Profile: Environmental Resource Supervisor Patricia Greenberg

Patricia Greenberg stopped in her tracks when she saw the yellow archangel her parents had planted in their yard. They wouldn’t like it, but she had to give them the bad news: the plant had to go. Like other exotic invasives, the plant has a tendency to choke out native plants and disrupt the local food web. As Reston Association’s (RA) Environmental Resource Supervisor, Greenberg spends much of her time educating Reston residents on invasive plants and her parents were no exception.

“A lot of my job is the education part of it,” Greenberg says, producing a small stack of RA brochures on yard debris, natural landscaping and Reston’s unique forested common areas. She’s just arrived to the interview from a meeting with a new resident who had asked RA about the location of his property line. Greenberg took the opportunity to enlighten him on the habitat around his house which he mistakenly thought needed to be mowed. While she spends a good portion of time in the field ripping out English ivy and fragrant garlic mustard from RA property, the most valuable work arguably occurs in that tricky terrain of human behavior. “It’s about planting that seed in people’s heads,” she says. “The key is getting people to talk to each other about these things.”

That “seed” sometimes involves encouraging people to fundamentally rethink what their property should look like. Americans are used to their cookie-cutter yards filled with Technicolor green lawns and exotic plants purchased from the local nursery, few of which do much to support local wildlife, if not harm it outright. Douglas Tallamy’s 2007 book Bringing Nature Home encapsulates Greenberg’s philosophy on the issue. It’s a simple one but surprisingly difficult to implement: get people to garden with and appreciate native plants.

Greenberg has been with RA for four years, but she’s always been interested in human impacts on nature (an interest that prompted her young classmates to sardonically christen her with the nickname “Save the Whales”). One long “ah-ha” moment occurred while she was living on the Virgin Islands for six years as a kid. Her family frequented the region’s stunning beaches and over the course of several years Greenberg noticed how run down they were becoming. “We would find trash all over the beach and even in the water. At ‘local’ beaches, people would leave their charcoal on the beach and the trees started to look damaged due to the crowds and the parties,“ she says. “And tourists would stand out there in their scuba gear right on top the coral reefs.”

After earning her BA in Environmental Studies from Eckerd College, Greenberg interned with the nonprofit American Forests before heading off to the Peace Corps in San Pedro, Panama for 2 ½ years. There she received a crash-course in environmental education by working with local groups on community-based conservation. In this rural community, farmers earned much of their income by growing coffee. Those areas of land that weren’t farmed for coffee were routinely burned. Greenberg worked to show how preserving the trees, especially at the summit of mountains, prevented valuable topsoil from washing away. “Coffee [farming] is what saves Panama’s forests, and probably a lot of other forests in Central America too,” she says. One of her most treasured projects was working with the community’s youth to implement a trash-collecting service and educational program on composting and trash sorting.

Learning to walk that fine line between respecting people’s perspectives and concerns and gently coaxing them to change behaviors was a skill Greenberg has found useful in her work for RA too. “A lot of work in the Peace Corps is improvising,” she says. “I feel like I use a lot of those same skills now.” That sometimes means accepting that certain people won’t change and focusing your efforts on existing and potential allies.

English ivy quickly engulfs everything in its path
“We accidentally removed an invasive plant from someone’s property once and he was really upset at first,” Greenberg says. “But after we explained why we remove these plants, he actually became a big advocate and made changes to the rest of his property. It’s so exciting to get people turned around like that.” Greenberg educates not only residents but local nurseries to encourage them to stock more native plants and avoid the eight exotics on RA’s “prohibited” list (flowering pears, bamboo, burning bush, oriental bittersweet, Chinese and Japanese wisteria, bush honeysuckle, Japanese barberry and the ubiquitous English ivy). “It’s difficult because [the nurseries] make money off the invasives,” she says.

Greenberg continues to explore the best ways to communicate environmental issues to the public. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy from George Mason University, taking classes on climate change communications and environmental law, among others. She’d love to continue to help people learn how to reduce their negative impact on the planet, possibly through community-based environmental outreach programs. In the meantime, you’ll find Greenberg out in the woods in her trusty hiking boots, cultivating relationships with residents and planting some positive ideas of her own.

For more information, download RA publications:
"Naturescaping"
"Invasive Exotic Plants: From our Yards to our Forests"

Reston has managed to retain so much of its natural spaces due to its unique history as one of the country's first planned communities. Read more about that history here.