A Manifesto for the Urban Hedgerow

By: Jason Dewees Lisa Lee Benjamin

Jason Dewees works as horticulturist at Flora Grubb Gardens (www.FloraGrubb.com) in San Francisco. He also serves as a horticultural advisor…

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Lisa Lee Benjamin perseveres in her worldwide pursuit to generate environments that unite people, art, and science. Consulting and collaborating…

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The newly opened High Line, an urban park on an abandoned, elevated rail line, where an emphasis on native plants and diversity attract all forms of wildlife into Manhattan. Photograph by RGT

The newly opened High Line, an urban park on an abandoned, elevated rail line, where an emphasis on native plants and diversity attract all forms of wildlife into Manhattan. Photograph by RGT

Urban Hedgerow is a campaign to invite more wild animals and plants into our garden and city spaces. It’s an effort to link projects around the globe that are transforming our relationship to the habitats we humans most conspicuously dominate: our cities, suburbs, and towns. Urban Hedgerow seeks to seduce people through art and garden-making to examine and expand their tolerance for the other creatures in their midst.

The hedgerows of northern European landscapes—trees and shrubs planted as barriers and boundaries along fields and roads—host both wild and domesticated plants, in turn offering wild animals corridors for shelter, forage, and migration. Over time, these half-wild, half-cultivated seams in the agricultural landscape develop increasingly diverse species assemblages.

The urban hedgerow can be seen as the constructed and neglected patchwork of shelter and forage in cities and suburbs that allows wild organisms to survive, migrate, and thrive. It’s a conceptual twist on the ancient rural hedgerow.

Through the column of air 30,000 feet above our heads flows a river of insects and spiders, imperceptible to us humans but comprising millions of organisms when measured over a short period of time. Bugs, as we non-entomologists refer to the arthropods on land, ingest the wealth of the sun’s energy that is manifest in plants, then nourish insect-eating (and perhaps more charismatic) vertebrates like birds, bats, hedgehogs, and humans. (Well, maybe only a few West Coast humans eat bugs these days.)


Even the most paved and polluted city is a habitat for a web of organisms besides Homo sapiens. Nature asserts itself relentlessly, despite our attempts to contain it or escape from it.


Green hairstreak butterflies mating on their host plant, coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium). Photograph by Amber Hasselbring

An urban hedgerow might be the Green Hairstreak Project of San Francisco. There, gardeners in the vicinity of remnant habitat for the endangered green hairstreak butterfly are planting host and nectar plants to serve as steppingstones between the three somewhat scattered remnant sites of its former habitat, which once covered much of the city. Another might be the High Line in Manhattan, the celebrated reconstruction of a decaying, overgrown elevated rail line into a linear park planted with hardy plants, many of them native to the region, that offer forage, shelter, and a migration path for people, birds, and bugs. An urban hedgerow can also be the artful habitat panels created by John Little in the United Kingdom and by Kevin Smith and Lisa Lee Benjamin in California—sculptures that can be mounted high on an apartment tower or warehouse, offering a home to insects and spiders and forage for birds and bats.

Urban Hedgerow is not a return to Eden. It’s a technique for living differently with the false but comforting dualities of nature/culture and wilderness/civilization. It’s an effort to invest our human-defined spaces with the unpredictable delight of the wild, and to promote the pleasures that come from an enhanced ecological knowledge.

We can draw inspiration from places with extended histories of urbanization and agriculture. In long-deforested England, the hedgerow functions as a species-rich interface managed by humans. In Japan, the concept of satoyama encompasses the mosaic of managed forest and irrigated rice paddies, and the species-rich interface between these realms.

Art as habitat: a bug-hotel panel of bark, twigs, and other materials set in a metal frame, to be hung on a wall. Design and photograph by Caitlin Atkinson

Art as habitat: a bug-hotel panel of bark, twigs, and other materials set in a metal frame, to be hung on a wall. Design and photograph by Caitlin Atkinson

The Evolution of the West

Humans have created and dominated urban habitats on the West Coast for a scant 160 years. Arriving in a place managed for millennia by indigenous peoples, early settlers perceived the land as a wilderness frontier—chaotic, complex, mysterious, and dangerous. Against that natural landscape, they laid down a built landscape (often with a rectilinear grid) of missions, forts, agricultural fields, and urban settlements— including gardens—that were simple in form, organized for human purposes, mentally and physically accessible, and safer than the wild landscape. Certainly native peoples had dominated their own settlements, agricultural lands, and disposal areas, but not on a scale comparable to that begun by the pioneers in the 1800s.

Behind mission walls and in fringing fields, the first European-derived settlers in the West planted gardens primarily for sustenance. Near the end of the nineteenth century, designers of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park plotted an enormous rectangle of pleasure gardens onto an unruly dunescape, retaining only the picturesque native oak groves and ponds that seemed to fit into their garden vision of wood and glade.

As San Francisco, the first large city on the West Coast, expanded across its scrub-covered hillsides and shifting sand dunes, the city became a bottleneck in the coastal flyway. Bird species that, for thousands of years, had found food and shelter in those scrublands now make do with a few remnant patches. Simply planting a coast live oak gives those birds a place to perch and browse for bugs.

The most characteristic element of the civilized Western garden athwart wildness is the picture-perfect lawn. The more luxuriant and carpet-like it is, the less diverse is the community of species it harbors, and the more destructive are the petroleum-derived chemicals used to sustain it. In our summer-dry climates, the water used to keep a gorgeous lawn green subtracts from rich watercourse habitats, the dwindling linear oases of the arid West. Maintaining a pristine lawn trades a healthy diversity for an inert domestic monoculture.

An Appeal

A garden without birdsong or the fluttering of insect wings fails to comfort or enchant. We tend to love what’s “lively.” Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square, a “park” nearly void of plants, would be less appealing without its lowly pigeons. The formal gardens of Versailles, for all their mesmerizing geometry, still support the foraging and sheltering of birds and other critters in the surrounding managed woodlands, and accommodate the decay and predation essential to the cycle of life.

Observe what lives near you. Invite more species into your realm. Build a beautiful bug hotel and see who checks in. Learn what plants and animals are native in your community, and plant species that offer the local wildlife food and shelter. Pull back mulch to expose soil for bumblebee nests. Make your hedge of ceanothus instead of boxwood. As you focus your eye and deepen your knowledge and love for your home environment, you will find your tolerance of wild things will naturally broaden.

Urban Hedgerows: A Resource Guide