Pandemic ecologies during the great Anthropause

New York City is home to some of the most iconic green spaces in the world, from the great lawn in Central Park to the rolling meadows of Flushing-Corona. But if you found yourself on the northern edge of Prospect Park during the late spring and early summer of 2020 you may have noticed some changes to the manicured patchwork of traffic islands, tree pits, and greenspaces that surround one of Brooklyn’s largest urban parks. Since the COVID-19 pandemic besieged the City, the once neat rows of periwinkle, impatiens, begonia, juniper, and yew tree became an ideal haven for plants we often label as weeds.

During most growing seasons certain species of plants (See the NYS DEC’s list of “prohibited plants”) are removed regularly to ensure the park and its surrounding greenspaces mimic the European pastoral landscape originally conceived of by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1858. However, with an economic and health crisis still impacting communities across the city, the business-as-usual approach to greenspace maintenance shifted in several neighborhoods as budgets were reduced, park staff furloughed, and as New Yorkers began to cope with the realities of social distancing. At the height of the spring growing season, unique assemblages of native, indigenous, and so-called invasive plants had commingled and spilled out onto the streets, obscuring once tidy edges, and offering a glimpse of a time when human supremacy suddenly took a back seat.

Throughout the spring and into the autumn of 2020 I began a daily pilgrimage to a number of sites near the border of Prospect Park. What I began to notice through these walks was a new horizon of urban plant communities, some growing to full maturity for the first time in several years. As my walking radius grew, I noticed this was a pattern in other areas of the City as well. And while informal green spaces like vacant lots or overgrown sidewalk edges are not anything new, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shift in human activity seemed to support the conditions for what I call novel pandemic ecologies to emerge. Similar to the concept of novel ecosystems, which are ecosystems composed primarily of non-historical plant and animal species that arise from human activity, novel pandemic ecologies are perhaps a temporary byproduct of a global shift in mobility and adoption of social distancing protocols in cities worldwide. Some scholars have started to describe this time period as the great “Anthropause” to characterize the slowdown of human activity worldwide, and the opportunities this offers to study global patterns of urban wildlife behavior and ecosystem change.

As I continued to walk and ponder the sudden shift in human activity I began to question a number of deeply entrenched assumptions we often have about urban greenspaces. First that they need to be orderly, highly surveilled, and maintained to have value, and secondly, that plants can only have agency or value if they are useful to humans. What do we lose in this process of hyper-maintenance and the presumption that there can only be good plants or bad plants? How are Westernized approaches to stewardship and land management a residue of settler-colonial practices and ways of thinking?

Over time, as I continued to encounter once barren tree pits and traffic islands now brimming with life, I began to view these plant communities as agents in their own process of resistance and regeneration. If left to their own devices, they help build soil, filter the air, reduce the urban heat island, and absorb stormwater, often in a more efficient way than many native plants or green infrastructure that tend to center humans rather than a whole spectrum of multispecies communities. Is the so-called “Anthropause” an invitation to rethink how we relate to and care for urban green spaces, and embrace Robin Wall Kimmerer’s call for renewed reciprocity? What wisdom can spontaneous plant species offer in a time of crisis, especially if we learn to listen? In this brief essay, I explore the idea of novel pandemic ecologies and in particular the role urban spontaneous vegetation (aka weeds) can play in motivating new forms of stewardship and governance in a time of upheaval and climatic shift. Throughout I reflect on my own observations of urban plant communities here in New York, as well as emerging research on the multiple benefits of urban spontaneous vegetation.

Ruderal and Spontaneous Vegetation during COVID-19

While it is hard to attribute the COVID-19 crisis to an overall increase in the diversity or quantity of urban plant communities, a number of U.S. cities have reported a significant shift in the use and management of urban greenspaces. In places like New York, budget cuts and furloughs have reduced the frequency of maintenance in some parks or open spaces allowing for plant species, referred to by ecologists as “urban spontaneous vegetation” or “ruderal vegetation”, to thrive. Although related in many ways, ruderal plant species are more commonly found in urban areas where the impacts of human activity, and emerge from waste grounds, sites of intense human disturbance, or from extreme events. The term ruderal, in particular, comes from the Latin word, “rudus,” or rubble. The term was first popularized by ecologists who were studying the emergence of ruderal plant communities amid the ruins of Berlin in post-WWII Germany, considered in some ways the beginning of the urban ecology movement as we know it today.

Once assumed to provide little to no ecosystem services, which are the indirect or direct benefits from ecosystems, recent research has revealed a host of benefits. These include reducing the urban heat island, improving stormwater control and absorption, creating a habitat for wildlife, carbon sequestration, and more. Yet it’s important to note that these benefits do come with some tradeoffs depending on the species. In some cases, certain ruderal or spontaneous plant species can disrupt an ecological process and result in reduced community diversity or species coexistence. However, the global significance of these tradeoffs is still hotly debated and understudied.

To better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on ruderal plant communities in NYC, I began to observe 6 sites on the Northern edge of Prospect Park from May to September 2020. The first four sites are located in an area known as Grand Army Plaza in Central Brooklyn, which consists of several traffic islands, roundabouts, and informal greenspaces primarily maintained by the NYC Parks Department and Prospect Park Alliance. The first three detailed in the map above, are traffic islands with managed vegetation considered part of the City’s Green Streets program. Typically these areas are maintained weekly, and planted with ornamentals and other cultivated plants. When I visited the sites in August and September they were largely overgrown with a wonderful array of ruderal and spontaneous plants ranging from the tree of heaven and mugwort to lambs quarter and goldenrod, prickly lettuce, and Siberian elm among others. Every possible crack and opening was now full of life.

I also observed a series of green spaces that encircle the Plaza’s archway. In most years, this area is maintained quite heavily and consists of rose bushes that are meant to mimic a manicured hedgerow. This year, the area was similarly filled with a range of ruderal plants, and notably, several “urban epiphytes” or trees (e.g. cottonwood and Siberian elm) growing directly from the granite edifice of the monument itself. As I wandered deeper into the entrance to the park, I also noticed a significant increase in biomass along the edges of once maintained areas. The cracks between hexagon pavers now host to a dizzying array of species such as mugwort, pepperweed, fleabane, and goldenrod. Along the edges, pollinators, birds and even small mammals were traversing through each ruderal patch as Prospect Park was transformed into Brooklyn’s outdoor living room. Each week I would greet these new weedy citizens with care and observation, sometimes sitting and listening, other times observing, and by Autumn, harvesting for various purposes. Over time, these marginal ecologies became a welcome relief and a chance to witness new life emerging during a time of incredible pain and demise.

Site 2. Plaza Street West No. 1

Noxious Nuisance: Learning to Stay with the Trouble

Although my impromptu field studies were quite gratifying, it is important to note that for many ruderal and weedy plants conjure notions of neglect and urban blight, an assumption supported in part by a Eurocentric Arcadian myth of Nature where landscapes can only have value if they are pristine or virgin. This sentiment is bound to our early conceptualizations of Nature, cultural upbringing, and popularized notions of what a park or garden should look and feel like, among a range of factors. As such, the primary strategies to address environmental or human health challenges rely on mitigation and restoration practices that attempt to merely maintain or “restore” ecosystems to a pre-development ideal. These efforts often employ a problematic rhetoric that Susanna Lidström and her colleagues describe as “invasive narratives of slow violence” which characterize weeds as invaders and exotic others to be conquered. Scholars and practitioners point out these practices are largely unsuccessful long-term, but are nonetheless expensive and carbon-intensive (See Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species).

In New York City, the legal, aesthetic, and conceptual challenges for embracing novel ecological systems is quite daunting. As in many urban areas across the U.S., municipal property maintenance code in New York (eg. New York State Code 302.4) prohibits the growth of any plants labeled “invasive” or “alien” grown above 10 inches. The NYC Department of Sanitation classifies them as a “noxious nuisance” and public health hazard, despite little evidence this is the case (see also Fred Pearce’s The New Wild).

In fact, the implications of a blanket designation of any uncultivated plant as a weed or noxious nuisance may be more significant than you think. Across the U.S., vacant land on average comprises over 15–20% of overall land use, and urban ecologists now know these spaces are highly productive sites that offer a range of socio-ecological benefits for human and nonhuman communities. However, the plants commonly found growing on these sites are often a mix of native, non-native, or introduced species, and thus technically in violation of the municipal code and rarely considered as part of the City’s network of greenspaces and urban forestland. Consequently, City and state officials are required to remove, mow, or manage this urban vegetation, often through the application of harmful herbicides such as glyphosate (e.g. Bayer’s “Roundup”), which can increase the risk of cancer in humans by over 40%. Yet, despite decades of concern, the presence of most “weeds” across the City has not caused a public health crisis, nor a biological invasion. The primary drivers of environmental degradation are largely human activities, not plants. Still, weeds continue to be the scapegoat for a number of socio-ecological ills facing cities worldwide.

The Multiple Benefits of Ruderal Vegetation

So what are the advantages of allowing ruderal and spontaneous plants to grow? In a broad sense, access and exposure to greenery, urban parks and vegetation has been documented to be increasingly important for wellbeing and health. Studies show that urban vegetation can have positive economic impacts like boosting property values, can improve mental health outcomes and decrease anxiety, as well lead to decreased anger, fatigue and increase attention levels. Recent research also suggests that novel ecosystems and the kinds of ruderal plant communities they support can actually increase biodiversity and enhance ecosystem services in some areas. Not only this, but many of the plant species which scientists label as ruderal exhibit unique traits that allow them to readily adapt and cope with climate change and high levels of disturbance. In some cases, they demonstrate new strategies and traits for adapting, from unique forms of phytoremediation and rapid urban evolution, the ability to hybridize and cope with extreme disturbance, to a significant shift in reproduction cycles and seed dispersal strategy.

In the U.S., researchers at the Gardiner Lab at Ohio State University have found “vacant” lots, informal greenspaces, and the ruderal vegetation they support can be ideal sites for pollinator conservation. The group is currently conducting a study of 40 “vacant” lots in Cleveland, OH testing various landscape designs called Pocket Prairies to assess the best way to attract beneficial insects. This is particularly important as several studies the Lab has conducted point to habitat loss due to urbanization in addition to pesticide use and extreme weather as driving factors in the decline of wild bee populations and species.

Within the context of the ongoing health crisis, recent research also indicates that urban vegetation may play a mediating role in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases. In a study of major urban areas in the U.S., researchers used the National Land Cover Database (2016) to conduct a spatial analysis and understand relationships between COVID‐19 incidence and the prevalence of urban vegetation. Their findings suggest that a one percent increase in urban vegetation can result in a 2.6% decrease in cumulative COVID-19 cases. And in a study of Italian forested areas, researchers found similar results noting a significant decrease in COVID cases for residents who live near a forest ecosystem. They attribute this in part to the presence of Mediterranean plants that can filter particulate matter, as well as the emission of bioactive volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can bolster the human immune system.

Ruderal Resilience: New Strategies for Multispecies Connection

Although it can be tempting to romanticize ruderal or novel ecologies, it is critical not to co-opt their value by transforming them into yet another recreational destination or subjectivity for us to consume (see the Highline in Manhattan or waterfront esplanades like Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City). Still, these cosmopolitan plant communities are nonetheless here to stay and make visible an important tension between urban nature and human supremacy, and an opportunity to reflect on the increasingly globalized flow of people, seeds, organisms, and ecosystemic change worldwide. Weeds are simultaneously the byproducts of colonial conquest and global capitalism, while at the same time an example of what will thrive in altered anthropogenic urban landscapes: plants and organisms that can readily adapt and cope with increased temperatures, higher levels of CO2, coastal and inland flooding, poor air quality, degraded soils, and extreme weather conditions. This double entendre offers a useful device, a ruderal lens that Bettina Stoetzer explains can “combine an analysis of ruins and their emerging ecologies with questions of urban social justice.”

In the context of the Anthropocene, thinkers like Anna Tsing and Donna Harraway urge us to look toward ruderal margins, or what Tsing calls spaces of contamination. There is immense wisdom to be gained from entering into a relationship with these spaces. Yet, in order to receive any crucial insights we also need to confront our own plant blindness and the assumption that ecological systems are linear and static, and able to be restored to some timeless or “normal” state. This is as much an infrastructural design challenge as it is a socio-cultural one.

And while my weekly walks through Prospect Park and Brooklyn’s informal greenspaces are a gesture in this direction, for many a process of unlearning and embrace of multispecies care will take time and confrontation. Encounters with ruderal vegetation may offer a starting point in this respect, and perhaps a platform to imagine new ways of thinking about resilience, stewardship, or conservation. This can be initiated with a simple practice of observation, to see and acknowledge the weedy and ruderal margins all around us. In her essay “More-than-Human Sociality”, Anna Tsing makes an urgent call for exactly this. She says, “We don’t just identify non-humans as static others, we further learn from them and ourselves in action, through common activities.” In taking the time to look carefully at life in a sidewalk crack or vacant lot we may begin to confront our implicit biases about plants and our desire to control Nature for our own benefit.

Once our powers of observation are sharpened, as John Cage would say, we may begin to see the full spectrum of multispecies life all around us. The vacant lot behind your house thus ceases to be conceptualized as a void, but rather a different kind of lifeway that is interconnected and interwoven with our health and livelihoods. With this, we may begin to approach and learn from these newly visible systems through forms of embodiment, touch, and attunement.

Ecologists and scientists are beginning to engage in this process as well. See Peter Del Tredici’s book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, or Natasha Myer’s work on the Planthroposcene for instance. As she points out, there is an emergent kind of wisdom in the latent space between the human and plant body. She calls for the embrace of “plant-people conspiracies” to grow liveable worlds, which perhaps can unfold as platforms to consider new forms of regenerative design and governance that take a cue from ruderal plant communities. As my colleagues at the Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) would say, “how can we make space for more life in a time of extinction?”.

It is now winter, and 2020 has passed. And while many of the vibrant plant communities are now dormant, a latent ruderal seed bank awaits the return of warmer weather. In some sense the Anthropause may be a gift as Robin Wall Kimmerer points out, a making visible our tenuous relationship with urban ecological systems and yet an opportunity to acknowledge their regenerative capacity, especially if we give organisms a chance to breathe. I for one look forward to seeing more weeds on the streets of New York, and hope you’ll give them a chance as well.

Christopher Kennedy an artist-designer and educator. He is the assistant director at the Urban Systems Lab, The New School.