One Voice Makes a Difference, as Norfolk Southern Gives Wings to a Rooftop Garden

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One Voice Makes a Difference, as Norfolk Southern Gives Wings to a Rooftop Garden

Steve McCurdy, left, and Sarah Cunningham watch as a visiting Monarch butterfly sips nectar from a rooftop planter at Norfolk Southern’s headquarters building.
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Thursday, November 13, 2014 - 11:50am

A rooftop butterfly garden might be the last thing you’d expect in the concrete and steel environment of downtown Norfolk, Va. However, that’s exactly what you’ll find on the roof near Sarah Cunningham’s third-floor office space at Norfolk Southern’s McKinnon Building headquarters.

Cunningham, assistant manager creative services in corporate communications, sparked the idea after watching a TV show that detailed a sharp decline in the population of migratory Monarch butterflies. She noticed that their migration between Canada and Mexico each spring and fall takes them over much of Norfolk Southern’s network. She emailed Esi Waters, manager corporate sustainability, suggesting that the company do something to help out the butterflies.

Waters approached Steve McCurdy, senior manager facility services, who happens to be a butterfly enthusiast; he has landscaped his yard with native plants that attract all variety of butterflies.

McCurdy, intrigued by the possibilities of a rooftop garden, pitched the idea to his supervisor, Blair Wimbush, vice president real estate and corporate sustainability officer. With Wimbush’s support, McCurdy developed what he describes as a local, low-cost demonstration project.

“It doesn’t take a lot to create an environment that is favorable not only to butterflies, but to bees and other beneficial insects,” McCurdy said. “Butterflies – Monarchs in particular – are a good bellwether of our stewardship of the earth – they are part of the chain.”

McCurdy designed the McKinnon garden using five plastic planters and several species of flowering plants, including milkweed, the Monarchs’ main food source and the only plant that the females use to lay their eggs. He installed a drip irrigation system to keep the plants moist in the rooftop’s conditions of harsh reflective sunlight and heat.

Since the planters were installed, the plants, viewable outside a window near Cunningham’s desk, have done well. This fall, on Cunningham’s birthday, she and McCurdy watched a visiting Monarch sip nectar from a blossoming milkweed. Cunningham’s co-workers on the third floor shared in the excitement.

“I saw that as Mother Nature saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” Cunningham said.  

While modest, the garden could grow into something larger. Even if it doesn’t, it is a great example of how employees can contribute in ways small and large to Norfolk Southern’s sustainability efforts, said Waters.

“I encourage employees to send in ideas,” Waters said. “Some ideas might not be feasible to do on a system wide basis, but they might make good local projects. I see my role as a facilitator who can connect ideas to employees who have the knowledge or professional leverage to make them happen.”

With her newfound knowledge about butterfly habitat, Cunningham said she and her two children plan to create their own backyard butterfly garden.

“Many people go through life with the thought, ‘I’m just one person, what can I do?’ ” Cunningham said. “We are blessed to work for a company like Norfolk Southern that is so concerned with sustainability that my little voice has started a chain of events that might actually make a difference.” 

Keywords: Environment & Climate Change | BUTTERFLIES | Business & Trade | Conservation | Corporate Social Responsibility | Diversity & Human Resources | Employee Engagement | Environment & Climate Change | Human Resources | Norfolk Southern Corporation