Out and About with AOLCPs

Kevin Burke Reintroduces Streetcars to Atlanta with 1,200 Acres of Organic Parks
 
BY KATHY LITCHFIELD
ATLANTA, GA. - Since Kevin Burke moved to Atlanta three years ago, he has been very busy.

Not only has he voluntarily organized two organic land care symposia attracting over 220 landscape architects, students, park personnel, and contractors, but his efforts served as the impetus for the University of Georgia to begin organic land care research on warm season grasses with funding from a private foundation.

Burke, a New Jersey native who worked on Boston's Big Dig project for 14 years, is the Senior Landscape Architect of the 20-year, $3 billion multi-modal Atlanta BeltLine Project, to reintroduce streetcar to Atlanta, along with creating 1,200 acres of new or renovated parkland.

Burke, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional who just earned his five-year acorn pin (Leominster, Mass. course '07) said that the challenge is that there is very little history of organic land care in the southeast, "so we are pretty much starting from scratch."

"When I got here, organic or sustainable land care was really focused 99.9 percent on food production," he said. He talked with the non-profit organization Georgia Organics and with initial funding, began networking and recruiting students and speakers to a two-day symposium on organic land care, as part of a community service project.

"One piece of advice that (Georgia Organics) gave me which in my naivety I ignored, was not to try and do this all by myself," he laughed. "It damn near killed me the first year and it was a miracle I pulled it off."
Eighty-two registrants embraced the OLC education in March of 2011, and on March 5, 2012, with four volunteers to help and various organizations assisting with outreach, registration soared to 140.

"It just exploded beyond our wildest dreams," he said, expressing tremendous gratitude to speakers Chip Osborne, Michael Nadeau, Eric T. Fleisher, Jeff Lowenthal and Catherine Zimmerman, who traveled to teach the sessions last year and this year.

"Chip (Osborne) was instrumental in the discussion with the professor at UGA," said Burke. In addition, "a local park conservancy was not a big believer and is now writing a grant to start a composting and compost tea facility. TruGreen is one of our land care companies and they see this as a growing market. They have invested in the production infrastructure for brewing compost tea and are coordinating their product with Soil Food Web. Not a bad start to something that I expect will take many years," he said.

"I don't get too excited about the highs and lows because I know we'll experience both. To me this has simply raised the bar on what we have to do next year and hopefully my volunteers will come back," he said. "I'm here for another 19 years at least and I don't expect the entire landscape construction industry will wake up one morning and a light will go off. It'll take years and years, but we want our guys to go out there and (share) what they've learned what to do and what not to do and hopefully people will view OLC as something they want to pursue."

Burke said he's sure he and his colleagues will make plenty of mistakes in transitioning the 1,200 acres of parkland to organic as they learn what works on warm season turfgrasses and the different pests, fungi, and weeds that are unique to this specific eco-region - primarily Bermuda grass - but he is looking forward to this.

"We're the beta test for OLC in the southeast, and probably next year we'll speak at the symposium to explain where we started, the challenges we've faced and overcome, the mistakes we've made, and where we are today," he said.

Burke originally became interested in OLC while working on the Big Dig with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. He took the NOFA 5-day course along with three of his colleagues following a MassPike-initiated presentation by Chip Osborne. The plan was to maintain the public spaces associated with the Greenway, then under MassPike management, organically. In 2008 the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy was formed and Burke's position was eliminated, so he moved to Georgia into his present role.

Burke shakes his head in wonder as he recalls that in 1982, a course in soil science was not part of his undergrad landscape architecture program at Utah State College. "Not that the college at that time was likely to have even mentioned a 'non-nuclear' option to turf care," said Burke.

"As a landscape architect, I have always believed that we are indeed stewards of the land even when I did not know enough that what I was doing and/or allowing to happen ('normal' turf and plant care). Utilizing the principles that I have learned over the past five to six years really is the sort of work that all landscape architects should be doing," he said.

For more information, email him here.

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