Profiles of Spontaneous Urban Plants

The appeal of quality landscape architecture in urban environments is well evidenced by recent successes such as the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park. And an appreciation of the environmental and health benefits of green space has spawned initiatives like Million Trees NYC, the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan and numerous community gardens throughout the city. Meanwhile, with all of our talk about the green amidst the grey, there’s little talk of the tenacious little flora that pops up in cracked sidewalks, vacant lots and otherwise neglected spaces, that thrives in places no other plants will grow. Informal plants — weeds — get a bad rap, but they too, alongside their intentionally-planted counterparts, can help alleviate urban heat island effect, support stormwater management infrastructure and aid phytoremediation efforts.

Landscape designer, teacher and writer David Seiter has been researching the city’s underappreciated plant life and finding ways to highlight its value. Seiter is the founding principal of Future Green Studio, a firm that works “to reveal the nuances of our urban landscape in subtle, poetic ways that provide clues to the complex ecology of cities.” Here, he presents “Profiles of Spontaneous Urban Plants,” an effort to champion the ecological and aesthetic benefits of informal vegetation, and shares the Studio’s beautiful and charming series of illustrations, based on traditional botanical classification drawings, of the wild urban plants found surrounding their Gowanus office. (Click on any of the images to launch a slideshow.)

- V.S.

Dandelion, highlighted | 3rd Street, Brooklyn

Although we tend to think of our cities as concrete jungles, our post-new urban environment is awash in plant life. This becomes especially apparent when you begin recognizing all the wild urban plants that have taken root along roadsides and chain-link fences, between cracks of pavement, and within vacant lots, rubble dumps and highway medians. Spontaneously propagating, these resilient plants find distinctive niches to thrive in and inhabit our most derelict landscapes. The environmental benefits of these “weeds” go widely unrecognized when, in fact, this often invisible urban ecology can offer a fresh perspective on how cities perform.

With that in mind, we staged an intervention to reveal the overlooked nature of urban weeds to the passerby: we painted rough, bright geometries onto the sidewalk along 3rd Street in Brooklyn, outlining spots where spontaneous urban plants have made a home. Using a typical street paint yellow, we drew circles around particularly important weeds that have emerged up through our sidewalks and tree pits – essentially taking a highlighter to the streetscape. Most people walk by unaware, only to stop for a brief second to consider why someone would be drawing attention to the weeds in the sidewalk. Sometimes, observant urban wayfarers linger long enough to glimpse the inconspicuous museum placard identifying the plants name, origin and characteristics.

“Profiles of Spontaneous Urban Plants” is a project conceived by Future Green Studio, our landscape urbanism firm based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Our studio seeks to make urban interventions that reveal the nuances of our urban landscape in subtle, poetic ways that provide clues to the complex ecology of cities. Working out of a post-industrial neighborhood replete with sidewalk cracks, remnant gravel vestiges and dead end streets, overgrown urban weeds are ubiquitous in our daily experience.

Commelina Communis (Asiatic Dayflower)

Eragrostis Pectinacea (Tufted Lovegrass)

In colloquial terms, of course, these plants are most commonly referred to as “weeds,” but are also known as “invasive,” “alien” and “exotic.” Culturally, the prevailing usage of “weeds” relegates these urban plants to an inferior botanical category because humans did not intentionally cultivate them at the particular site in which they have appeared. It is an understandable human reaction, as we have been taught, generally, that things which require little to no effort to grow, create, or maintain are worth less. But competing perceptions of certain plants reflect the need to think differently about the stigma we attach to these weeds. For example, Dandelion is perceived by suburban homeowners as an omnipresent lawn invader. But by children Dandelions are seen as a thing to play with, and by urban foragers they’re understood as food.

The term “invasive” denotes the biologically aggressive and exceptionally hardy characteristics of a plant, habitually denounced for taking over natural areas and stifling biodiversity. In non-urban conditions, these plants can at times be destructive on rural ecosystems. Monocultures of Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) or Common Reed (Phragmites australis) have been known to alter radically existing landscapes and wildlife habitats. With many invasive plants dispersing seeds multiple times throughout a season and with seed counts in the thousands per plant annually, the potential for a quick colonization of rural and suburban sites is a major concern.

The prolific nature of these plants, which makes them so dangerous in certain areas, also makes them incredibility successful in our urban ecology. As such, there is a movement to categorize these plants not as weeds but as spontaneous urban plants, and to recognize their importance as a sort of renegade green infrastructure, thriving in places no native plant would grow and providing substantive ecological benefits.

Future Green Studio’s intervention on 3rd Street, Brooklyn

Our contemporary urban streetscapes and post-industrial vacant lots in no way mimic the Northeast deciduous forests of our past — once suitable growing grounds for native plants. Rather than trying to control our new urban ecology with the assumption that invasive species are degrading our environment, we should instead understand that without extensive maintenance of intentionally planted landscapes, most urban landscapes would quickly revert to being dominated by spontaneous vegetation. What’s remarkable about all spontaneous urban plants is the fact that they require no human assistance to assert and maintain themselves in extreme, often volatile urban conditions, while providing the same ecologically performative benefits of traditional landscape plants and street trees. Rather than seek to discard and eradicate them, we now have an opportunity to harness their benefits and tell their histories.

In the hard, difficult landscapes of contemporary cities, wild urban plants can provide real ecological benefits, and are the overlooked backbone of an emergent green infrastructure. For whether Daffodil or Dandelion, intentionally-planted or not, all plants contribute to lowering the urban heat island effect and can help address the carbon imbalance in our urban areas. Unlike many traditional landscape plants, spontaneous urban plants can also colonize disturbed bare ground, help with erosion control and slope stabilization, and be used as food and habitat for wildlife. In addition, Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) or Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), for example, have phytoremediation properties and can be used strategically on brownfield sites to absorb pollutants from the soil. Spontaneous urban plants are also being rediscovered as part of our edible lexicon. Both Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) are edible and highly sought after, finding their way onto plates at trendy restaurants.

Chenopodium album (Common Lambsquarters)

Ambrosia artemisiifolia (Common Ragweed)

In New York City, as with most major urban areas, stormwater retention is a particularly hot-button issue. Our storm sewer system here in New York City is completely overwhelmed, with raw sewage being released into our local waterways nearly half of the times it rains. Wild urban plants play an important role in slowing down the first flush of stormwater and reducing the cumulative impact of major storm events.

Another concept currently being explored that could utilize wild urban plants is the idea of brown roofs. Brown roofs are essentially paired down green roofs without the highly engineered soil and specialty plantings. With a much higher drainage profile, a brown roof is much simpler than a green roof, and can use the existing soil from the site – degraded or not. Although there are issues of fire safety that need to be addressed through seasonal maintenance, brown roofs include less upfront cost, minimal upkeep and a lighter weight load than green roofs. This strategy could radically transform our urban rooftops – providing all the benefits of a green roof at a fraction of the cost.

Conyza canadensis (Horseweed)

Hieracium sabaudum (New England Hawkweed)

As an extension of the street intervention, we catalogued twenty wild urban plants we found growing on our street and in our garden. Individually set on a white background, each plant was photographed as a bare-rooted, singular specimen. Heavy shadows and sharp contrast play up the sense of plant specimen as object. Detail enlargements of the flowers or seeds are inset in each illustration and are accompanied by the plants’ place of origin, habitat preference, ecological function and cultural significance.

We applied traditional modes of botanical representation to these plants, which are not usually seen as “pretty” or “desirable,” and attempted to elevate them to the status of romantic illustrations of plants like lavender or thyme you might find hanging on someone’s kitchen wall. Using this whimsical approach, we intended to recontextualize these plants while at the same time revealing their cultural history, development and usage. For our work, Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide was an invaluable resource and has helped set the tone for recognizing this group of plants as an important part of our contemporary urban ecology.

As our cities grow in density, population and number, our urban landscapes must be both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically productive. By utilizing wild urban plants, we can design with a palette of greenery adapted to existing urban soils, widely available and attractive to pollinators and other wildlife. An informed combination of these factors can help create a pleasant urban meadow. As much as the upfront plant selection needs to play an important role, some designing will come through the process of subtraction. By removing diseased plants, those planted too close together or even the plants that are particularly unsightly or cause allergic reaction like Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), designers can help to make the wild urban meadow tidy and kempt – and more appealing.

Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston ivy)Erigeron annus (Daisy fleabane)Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot)Setaria viridis (Green foxtail)Plantago major (Broadleaf plantain)Digitaria ischaemum (Smooth crabgrass)

Smooth Crabgrass, highlighted | 3rd Street, Brooklyn

 

Additional research and reporting by Patra Jongjitirat.

David Seiter is founding principal of Future Green Studio. His portfolio includes international, high-profile, large-scale urban parks and waterfronts, high-end residential garden and estate planning for celebrity clients, and green roof design and implementation. He manages a small working garden on a post-industrial site near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn which includes green walls, green roofs, raised beds for food crops, composting and a rainwater catchment system. In addition to designing and building, David also teaches and writes about emergent trends in landscape architecture. Most recently, David taught “An Introduction to Green Roofs & Living Walls” at the City University of New York. He’s also teaching a theory course on “Productive + Performative Landscapes” in the graduate program at Pratt Institute. Currently in the works is a book about sustainable urban landscape interventions. Prior to gaining a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, David spent two years in Japan, where he apprenticed with a prominent garden designer in Kyoto.

Patra Jongjitirat is a research intern at Future Green Studio, helping draft its upcoming book publication Emergent Trends in Landscape Architecture. She is also devoted to the public arts organization No Longer Empty, looking at how interim uses and small-scale interventions can catalyze the revitalization of urban spaces. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architectural Studies from Brown University.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



14 Responses to “Profiles of Spontaneous Urban Plants”

  1. Sam Silver says:

    So glad to see such an expanded and utterly contemporary understanding of urban ecology as Peter Del Tredici’s propagated through landscape design research and urban interventions. Urban design practices will produce resilience and beautiful links between ecological and social health only when they transition from a reliance on worn-out cultural perceptions to a recognition of the inherent ecological value of species and services for which we’ve laid the foundation but otherwise ignore.

  2. Gil Lopez says:

    Very interesting points about the usefulness of “weeds” in urban environments. My permaculture instructor always referred to (invasive) weeds as opportunistic, adaptive, naturalized plants in order to avoid stigmatizing them. Once you start looking at weeds in this positive light you can begin to understand that they are basically nature’s urban pioneer species, sent forth to recapture the areas that humans have paved and poisoned.
    I’m looking forward to seeing and being a part of brownroofs taking the high ground in cities. Nice work David and Patra

  3. Alec says:

    A great mix of art and academics. I particularly liked this observation on the human condition:

    Considering weeds as inferior botanically “is an understandable human reaction, as we have been taught, generally, that things which require little to no effort to grow, create, or maintain are worth less.”

    Informative read, and pretty to boot!

  4. bowsprite says:

    beautiful work! thank you thank yoU!

    go to the abandoned tracks of the Central NJRailRoad terminal in Jersey City (right across the river!) where they have had the good sense (and luxury) of leaving the Nature alone, and it is a veritable cathedral, a hommage to the powers of Nature, despite all that we contrive to wrought—literally — amid the iron and steel tresses.

    Any search of “Pruitt Igoe today” will show the quiet force of nature underfoot. Thank you for spotlighting the little plants at the frontline!

  5. judith Earley says:

    I’m glad to see this article. When I first studied horticulture there was a poster in my classroom of “weeds” or “pests of the field” showing some of the prettiest little plants. Granted, some can take over, but I would prefer them to colonial bentgrass, let’s say. They are indicators of so much about our environment, soil, air, etc., and free as well. The brown roof idea is interesting. Kudos! I like the work.

  6. Liz Danzico says:

    Next to the work/writing/research of Peter Del Tredici, I have long been fond of Michael Pollan’s clarity regarding the definition of a weed. Or rather his unromancing of weeds versus invasives in “Weeds Are Us.” An excerpt:

    “SO WHAT IS A WEED? I consulted several field guides and botany books hoping to find a workable definition. Instead of one, however, I found dozens, though almost all could be divided into two main camps. “A weed is any plant in the wrong place” fairly summarizes the first camp. The second maintains, essentially, that “a weed is an especially aggressive plant that competes successfully against cultivated plants.” In the first, Emersonian definition, the weed is a human construct; in the second, weeds possess certain inherent traits we do not impose. The metaphysical problem of weeds is not unlike the metaphysical problem of evil: Is it an abiding property of the universe, or an invention of humanity? Weeds, I’m convinced, are really out there. But I am prepared to concede the existence of a gray area inhabited by Emerson’s weeds, plants upon which we have imposed weediness simply because we can find no utility or beauty in them. One man’s flowers may indeed be another’s weeds. Purple loosestrife, which I planted in my perennial border, has been outlawed in Illinois, where it has escaped gardens and now threatens the wetland flora. Likewise, I pull easily enough dandelions and purslanes from my vegetable garden every day to make a tasty salad for Euell Gibbons. What I call weeds he might well call lunch.”

    http://michaelpollan.com/artic.....ds-are-us/

    Glad to know about Future Green Studio.

  7. Roger Latour says:

    I would like to bring to your attention my book “Guide de la flore urbaine”(Urban Flora Guide)http://tinyurl.com/crvb6pw From Montreal but our flora is quite similar to New York’s. Key ecological associations of 200 species of weeds are presented.

    In your post the plate showing Hieracium sabaudum is something else (looks more like a Lactuca sp.)

    A plate from my book shows Hieracium sabaudum : http://flic.kr/p/91jxer (many other plates visible in this Flickr gallery) Thanks.

  8. Gil Lopez says:

    In a similar vein, weedbombing seems to focus more on art and less on urban ecology
    http://switchboard.nrdc.org/bl.....tml#_login

  9. Richard says:

    The idea of using weeds as part of the landscape is almost brilliant.

  10. gnarlybone says:

    delightful essay, beautiful drawings.

  11. Charlie says:

    Very neat project! I was always very curious about the plants that grew in the medians of the LA freeway medians. They have to be some of the toughest little guys in the world… I thought doing a transect of them while in traffic would be interesting, but it was too miserable to attempt.

    On invasive plants… I really do think invasive plants are a major problem in some wildland areas, specifically the ones that ‘invade’ an intact ecosystem and ‘crash’ the ecology of the area, converting a diverse area to a near-monoculture. However, the plants that do that are generally not the same as the lawn weeds and opportunistic city plants pictured here. Besides, what IS native to a city? Over time, the dandelions and crabgrass of each city will take on unique characteristics, if they haven’t already.

    I think there are cases where invasive plants in cities are a problem because they are near wildland areas and could ‘escape’ and cause damage. I also think there is a case for bringing more native plants into the cities. But, I agree with the article that demonizing these little weeds is silly (even the most invasive plants are just plants doing their thing, and these are true survivors).

    Also, re: weeds thriving where “no native plant would grow”… some of these weeds ARE native plants, at least the ones growing around LA. They are native weeds. Telegraphweed (Heterotheca grandiflora) is a great example. Also, one of the plants you drew – Conyza canadensis is native to at least the general area.

    Thanks for the neat art! I’d love to see some of these weeds documented on a site like iNaturalist.com (I guess in SF people are already doing that…

  12. I like the informal, unobtrusive tone of this lovely project. It has a lot of synergies with our work at Urban Plant Research – in fact, we also once marked Brooklyn plants with informational placards to catch the attention of passers-by. However, while we are more interested in individual specimens, this project delves deeper in to the ecological aspects and impacts of specific species.

    I really appreciate the cogent, multilayered discussion of urban plants from an urban planning and ecology perspective. I agree that the discussion about urban “weeds” is often clouded by the concept of native/invasive, which is not very relevant in a entirely man-made environment.

    Our project is more like an ongoing, collaborative field notebook about urban plants. If you would enjoy sharing documentations of interesting plants and discussing questions and ideas about their role in our cities, feel free to drop by our blog, urbanplantresearch.org.

  13. Peter Del Tredici has proposed a set of hypotheses in urban ecology. Like all hypotheses, they need to be tested and subjected to the scrutiny of the scientific community. But Del Tredici’s ideas are still undergoing scientific review and I think it is too early for anyone, including Future Green Studio, to so completely and uncritically accept his ideas.

  14. E. Sánchez Gullón says:

    Very nice!

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