Urban Ecosystems

“Among the first to document the exuberance of urban ecosystems were casual observers and curious botanists in war-torn Europe in the 1940s. The rubble-strewn cities of World War II, to the astonishment of their inhabitants, very quickly brimmed with plant and animal life. The vegetation that emerged from the debris was totally unexpected, a cornucopia of exotic, often nonnative species that were adept at exploiting and thriving in the damage.”

                                                ~ Ben Wilson

I often see dandelions emerging from the cracks in my neighborhood’s sidewalks. They seem somewhat ubiquitous, regardless of the amount of herbicide used in surrounding lawns. In fact, I have become conscious lately of the exuberance of various plants to grow where they are neither intended nor wanted. We certainly have lots of ‘volunteers’ in our yard, and on a recent trip to the UK I was able to observe the wild vegetation present in the cracks and crannies of ancient walls and structures. You’d think that centuries of rock and cement paving would deter plant growth, but nature just keeps on keeping on.

Historian Ben Wilson observes, “Cities often contain perfected, simplified forms of nature, ones that look pretty but are biologically impoverished. But forget parks, neat and tidy as they are. Nature at its insurgent best insinuates itself in the gaps in the urban fabric: the soggy, unloved floodplain of Dallas, but also abandoned lots, roadsides and intersections, railroad lines, mortared walls, empty malls, disused factories, the edges of chain-link fences and the cracks in the concrete.”

People fight the dandelions and quest for perfect lawns, but nature only allows us temporary superiority. Wilson adds, “These disaster-loving plants often evolved on coastal cliffs, arid mountainsides and other inhospitable places: pioneers of nature that reclaimed scarred territory and prepared the way for larger shrubs and woody species. They had come to the city accidentally over the centuries, concealed in shipping containers or as hitchhikers on the tires of vehicles and the soles of boots. And they had been there, biding their time, until the destruction of war allowed them to run riot and make bombed-out cities look amazingly verdant. They became the key components of a distinctively novel and amazingly diverse urban ecosystem.”

The truth is that most of us don’t really care about what plants we share our space with. As a kid, my Dad worried about crabgrass, but my main worry was with goat-head stickers in the lawns attacking our bare feet. We reveled in dandelion poof balls and even endured the flower under-the-chin examination to reveal your true love (ick!). I still like dandelions and don’t spray or treat to get rid of them (to my neighbors’ chagrin).

Wilson describes “Dallas’s Great Trinity Forest ‘is one of the largest urban woodlands in the United States, an expanse of hardwood trees, ponds, swamps and meandering creeks … It is not its size that is remarkable so much as its wildness. Neglected, ignored and abused for years, much of it has become an impenetrable thicket with a dense understory that teems with wildlife — feral hogs, turtles, white-tailed deer, beavers, otters and alligators — all at a short distance from the skyscrapers of this very corporate American city’.”

“This is where we find the rough, tough vegetation and wildlife, adapted to living in proximity to us, seemingly against the odds. It is not the nature you might find in a national park, and that is why it is worth celebrating: for its sheer ability to survive and thrive in a hostile environment and nurture other life.”

“Every city has acres of in-between land that, if managed well, could become oases of greenery harboring insect, bird and other animal life. And with cities still reconfiguring themselves in the wake of the pandemic, the case for rethinking their purpose and potential could not be more urgent. We need to make urban areas more walkable, more fun and more livable, to be sure. But we should also make them greener. The city must be not just a place of wealth generation, culture and activity, but also a unique ecosystem that offers us protection against climate threats and a vital, visceral connection with wildlife.”

I’ve visited a lot of cities in my lifetime, and have been intrigued by the backways, alleys and odd places that harbor weird things, including shops, people and vegetation. Graffiti-covered walls frame wild plants seeming out of place, but fully ensconced in their claimed habitat. However, I never have encountered wild hogs, but did see alligators in city parks in Florida, once.

As Wilson explains, “… wildness is becoming a pronounced feature of modern cities … Understood and appreciated, it can bring us deep pleasure. We should embrace it and learn to love the curious, unpredictable hybrid ecosystem that sprouts from the concrete.” He encourages us to acknowledge “cities as places that continually create, destroy and recreate areas of biodiversity.”

It’s only natural.

Additional Information:

Steve Tarlton, Time and Nature, 5/11/23, Writes of Nature

Ben Wilson, Let the City Grow Wild, 5/14/23, New York Times

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