Spontaneous vegetation found in cities – regardless of its native or non-native status – is a new way to look at the ecology and resiliency of our cities. In urban centers the set of conditions landscape architects are designing for can be so far removed from the original ecology, defaulting to native species that can be overly nostalgic and even inappropriate.
In an interview entitled “Just a Bunch of Weeds” with Peter Del Tredici, an American botanist and author, the words “native” and “exotic” or “non-native” are seen as dichotomies that are unable to capture the complexities of urban centers. Del Tredici explains:
I like the word “spontaneous” because it simply refers to plants that grow without human intervention, including both native and non-native species. “Disturbance adapted” plants can also be either native or non-native species. In the urban environment, the fact that a given suite of plants is adapted to relatively high levels of disturbance is much more ecologically significant than if it’s native or non-native.
In this way sustainability becomes less about recreating what was there before and more about providing ecological services to a specific community, focusing on adaptation and pragmatism. Developing criteria to decide which successful and sustainable planting palettes can no longer rely upon native vs. non-native categorizations. Instead, what is now needed is sensitivity to site and context.
For landscape architects it can be a challenge to shift aesthetic preference away from certain plants towards others that have become notorious in vacant lots. Some plants simply suffer from a bad reputation. Del Tredici explains how changing the context can help turn a planting community from being seen as a bunch of weeds to a more pleasing meadow. Over time designers can help the public know and appreciate more adapted plant communities.
The way a project is framed can make or break the way it is received by the public. Landscape architects need to develop tools to articulate the importance of more progressive design moves. Peter Del Tredici suggests “to demonstrate through studies of insects, of birds, of plants etc. These places are important habitats which need to be valued for the sake of urban biodiversity”. Perhaps an ethos and appreciation for nonhuman residents in our cities is one way to explore and promote the value of less traditional planting communities in our cities.
As a new resident to Los Angeles I am getting to know the affections of the public, and how these expectations are being mediated by the realities of climate change and the necessity for drought tolerant plant communities. I have found beauty in both the cultivated and the abandoned, and I am excited to witness the continued negotiation between humans and nature in this ever-dynamic urban center.