Launched in summer 2014, www.spontaneousurbanplants.org is a user-generated database of weeds in the urban environment that maps images from the photography application Instagram tagged with #spontaneous urban plants, and filters them based on species, ecological benefits and disservices to the environment. Leveraging principles of urban ecology and environmental aesthetics, the intent is to stimulate discourse between ecologists, designers, artists and the general public that explores societal perceptions of weeds and questions the stigmas that surround them. Through a process of walking, photography and mapping, our studio’s research stems from a broad baseline to analyze and extract patterns, behaviors, and seasonal shifts from the meta-data generated. This on-line educational resource will offer insight into the habits, habitats and beneficial potential of spontaneous vegetation in tough urban conditions, and challenges the public to reconsider their preconceptions of weeds.
Stigmatized as undesirable, unwieldy and unkempt, Spontaneous Urban Plants (SUP) – better known as “weeds” - have a diminished status in our collective cultural perception. Often found in derelict urban landscapes, overlooked and unwanted, SUP thrive in places most plants cannot grow, sprouting up from cracks in the side walk, and propagating the seams along chain link fences. They provide substantive ecological benefits that are often overlooked – creating wildlife habitat, mitigating stormwater, or phytoremediating disturbed soils. Ubiquitous and immediate, Instagram is the perfect tool for reconsidering the aesthetics of weeds and bringing findings to the wider public. Even though many species that are now known as ‘weeds’ were originally imported for their ornamental value, there is a common assumption that weeds lack aesthetic value. Through photography, this is challenged, and the historical and cultural bearing on what is forgotten or not widely known can resurface. The Instagram filter sensationalizes the photos and sparks greater interaction with an audience beyond the professional realm of landscape design, that in turn promotes wider acceptance of spontaneous urban plants and alters the prevalent negative perception of ‘weeds’. Each photo that is taken and hash-tagged #spontaneousurbanplants, enters the Spontaneous Urban Plants website interface for validation and identification. Once identified, the images are further filtered through a weed value-matrix that catalogs both the positive and negative ecological services each species provides, such as phytoremediation, disturbance-adaption, mitigation of the urban heat island effect, or sequestration of CO2. The meta-data, extracted from each photo, maps the image to its original location and highlights the seasonality of each species through the display of the original time-stamp. As the inventory builds multiple images of each species will document the seasonal shifts, visualizing the bloom schedule and seeding season through photography.
The process of traversing the urban landscape by foot has been used through the ages to confront the status-quo, from activists marching against political issues to artists using walking as an aesthetic practice such as Richard Long, Guy Debord, and the Situationists. Confronting society’s blind acceptance of the urban environment, the Situationists engaged in urban wanderings known as dérives: experimental walks through the city in which the walker subconsciously makes navigational decisions based on subtle variations in landscape, urbanism, and architecture. The latter poetic approach to walking, when applied to the study of weeds, demands that the observer engage curiously in their environment in order to discover interesting typologies where urbanism and spontaneous urban plants co-exist. Wanderers do not know when they will discover the next abandoned park or overgrown vacant lot. In a digitally navigable world, it is more important than ever to walk off the beaten track and uncover the vegetated urban pockets that are not digitally mapped on GPS and navigational applications. It is an opportunity for despondent urbanites to actively engage with and reconsider their surroundings as a shifting landscape that can be reshaped by their own perceptions.
With the combined efforts of urban exploration, photography, and dissemination through web-based media, we open up an objective debate on the role of weeds in the urban environment. With a more accepting public, designers and communities can embrace spontaneous vegetation as a valid green infrastructure. Through processes of subtraction, addition, optimization and replication, the patchwork ecology of widespread spontaneous vegetation will enable the emergence of a more resilient, adaptable and sustainable New York.
David Seiter, ASLA, Principal