habitat and decrease plant productivity. Once established, they can spread downstream into other areas.
“Planting native species before non-native species are established is one method of control,” Wallien said. “Other controls that might be required if weeds establish before native plants include chemical, biological, hand or mechanical treatments (pulling or cutting).”
MORE EQUIPMENT, MORE SALES
It’s likely that funds will be directed towards municipal and federal infrastructure projects over the next several years, generating an increased demand for landscaping equipment. This bodes well for equipment dealers, especially those that offer electric and low-emissions equipment.
As examined in the previous edition of Out Working, sustainability boards are popping up all over the U.S., and they are directing municipalities to prioritize purchasing electric equipment or granting contracts to landscapers that use electric.
When asked about the transition to electric, Missy Stults, the sustainability and innovations manager for Ann Arbor, Michigan, said, “We have a goal of electrifying 90% of our fleet by 2025 to the fullest extent possible, and our equipment has to be available to support that transition.”
And finally, it’s worth noting that landscaping companies and equipment dealers will also benefit from the improved infrastructure in running their day-to-day business operations.
“Investments like these in traditional infrastructure will be beneficial for all contractors, dealers and outdoor power equipment manufacturers that rely on timely shipments of materials and products to keep their businesses running,” OEPI president Kris Kiser said.