BY NATE BERG
The huge backyard along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was the perfect site for the summertime Sunday afternoon parties that the DJs Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin liked to throw. It had plenty of space, room for a bar, and the overgrowth that comes alongside New York’s lovable Superfund waterway. But they had only temporary leases and permits to throw parties. Their time in the huge backyard wouldn’t last forever.
Carter and Harkin went looking for a permanent home and found something similar: a garbage-strewn industrial lot covered in weeds next to the L tracks in Ridgewood, Queens, a few miles away. “When we found it, it was, like, kind of just a junk heap,” Carter says.
Carter called David Seiter, ASLA, the principal and the design director at Future Green Studio, a landscape design and urban ecology firm of about 20 people then based close to the party space along the Gowanus. Seiter and his studio had also warmed to the area’s unkempt feeling and wanted to keep some of that messiness in the design of the party space. They tore out the asphalt but kept some of the honey locust trees that had sprouted through its cracks. There was inspiration in other spontaneous plants that had inserted themselves into the disturbed site; Future Green planted another 30 honey locusts and saved or replanted a number of other species commonly thought of as weeds, including sumacs, gray birch, quaking aspen, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace. Carter says the place has the backyard atmosphere he and Harkin were hoping for, with the informality and blurry edges that you’d expect behind a house next to the train tracks. “It doesn’t feel too done,” Carter says. “They’ve kind of set it up to let nature do what it would do, and maybe pushed the fast forward button on it a little bit.”
The space, called Nowadays, opened in mid-June. “It’s been our best opportunity to design with weeds,” Seiter says.
The idea of designing with weeds is gaining adherents among landscape architects as they pay more attention to native species in plantings that require fewer resources to establish and maintain. It’s an approach favored and popularized by Peter Del Tredici, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, through his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide.
“There’s a huge opportunity for landscape architects if they begin to embrace this,” Del Tredici says. “And it’s a different way of designing. It’s much more of an editing with a few little punctuations, as opposed to starting from scratch.”
In a growing portfolio of work, Seiter and Future Green Studio have eagerly embraced this approach, using the existing vegetation of a site to guide its design and planting palette. “It’s rooted in a conceptual understanding of landscape and site,” Seiter says, “to reveal the latencies in the site and think about how they can be woven into a future designed environment.”
For a 400-unit residential and retail project under construction in Washington, D.C., called the Atlantic Plumbing Residences, Future Green Studio indexed the plants that were naturally occurring on the two-parcel site, including red mulberry bushes, peach trees, Boston ivy, and multiple species of vines. Weed species were eventually taken out of plans for the long window boxes on the building’s western facade, but the final planting palette includes four of the vine species that were growing wild on the preexisting structure—Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), and English ivy (Hedera helix). Another completed residential project, designed by the architects DDG in New York City’s Meatpacking District, took inspiration from the spontaneous plants growing atop the canopies of old loading docks. Seiter says some of the species used in the project’s garden and entrance canopy are local crossovers—both native and weed—including staghorn sumac, goldenrod, aster, purple love grass, and milkweed.
In addition to this design work, Future Green Studio has also taken on an informal advocacy role, making the case for using weeds in design, but also for appreciating the role they play in urban nature.
Seiter and his team started a project they call “Spontaneous Urban Plants,” to celebrate the benefits, ubiquity, and beauty of weeds. They have been photographing and cataloging weed species and writing up profiles of their ecological roles, environmental benefits, cultural histories, and culinary uses. They’ve also mapped species around their old offices near the Gowanus Canal and their new offices not far away in Red Hook, sharing geotagged images on Instagram (hashtag: #spontaneousurbanplants). Others in New York and elsewhere are submitting photos of various species that wind up utility poles or peek out of storm drains. “I’ve got my mom on Instagram, hashtagging weeds,” Seiter says.
Future Green Studio’s early efforts at weed appreciation took place on sidewalks right outside its office doors. Using bright yellow paint, the studio literally highlighted dominant urban weed species by painting circles around them where they grow in the cracks of the pavement or jut out from the crannies of a brick wall. They uprooted other plants and photographed them, creating plant profiles that mimic the style of botanical illustrations.
The plant profiles call out some of the ways these species serve the urban environment. The summer annual Chenopodium album, for instance, also known as lamb’s-quarter, is a spindly plant with spade-shaped leaves that shoots straight up out of the sidewalk cracks; it grows in many disturbed sites and can perform phytoremediation on soils, drawing out heavy metals such as zinc, copper, and lead. Taraxacum officinale, the dandelion, is adept at surviving in disturbed soils and can serve as a food source for both wildlife and humans. Its young leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals, and tea made from its roots has been used for centuries to treat ailments of the liver and urinary tract.
Seiter thinks these plants make up an under-recognized part of the broader urban ecosystem, cleaning soils and playing a role in erosion control, providing habitats and food sources, and helping to manage and clean stormwater.
“We’re seeing, potentially, a shift away from landscape urbanism, which is treating these large-scale sites and postindustrial sites in a way that’s more grandiose, and perhaps a shift toward a kind of micro landscape urbanism, where you’re doing the small sites and the traditionally underutilized spaces of the roofs and the walls and the sidewalks,” he says.
This concept may be somewhat new in the United States, but designers in other countries have long embraced weeds. “In Europe, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, there is a tradition using spontaneous plants, dating back to the nature garden movement in the 1970s,” says Norbert Kühn, a professor of landscape engineering and planting design at the Technical University of Berlin. He points to the High Line as an example of this aesthetic winding its way into the United States. “There is some sophisticated use of spontaneous vegetation. Might be it opens a different view to that issue.”
Del Tredici argues that landscape architects should be more open to the idea of designing with weed species and spontaneously occurring vegetation, and taking advantage of the inherent ecological services they can provide.
“Within the landscape architecture profession, there’s an assumption that ecology underlies design, and I’m beginning to challenge that assumption. If you look at true ecology, it’s about letting nature do its own thing. And design is about control and about having a vision and creating a vision and maintaining a vision,” Del Tredici says. Maintaining the vision behind a design, however, can take a lot of resources. “The benefit of spontaneous plants is they do it at no cost.”
But, Del Tredici says, more landscape architects are coming around, however slowly, to this idea of ceding control to these ecological forces. Plant suppliers are responding to these changing preferences by increasing their stocks of native species, including some plants more typically considered weeds. In Staten Island, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center is one of those forward-thinking nurseries. It’s run by the city’s parks department, and though it does not sell plants to contractors or private projects, it does supply native plants for projects built on public land in the city, as well as to many community groups. Jeremy LaPointe, the nursery’s manager, says he’s seeing a rising interest in landscapes with native species and plants commonly considered weeds, but it’s a slow transition.
“With horticultural species pretty much you’re going to get the same-looking thing every time,” he says. “A native plant is going to be a much weedier look, which in my mind is not bad; it’s just not the way we’ve been doing it.”
LaPointe notes that this type of weedier approach is being embraced by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, all of which are using native species on a large scale to improve ecosystem health. He says it’s only a matter of time before designers and landscape architects take that approach on smaller-scale projects.
Seiter says Future Green Studio’s weed mapping project can be a part of that transition. A new version of the Spontaneous Urban Plants website and map is under development, and a book of weed profiles by the Archer imprint is scheduled for release in March 2016. These projects are intended to inspire interest in these plants, he says, but suggests anyone trying to find more comprehensive, ecological information on certain weed species should consult Del Tredici’s book. Of his own project, Seiter says, “This is more about sensationalizing the plants.”
Nate Berg is a writer based in Los Angeles who covers cities, technology, and design.
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