Profiles of Spontaneous Urban Plants

The following was excerpted from a longer story originally published on Urban Omnibus.

David Seiter is a landscape designer, teacher and writer who 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.”

Dandelion, highlighted by Future Green Studio, on Third Avenue. While dandelions are commonly derided as an invasive species, the weed has many properties that make it useful for city dwellers. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.

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.

Click the images to learn more about the spontaneous urban plants that dot Third Avenue.

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.

In colloquial terms, of course, these plants are most commonly referred to as “weeds,” but are also known as “invasive,” “alien” and “exotic.” 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.

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. Rather than seek to discard and eradicate them, we now have an opportunity to harness their benefits and tell their histories.

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.

Both Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) are edible and highly sought after, finding their way onto plates at trendy restaurants.

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.

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.


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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