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Spontaneous Urban Plants: Weeds in NYC Hardcover – April 19, 2016
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About the Author
Seiter has lectured widely about emergent trends in landscape design. At the graduate program for Sustainable Planning and Development at Pratt Institute, he teaches a theory course on productive and performative landscapes and advises thesis students on environmental planning research projects. David is currently working on a book about site-specific, sustainable strategies for transforming the urban landscape.
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They also provide many benefits, such as mediating noise and reducing ambient temperature. Some are very effective at managing storm runoff and erosion and preventing floods. They can clean the soil, water, and air. Some sequester carbon. Various species provide habitat and food for urban wildlife as well as food and medicine for humans. Of course there are some, such as ragweed, that are truly weeds.
These spontaneous urban plants can be used to create a sustainable future, with the urban environment serving as a ready-made laboratory for adapting to climate change.
This small book starts out with a short but informative manifesto followed by a well-organized and interesting photographic index of several dozen of commonly-seen examples found while exploring various corners of New York City. The reader is invited to participate in creating a public database of these plants using a smartphone.
The publisher provided a sample book for review.
I've long been fascinated by the way plants can reclaim urban landscapes, such as unused freeway on-ramps, in a remarkably short period of time, and SUP takes this topic quite a bit deeper than merely showing surreal images of plants popping up almost anywhere. There is a grander vision to SUP, described by Seiter as: "Our goal is to question the hegemonic interpretations of weeds and the top-down approach to mapping urban space while at the same time instigating a more robust discussion on the role of spontaneous urban plants in our climate-adapted future." Seiter's recognition of the renegade, adaptive infrastructure provided by weeds in NYC is what makes this book so fascinating to read. City planners clearly did not have these plants in mind, yet the plants themselves are playing an active role in such important areas as mitigating flood damage from flash rains.
The photographs in SUP make this book a joy to browse, and this book is beautifully designed with historical descriptions of featured plants, and seasonal graphic charts providing information-at-a-glance for each plant's time frame for seed dispersal, flowering, and leaf growth. The combination of charts and photographs makes this book truly fun to flip through as a coffee table book, with just the right amount of information available when greater depth is desired.
What a delight to read a book about colonizing plants that have successfully set down roots in the Big Apple, despite often being labeled such things as "invasive" and "alien"! There is something particularly refreshing in seeing the ways that these plants are building new urban ecosystems that bring shade, beauty, food, shelter, and harmony in surprising ways to unexpected places.
This book is guaranteed to stimulate conversation about our stigmatization about weeds, and how some of these hardy, resilient plants just might have some of the answers we've been looking for.
I received a complementary review copy of SUP in exchange for an honest review.
Seiter invites us to look at urban vegetation with new eyes. That ailanthus tree: smelly eyesore or fast-growing carbon sink? Phragmites reeds: Invasive, yes, but also provide habitat for wild animals, stabilize river banks, ease the rush of stormwater, and tolerate salinity and pollution that few others do. Purslane, a fat-leafed creeper, at home in cracked paving: drought-tolerant, helps prevent erosion, and widely used in salads and cooking. (I find the slippery texture unappealing, but that's just me.) Even a humble plant can play many roles in the urban landscape, and probably lots more than that show garden centerpiece ever could. Some plants even absorb soil contamination, especially heavy metals.
And, I can't help noting, these volunteer plants (or weeds, or invasives, or "spontaneous") signed up for the job. A human horticulturalist might have fumbled for years finding the right vegetation for each task, the kind that could thrive in the urban niche in question, and enter into the interplay of give and take between many species. Nature ran the experiment and found its answers. (I can't help remembering a case where some "invasive" and "undesirable" plant created the only nearby habitat for an endangered species of bird.) Say what you want about the esthetics or social aspects of urban plantings, they're also a functioning part of the city's machinery, one that we could learn to use more effectively.
It's a huge and complex topic - in fact, its subtopics can be huge in themselves. Looking into it has to begin somewhere, though. Seiter's book offers a brief and attractive summary, just enough to get real conversations started. Whether you study urban planning, environmental issues, or just the flora and fauna of your urban yard, there's something here to pique your interest.