Redefining Urban Green Spaces: The Rise of Native Plants in City Landscaping

Redefining Urban Green Spaces: The Rise of Native Plants in City Landscaping

January 8, 2024

Urban green spaces have long been defined by orderly, manicured parks and non-native ornamental plants that evoke a sense of human control. However, there is a growing movement towards integrating native plants into cities that is redefining the look and function of urban green infrastructure. From small community gardens to large-scale ecological restoration projects, efforts to “re-wild” urban landscapes are reshaping relationships between people and urban nature

The Rise of Novel Urban Ecosystems

As climate change strains urban ecosystems, novel combinations of native and non-native species are emerging that display new ecological dynamics. These so-called “novel urban ecosystems” (NUEs) feature unprecedented interactions between species enabled by human activities and environmental changes. They include cultivated non-natives that add vibrancy and exotic allure, as well as hardy spontaneous species that colonize neglected corners and demonstrate nature’s resilience.

Initially, NUEs were met with skepticism and concerns that non-native species may negatively impact human health or reduce biodiversity. However, research now shows that NUEs can provide crucial ecosystem services, such as air purification, microclimate regulation, stormwater filtration, and carbon sequestration. In fact, non-native species may be better adapted to harsh urban conditions like heat, drought, and pollution. There is also growing acceptance that in our human-dominated age of the Anthropocene, novel combinations of species are inevitable and have potential benefits.

As cities around the world pledge ambitious tree canopy goals to combat climate change, NUEs are increasingly seen as a pragmatic solution. This is propelling efforts to integrate native plants as core components of multi-functional and climate-resilient urban ecosystems.

Why Native Plants Matter

Native plants hold special value to many urban dwellers by evoking a sense of regional identity and connection to nature. They represent the unique flora that is endemic to a place prior to European settlement, which confers both cultural and ecological meaning. As such, native species are potent symbols of reclamation and decolonization in places like Australia.

Native plants also enable city residents to experience local biodiversity up close. They can attract native pollinators and birds that have co-evolved relationships, thereby increasing wildlife habitat in built-up areas. By understanding these interdependencies, people gain appreciation for the ecosystems they inhabit.

Additionally, native species are perceived as intrinsically suited to local environmental conditions. As climate change strains cities, native plants with regional adaptations may fare better with less inputs than non-natives. Their traits like drought tolerance resonate with ideals of low-maintenance and sustainable landscaping.

However, harsh urban conditions can exceed the thresholds that some sensitive natives are adapted to. As cities pledge more greenspace, questions linger if native species can realistically achieve urban tree cover goals and deliver expected benefits.

Non-native species have demonstrated resilience to the urban environment; perhaps in balance they can complement native plants. This reveals a pragmatism now guiding urban ecological design.

Beyond Biodiversity: Cultural Values of Native Plants

While native plants have clear biodiversity values, especially for native fauna, their cultural values are equally important for garnering public support. Because native species represent regional identity and place attachment, they enable city residents to connect with nature in their backyard. Familiar native trees like oak and maple embody complex meanings of home, memory, seasonal rhythms and local heritage.
Indeed, studies find perceptions of nativeness —not just biodiversity potential—influence the wellbeing benefits people derive from urban nature. Native plants enhance place identity and evoke comfort due to biophilia, an innate affinity humans share with other living organisms. This explains their widespread appeal.

However, negative views of nativeness rooted in its association with messiness, allergies or invasion risk still pose barriers to acceptance. Place-tailored education and demonstration sites will be key to shifting perceptions and easing uncertainties as cities integrate more native plants. Ultimately though, because experiences of urban nature are subjective, people’s pluralistic values should guide greening decisions.

Growing Public Receptiveness

Growing Public Receptiveness

Recent surveys reveal an openness among urban residents to introduce more native plants in public green spaces. Most people now recognize the biodiversity values of natives and their symbolic connections to national identity. Younger generations in particular are embracing native species as environmental solutions, aligning with global movements like rewilding.

However, many still prioritize ornamental traits over nativeness and prefer balance between cultivated gardens and wilder, native areas. Ultimately, the urban populace values diverse types of nature that provide multi-functional benefits. To gain wider public support then, native plant initiatives should demonstrate —not just claim— their cultural and recreational value.

Small-Scale Community Projects

One approach to expanding public receptiveness is through small-scale community projects. These initiatives give local residents a venue to experience native species firsthand by actively gardening with them.

For example, a recent study in Melbourne, Australia aimed to boost insect biodiversity simply by increasing native plant diversity on a small urban plot. They layered topsoil, mulch and 12 native species on a weedy lawn. In just 3 years, insect species rose over 7-fold, including 91 native insects spanning detritivores to predators that keep pests in check.

Such projects act as living laboratories that showcase how native plants support wildlife and people in neighborhoods. They also build community through shared learning about sustainable landscaping. These small wins lend visibility and inspiration to integrate native plants more widely across public greenspaces.

Large-Scale Ecological Restoration

In addition to small community gardens, ambitious large-scale ecological restoration projects are expanding public awareness of native plant values. By re-establishing native-dominated ecosystems, these initiatives reveal that wilder, rewilded landscapes have a place in dense city centers and not just conserved nature reserves.

In Singapore, the National Parks Board is stewing 36 hectares of the city-state’s last patch of primary rainforest at the fringe of the central business district. This BNP-Chestnut Nature Park Restoration Project aims to boost structural complexity and native plant regeneration to attract forest birds and other wildlife back to the area after decades of isolation and degradation.

At Taylor Southgate Park in Dayton, Ohio, the non-profit MetroParks organization has undertaken a 20-year reforestation effort to return native trees and understory to a brownfield site once occupied by manufacturing facilities. Community volunteers help plant species like bur oak and pawpaw while learning about the historical habitat and modern-day benefits provided by native plants.

These large-scale initiatives expand awareness of native species importance among urban residents that lack proximity to such restored habitats. They also build momentum for the paradigm shift towards native-centric urban landscaping.

Rethinking Urban Forest Composition

Cities are now re-evaluating traditional urban forestry objectives centered on shade and ornamentals in favor of diversifying the tree canopy. Native species boast adaptive traits like drought tolerance that lend resilience as climate change strains city trees.

However, harsh conditions in built infrastructure often exceed thresholds that sensitive native trees can withstand, raising concerns about meeting ambitious urban canopy cover targets. This is propelling debate on what an appropriate balance between native and non-native species looks like.

In Melbourne, gum trees epitomize this tension. These iconically Australian eucalypts provide vital habitat for wildlife, but are also considered fire risks. In 2019, the Victoria state government earmarked half of central Melbourne’s trees for removal over such concerns. However, following public backlash they revised goals to retain most mature trees while strategically planting more non-natives in priority areas. The incident highlighted how public values differ from official risk perceptions regarding native urban trees.

Innovative new frameworks integrate cultural values like sense of place and identity alongside biophysical factors to determine optimal native/non-native urban forest mixes. This enables planners to pinpoint locations where native trees deliverムtheir greatest benefits, while deploying resilient non-natives in the harshest built zones. Such balanced approaches recognize the pluralistic values people hold regarding the varied nature in their city.

Making Space for Novel Urban Ecosystems

The rise of native plants is redefining urban green spaces in the face of modern pressures. However, the tenets of novelty and emergence central to NUEs necessitate flexibility from conventional landscaping norms.

As new assemblies of native and non-native species interact in unexpected ways, urban nature will likely become more heterogeneous across the mosaic of land uses within cities.

Neighborhood character will guide compositions so that both distinctive local flavors and connectivity across green networks are strengthened.

To realize these goals, urban planning must better embed green infrastructure needs early when zoning districts, before details of the built environment constrain plantable space. Progressive codes will integrate sustainable linkages and foster community participation through tactical vacancies and interim use agreements on undeveloped land.

Bottom-up stewardship networks centered on volunteer care, social cohesion, and education will also keep pace with this expanding domain of urban nature. By building plant literacy and resisting tendencies to over-order ecosystems, people will find meaning through both cultivated gardens and novel self-willed landscapes.

The native plant renaissance hints that despite modern loss of ecological memory in cities, urban society has not lost its capacity to coexist with and foster nature where we live. It will compel cities to make more space for native flora and the wildlife that depend on it to thrive alongside us. In doing so, a deeper affiliation with local ecosystems will take root that benefits both people and the planet. Even small gestures to green our urban realm reveal that better alternatives exist to living so utterly estranged from other living things.





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    About the Author


    Cameron is a plant journalist who loves everything green and eco-friendly. He writes for various publications about the benefits of native plants, such as enhancing biodiversity, reducing water use, and supporting pollinators. He also runs a special column about Native Plants of the Month on Cameron believes that everyone can make a positive difference one seed at a time.





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