Written by: Jorden Keeley, 2017
Due to the nature of our work here at Watersheds Canada, we are constantly surrounded by an abundance of plants, fish, and wildlife. Admittedly, often times we take our surroundings for granted. Visiting city centres often helps us to appreciate our unique work environment, by allowing us to recognize the contrast that urban development has created. Moving from a rural environment to an urban one forces you to notice whatever tiny patches and parcels of green you can find. The tiny leaves creeping through cracks that began as weeds, are now welcome signs of resilience in an otherwise concrete environment.
THE IMPORTANCE OF URBAN FLORA
The beneficial nature and importance of spontaneous urban flora often goes unrecognized and the presence of such plant-life in an urban setting is often interpreted “as a visible manifestation of dereliction and neglect” (Iuliana, 2011). This is due to the notion that the existence of vegetation in these urban areas is invasive and competition for a sterile urban aesthetic. In proceeding with urban growth, innovation, and the pursuit of a clean urban aesthetic, native ecology often gradually disappears. Humans force vegetation to adapt to new perimeters by depleting and confining it. As a result, plant organisms can be seen twisting and sprouting out from between the cracks of concrete sidewalks, at the base of telephone poles, amidst foreign plant species in small garden plots, and numerous other locales around the city. While these forms of vegetation are seen as unwanted weeds, they are, more truthfully, a remarkable display of ecological perseverance. According to botanist Peter Del Tredici (2014), for many, there is an “assumption that we can somehow bring back past ecosystems by removing these invasive species and replanting native species”. Issues arise from the recognition that the urban environment has changed the natural environment through the “interacting forces of urbanization, globalization, and climate change” in such a way that these invasive bouts of flora are now closer to being considered the “native species” in this newly created ecosystem, than those proposed to be reintroduced.
INTO THE WILD
In examining the avenues that society is striving towards in terms of expansion, growth, and maintenance or urban ecosystems, there seems to be some conflict. The ever-present push for innovation and expansion in urban centres often contrasts with a continuously developing sense of visceral duty felt towards the conservation and regeneration of a natural, native ecosystem within these urban spaces.
These efforts in environmental restoration draw connections from the societal construct of nature as the other, an idea which often sees urban and natural landscapes as being at odds with one another when forced to exist in the same environment.
Where urbanization takes away from the growth of native species, the vegetation that is able to overcome these immense environmental changes is frequently observed adjusting in the most peculiar places and ways. Often, even the most manicured of sidewalk stones is not immune to the survivalist flora of the city.
When we leave city centres, to camp, hike, or simply to be in nature, we see this place that we visit as separate from urban environments. The mythical wilderness—the great and vast outdoors—is a place seen by many as an entity not only separate from the city, but also separate from one’s self. It is seen as something that we can connect with and disconnect with on a dime, rather than something inherently connected to our existence and survival. The social construct of wilderness holds with it the divide we place between ourselves and the natural world. However, in the realization that one will not, and simply cannot exist without the other, and accepting that the manipulation of an ecosystem will never be idealized or fully controlled, this divide begins to close. The reality is that “an unpredictable future belongs to the best adapted” (Del Tredici, 2014) and the earth’s flora has had millions of years to strengthen and adapt to environments that have been subject to constant alteration. Thus, as cities and suburbs grow, plant life adapts to whatever environment it must survive in.
Urban flora often provides a number of services to the environments that they inhabit. To fully understand their advantages and uses, Del Tredici offers three main categorizations for urban vegetation “based on their land-use history, the vegetation they support and, by extension, their maintenance requirement”. The first of these is the remnant native landscape which is essentially as close as one can get to the native ecosystem in an urban area. There are still native plant species there, however often times, they have become infiltrated by non-native species. The second category, which consists of managed, functional landscapes is what one would generally refer to as a green space. These spaces have been introduced into urban environments for recreational and aesthetic purposes and are an example of humans striving to conserve aspects of the natural environment, rather than preserving them. The last of the three classifications is that of ruderal or abandoned landscapes which consists of “post-industrial or post-residential vacant land, infrastructure edges dominated by spontaneous vegetation, either native or introduced, on relatively poor and often compacted soils” (Del Tredici, 2014). This final categorization is one within which spontaneous urban flora is found most abundantly, and this vegetation can self-sustain.
The value of urban flora can be measured in respect to both ecological and aesthetic value. It is often difficult to quantify the latter because aesthetics are subjective (Körner, 2005), and depending on the location or the situation, the opinion on spontaneous vegetation will vary. Ecological services on the other hand, are easier to evaluate. A variety of services provided by urban flora include: reduced ground and air temperatures and improved air and water quality; a food source for both humans and wildlife; erosion control; a reduction in urban noise pollution; the stabilization of stream and river banks; the absorption of toxins prevalently found in disturbed soils; “phytoremediation of contaminated soil” and carbon sequestration (Poreçbska & Ostrowska, (1999). Evidently, spontaneous urban flora provides numerous positive aspects to the surrounding environment with little to no upkeep. Essentially, the vegetation is offering sustainability and combating the pollution that urban landscapes emit into the air, water, and soil, while creating a powerful hybrid between urban and ecological environments.
- Del Tredici, P. (2014, April 1). The Flora of the Future: Wild Urban Plants.
- Paunita Iuliana, P., Adelina, D., Valentine, S., Doina, C., & Georgel, M. (2011). Ecological and Aesthetic Role of Spontaneous Flora in Urban Sustainable Landscapes Development. Journal of Plant Development, 18, 169-177.
- Köner, S. (2005). Nature conservation, forestry, landscape architecture and historic preservation: perspectives for a conceptual alliance, 193-220. In: Kowarik I & Körner S. (eds.). Wild Urban Woodlands. Berlin: Springer.
- Poreçbska, G. & Ostrowska, A. (1999). Heavy metal accumulation in wild plant: implications for phytoremediation. Polish J. Environ. Stud., 8 (6): 433-442