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Enjoying the Urban Jungle


Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Join me in exploring the ordinary streets of our city to see, appreciate and value the complex beauty of our urban ecology. 

Your City is an Ecosystem

Take a moment to imagine the city you live in as a living breathing unique ecosystem. At first glance you might see concrete and people but look a little closer and you will see plants surviving and thriving all over the place.

The amount of energy, time and materials used to maintain space varies widely. It can be fun to look at a garden and try to guess who maintains it based on the quantity and type of vegetation displayed.


graph courtesy of Jonas Spring


The continuum classifies different types of landscapes on the basis of the amount of time, energy and materials required to maintain that space. On the left hand side we have waste spaces, undeveloped land and degraded urban landscapes where natural processes are the dominant factor in determining species composition and abundance. The right hand side represents landscapes and spaces where the dominant factor is human aesthetic value.

When I look at a garden or meet the homeowner I try and see where they fit into this continuum. Do they want every leaf raked up in fall? Do they like a more naturalized look?  How comfortable are they with a patches of clover that are colonizing the grass in front?

Urban Nature vs. “Natural” Nature

Intervention regimes (maintenance) and planting typically vary from property to property. One of the great pleasures of living in the city is the incredible diversity of species composition within the city limits, much higher than the surrounding countryside. Moreover the story changes from block to block and house to house. If you don’t pay attention you could miss a whole story in the time it takes to walk by your neighbours garden.

Contrast this experience with the countryside where species composition can remain consistent for miles at a time. This can make for a very busy frenetic patchwork of micro green spaces. The truth is, I am a total voyeur constantly looking at the world around me. Plant selection and composition together with natural processes can help tell wonderful stories about who we are, what we value and our aesthetic.

Disentangling Aesthetic Value and Natural Processes

The city as a whole is a new type of ecosystem where plant composition and abundance are in large part determined by human values and aesthetic BUT natural processes still are a critical factor in its expression. To illustrate my point take a look at this typical semi detached house in Toronto.

ConcreteBeauty_307   image courtesy of Michael Burbidge

At first glance we see what we expect to see, manicured grass, showy annuals in pots and a concrete walkway. This configuration is typical of European immigrants and hardly worth a second glance but wait… is that Cleome growing in the cracks of the concrete?


image courtesy of Michael Burbidge

Stop. My mental picture of who lives here just exploded. The combination of natural processes occurring here AND individual aesthetic value make for a truly unique contrast to our initial impression.

Break It Down

Consider that Cleome is not hardy here and is grown as an annual from seed. Therefore the homeowner has either allowed last years plants to go to seed or deliberately planted seeds in the cracks of the concrete. We know that the homeowner is meticulous about “weeds” as evidenced by the carefully maintained grass and orderly annual planters. Therefore it would be highly unlikely that a gardener with that sensibility would plant seeds in cracks deliberately.

ConcreteBeauty_303   image provided by Michael Burbidge

Furthermore take a look at the rest of the crack. No other plants growing here AT ALL suggesting that we are not dealing with a space where natural processes are allowed to run amok, but rather, after careful consideration Cleome and nothing else has been selected for and allowed to persist (aside: having followed this garden for several years I can tell you that in addition to Cleome there are also Euphorbia growing in the cracks but they have been cut down during the fall cleanup and are not shown here).

What we have here is an example of a delicate interplay between natural processes and aesthetic value. Where the homeowner saw something happening and let it happen. The homeowner departed from the safety of the garden and started working in the margin. Its a little rougher out there in the boundary areas of the garden. What I really love about it is the “rules” governing the neat and tidy garden were applied here, just to remove any doubt that it happened by chance.

So keep your eyes open and look for extraordinary things in ordinary spaces. Pay attention or you could miss a whole chapter just by skipping one house. You will be rewarded richly with visual stories filled with adventure, nuance, sex, betrayal and intrigue (ok maybe not quite). Seeing urban nature and appreciating its value will increase our sense of stewardship and that can’t be a bad thing.



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