The Biophilic Cities Project had the great pleasure of interviewing the mayor and the sustainability director for the city of St. Louis, Missouri. Mayor Francis Slay and Catherine Werner described the new, successful Milkweeds for Monarchs Initiative.

Catherine Werner with Mayor Francis G. Slay

St. Louis may be known for the Gateway Arch and its proximity to the Mississippi River, but the city is now being recognized for creating habitats for the endangered Monarch Butterfly. To commemorate the city’s 250th birthday, the mayor is challenging citizens to plant 200 butterfly gardens in addition to the 50 gardens that the city has committed to planting.

Monarch on Aster. Photo taken by Catherine Werner.

Why the Monarch butterfly? Why butterfly gardens? The Monarch butterfly population has declined by more than 90 percent within the last 20 years and is now categorized as “near threatened” on the World Wildlife Fund’s Endangered Species List.  They are perhaps the most iconic of butterfly species, and the only ones to migrate between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Monarchs depend on milkweed plants for laying their eggs and feeding their caterpillar larvae. They are especially reliant on places like St. Louis during their annual migrations through the middle of the United States.

Catherine Werner, Sustainability Director for the City of St. Louis, knows that the program is helping more than just the monarchs. She says, “I don’t pretend that even if we reach our goal of 250 gardens that we will save the Monarchs. It has never been solely about that. That has been an important part, but it is just as much about encouraging people to connect with nature and beautify the city.”

The Milkweeds for Monarchs Initiative evolved as a part of the city’s first sustainability plan, which follows a triple bottom line approach. The plan has won awards for its breadth and depth, which is why it can be quite intimidating and overwhelming, according to Werner. Mayor Slay’s office has released 29 action agenda items to help prioritize implementation of the sustainability plan. Two of those action agenda items are directly related to the Milkweeds for Monarchs Initiative: to create sustainability resources for neighborhoods and to double the current eco-literacy rate by fostering a connection between people and urban nature.

Earth Day launch of Milkweeds for Monarchs. Pictured are representatives from the Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri Department of Conservation and St. Louis Zoo with Mayor Slay
Earth Day launch of Milkweeds for Monarchs. Pictured are representatives from the Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri Department of Conservation and St. Louis Zoo with Mayor Slay. Photo taken by Catherine Werner.

Creating strong partnerships has been crucial to the success of the Milkweeds for Monarchs Initiative. Werner says, “I know that I am not a butterfly or native plant expert. The only way that this was going to be successful was to partner with people who have the expertise, and provide them with a meaningful role.” Werner organized a brainstorming session with several dozen people and the group considered the questions: ‘What should we be promoting? How can we make it easy? How many plants and what are the plants?’ Werner explains, “We sorted through all of the comments and created the STL Monarch Mix, which includes nine species of plants. We learned that an effective garden size would be at least one square meter, and that it needed to contain both milkweed and nectar plants. The process was very collaborative.”

Milkweeds for Monarchs is a public-private initiative. Werner explains, “We are committing to planting at least 50 Monarch butterfly gardens in the city, including at City Hall, parks and fire stations. We are also challenging the people of St. Louis to plant their own gardens.” The Milkweeds for Monarchs Initiative provides resources on how to plant and maintain your butterfly garden on its webpage. You can also register your garden, and then it appears on the map of the butterfly gardens.

One Square Yard for Monarchs created by the St. Louis Zoo with Gateway Greening. Photo taken by Catherine Werner.

Not only has this initiative contributed to increasing habitats for Monarch butterflies and meeting the goals of the St. Louis Sustainability Plan, but Mayor Slay also sees this initiative as the start of something much bigger. Slay states, “First of all, I thought it would be something fun and something engaging in terms of getting citizens of St. Louis to band together for a common purpose to promote nature by helping to grow the Monarch population. Equally as important was the positive impact that urban nature has on people generally. I know that there a lot of studies that show that the investment in green space helps reduce stress and anxiety, helps clean the air, treat storm water runoff, provides educational and learning opportunities, and raises property values. The importance can’t be overstated.”

Werner said she was pleasantly surprised at the number of emails and phone calls from other cities wanting to learn how they can replicate the program. It was recently featured in the U.S. Mayors newsletter as a best practice.

Cities across the world can initiate unique programs in a similar way.  Werner says, “It doesn’t have to be a Monarch butterfly or even a butterfly at all. It could be any initiative that encourages a connection to nature by doing something simple. We often hear about these large citywide initiatives, but they sometimes take millions of dollars and many staff members. While those types of initiatives are phenomenal and we should be working toward those large-scale projects, it is gratifying to have something that can be implemented easily and be successful in such a short period of time.” Werner offered that while the Milkweeds for Monarchs initiative has enjoyed immediate support and success, she views the city’s effort a bit like the Little Engine That Could – a city just needs to think it can; it just takes a little bit from everyone.

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Post by Carla Jones, Biophilic Cities Researcher