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 Red Hook, 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. 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.