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On the Scruffy Wild Edge of Urban Jungle with Garden Futurist Ben Wilson

Articles: On the Scruffy Wild Edge of Urban Jungle with Garden Futurist Ben Wilson

Summer 2023

Listen to the podcast here.

This episode explores the landscape history of cities as ecosystems, not ecosystems of business but actual living systems.  

New research shows that urban gardens support a greater number of species than an equivalent sized semi-wild rural habitat. As gardeners, as horticulturists, we may want to curate these gardened environments. How much urban landscape should be a “scruffy wild edge-land”? How does looking to the past help us plan the future of cities? 

Sarah Beck speaks with historian Ben Wilson about his sixth book, Urban Jungle: The History and Future of Nature in the City. With special guest Saxon Holt.

This episode was sponsored by: 

Order your copy of Urban Jungle: The History and Future of Nature in the City from Penguin Random House here.

Sarah Beck: You’re listening to Garden Futurist

I’m Sarah Beck, here with Pacific Horticulture board member, Saxon Holt.

I think it’s pretty fun talking to you about this because I think most people know you as a highly acclaimed garden photographer, and you have a passion for history, which I love to connect to, especially when we get into this conversation about connectivity to place and sense of place and how important that is.

Tell me what was interesting for you to read what Ben Wilson said about this deep dive on the history side.

Saxon Holt: Well, it really was interesting. I never even honestly thought about the natural history of cities. It never occurred to me. I always thought nature, I love nature, but in gardens—but I never thought cities and nature could be the same. And that’s the fundamental thing that Ben Wilson has noticed or made aware that they are the same.

Cities have their own ecosystem, and they’ve developed from agricultural needs. There’s a lot of gardens in history that would happen in cities. And I just never put two and two together.

And all the work we do now at Pacific Horticulture—of trying to talk about resilient cities and how we have to figure this out—understanding the history of cities that is attached to ecosystems is really cool and it’s a really important concept.

Sarah Beck: I spoke with Ben Wilson. He has an undergraduate and master’s degree in history from Cambridge. I spoke with him about his sixth book, Urban Jungle: The History and Future of Nature in the City.

Sarah Beck: You started looking at the history of nature in cities and it seems like it’s hard to do that without really getting yourself in this deep vein of city planning perspectives. We think of city planners as such a contemporary concept.

To think about this history of how perspectives on green space have changed, I was just really curious to hear you talk about what you learned from that or what insights did you gather once you started looking at this realization that there’s this city planner body of thought all throughout the world at these different points and different places.

Ben Wilson: Partly the connection between city planning and landscape design was something I hadn’t really appreciated before. And the fact that a lot of city planners began their lives as landscape gardeners, that’s really interesting.

But looking even back at the early history of cities and their planning around a use of green space. Really, you could go back to hang the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, perhaps, and you could certainly go to ancient Rome and the way that Rome

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burnt down and Nero rebuilt it, but at the center of it was this Arcadian landscape design at the center of a city that was rusenherb idea, this countryside in the city, a kind of idealized landscape.

Even looking at cities like the Aztec cities, they were built with a kind of idea of landscape and a cultural memory of their origin stories were embodied in gardens at centers of cities. The idea of green space and the city and green space fitting around each other, and its much deeper, longer historical ideas of what cities are.

There’s an aspect of town planning that forms itself around these very aristocratic ideas of straight-line approaches, tree-lined avenues, an idea of semi-wildness.

So when they’re incorporated into cities, they become integral to that city planning because they represent an idea of politics and where power lies within the state. You get the great parks of the beginning in London, Hyde Park, and places like that— the modern idea of the park—are aristocratic hunting game reserves that become incorporated into the city. So you have two tensions pulling there.

Then you get in the more modern, in the industrial city, you do get a kind of idea of urban planning mirroring the garden. That really seriously is an argument. It’s not a casual thing. It is the idea that the well-laid-out garden—with surprises, twisting paths, trees to augment the grandeur of the city, provide shade, provide a connection with the countryside—are integral to modern city planning. Whether it’s in London, Paris, and then in America as well, which takes on board a lot of these ideas, is a planning around idealized, Arcadian landscapes that are firmly implanted. And there’s a connection from that through to the modernism and Le Corbusier idea of these wide open green landscaped areas as the backdrop to urbanization.

Now most cities, these tend until modernism. This is a landscape for the rich and wealthy, right? It’s in the more upscale parts of town and it becomes symbols of power and dominance of this kind of landscape.

So we do have, throughout history, a really curious thing that urbanism isn’t just for the urbanists, it’s for people origins and power come from somewhere else. Whether they’re mogul ruling elites, or whether they’re English or French or aristocrats, or whether they’re military planners, their landscapes are incorporated into cities.

This is a really fascinating thing. So we should be aware of that when we think about city planning, actually, that it’s connection with the well-laid-out garden or park landscape is really intertwined with urban planning in the past.

Urban Jungle: The History and Future of Nature in the City by Ben Wilson. Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2023

Sarah Beck: That’s really fascinating. I think the examples you’re able to share of political ideas influencing even just perceptions of what that landscape is.

Just like you’ve just mentioned, this idea of what is idyllic, I think it’s very hard to look at so many different places and periods and see a true trend. But I do think you’ve started to pick out some examples of more recent appreciation of certain things, like appreciation for the wildness of nature or native ecologies. There are these pieces that seem to be coming forward now, and this idea of conquering nature or having these political boundaries be part of that nature organization in cities perhaps feeling like it’s going further into the past.

Am I right in making this guess that there is some kind of possible trend? Do you feel like that might be even a global trend right now?

Ben Wilson: I mean there’s certainly these trends and there’s certainly an idea that our relationship with nature is always very ideological, and it does reflect our idea of what nature can bring to us.

There is a thread that runs through all of our relationships bringing nature into the city, whether it’s to create a backdrop for power and influence, whether it’s to have a place—which parks often were—a place for aristocratic mingling, or the gentry part of the city to have a landscape that embodied their values, or whether it was in a more philanthropic era where it was to connect the poor and the bit of people who were cut off, who had often had rural backgrounds that came to the industrialized city to give them a semblance of nature that was supposed to refresh their souls and almost elevate them as people.

That was a lot behind the park movement in the 19th century was an idea not only of giving people health—the getting away from the congested slum or tenement or whatever it happened to be—but also a way to elevate their morals. That certain landscapes could embody and inculcate morals and values.

Sarah Beck: Behavior that is hoped for by the designer?

Ben Wilson: But in a policed way. By controlling nature and bringing it into the city on your terms showed the virtues of discipline and self-improvement and regulation were mirrored in the past.

Sarah Beck: So you’re saying there was some social manipulation going on?

Ben Wilson: Yeah. I mean I found all these newspaper accounts of parks that were put in the East End of London, which replaced what was there before. Which were rougher areas at the edge of the city, which was where people went and indulged in rough sports and generally misbehaved and listened to radical speeches or did rough sports that got in everyone’s way. But to replace it with a place that had regular flower beds and stately trees and had some idea of education.

People said, “Oh, well they’ve gone from being these rabble that were disporting themselves. They go and put on their Sunday best and go and walk around the park, and they’re much better people as a result.”

Bringing it forward to today, we’re much more worried, and rightly so, about climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity more generally. Then we can still imbue landscapes with something that reflects our own concerns and something that we feel that we can do to make things better.

So, there’s absolutely a connection right back to ancient Persian landscapes, which were trying to create an ordered religious spiritual place on Earth. I think we’re always trying to do that in cities, because cities are places that we can control. They’re totally anthropic landscapes, they’re human-controlled and human-based things. So there is an idea, I think, that they reflect our concerns. Almost like salvation, as well, for our own concern.

So it’s really interesting to pick out those continuities in history, the things that are very human. There’s a very human desire to live with nature in cities. That changes all the time as our preoccupations change, our political priorities. It goes without saying, almost, that you could tell the history of the birth of democracy through the ways that we’ve treated parks.

You find this tension all around the world, still, today. I locate one of those tensions in English cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was the getting rid of rough places where nature was messy and unruly, but also where people were unruly.

People went and fought for those spaces in a way they didn’t fight for lovely flower beds of exotic plants. They purposefully instated it to be in places where there were wild insects flying around wildflowers and where they could not be corralled into certain kinds of behavior.

And you find exactly that kind of thing in Indian cities today, where there’s a move to simplify parks and places like that, and take away things that the plants and trees, which were used as medicines and food stuffs and things like that, and to replace them with plants and trees that are much more ordered.

Once you stop seeing nature as a resource, then it becomes ornamental. And that’s one of the arguments I have in the book is this tension between the city that people want—and often that is using nature as a resource that can be actually tangibly used or enjoyed—versus one which is one of very idealized landscapes.

Sarah Beck: It’s so relevant right now. I love those stories you mentioned in the book because it was great to see that element of people just really defending these spaces that were less organized as resources to them. But again, they’re not being controlled and managed when they’re in those spaces. They’re doing what they want to do, whether that’s harvesting food plants or, like you said, playing rough sports, which I think that’s hilarious.

Honestly, I think what you hit on was so fascinating, when you talk about these fringes or edge lands in cities, because there’s also this ecological connection that runs through that whole story as well. You use the term ecotone, which is a biology term that has to do with these transition zones between biomes.

And I think it’s a really fascinating intersection that you really make this connection between ecologies colliding, and intermingling, and what you get in that space is biodiversity and that species richness. And those edgelands are something that you seem throughout the book to get really fascinated with, this idea that we should be looking at some of those transition zones.

I’m curious to hear you talk about just a little bit more of what you think that potential for those spaces are now, with this understanding of these political tensions and history of those spaces.

Ben Wilson: Well, yeah, I mean there’s quite a lot to unpack there, really. I think you’re absolutely right, to start with, and I’ll probably come back to this, is that it is highly politically charged, that not everybody likes or appreciates the messy landscapes that I like, because I do like transition zones.

As a historian, as someone who’s always written in various different ways about various different aspects of society—I’m not always writing about ecologies—but I find the greatest pleasure in the gaps between things. Were the places where things shouldn’t occur or be but are often the richest. Those liminal zones where the real action of life and history happens, and the edge of a city’s a very good example of that.

It’s a contested zone because the edges of cities, especially fast-growing cities, are places where you get a lot of leftover land, where it ceases to be agricultural and becomes land awaiting development.

Now those areas are really often very rich in biodiversity, because they’re left on their own. They’re under two influences: influences from the countryside, let’s call it, the bit that’s non-urban, and they’re under the influence of the urban, which is full of seeds and exotic species. Rich in nutrients, as well.

So from a biological point of view, between these two zones, as an ecotone, between these two places, really interesting things happen there. And we’re not really aware of that precisely because it is ugly, the interzone between city and countryside, because it’s left over, can be scruffy. Can be, to use a word I don’t like, full of weeds. And full of slightly illicit uses sometimes of things that happen that probably shouldn’t happen.

This does feel like a transition zone between two different places. It’s a place that filmmakers and writers and artists love. All cities, Berlin, Paris, New York—whatever city you name in the 19th century that was fast growing did have a large shanty town on the edge, which was often very green because people use that land for their animals, for gleaning wood, and things like that.

Now I’m not saying that just because it sounds nice, because it’s on trend. But I think there are real benefits that we can glean from having a scruffier wild edge to a city.

The Netherlands is a highly managed—

Sarah Beck: Very engineered landscape.

Ben Wilson: Yeah. It’s the definition of an engineered landscape, most of it’s taken from the sea and it’s below sea level, but yet it has an agricultural export which is larger than Brazil’s, I believe.

So pack into a small amount of land, a huge amount of agricultural. But on the edges of cities that are low lying, there’s a policy of depoldering, which poldering is the building of levies and things like that to keep water out. But to depolder means to rewild the edges of cities.

So you go to a city like Dordrecht, which is a really good example, virtually an island on the Rhine delta. Very prone to what will happen to a lot of cities around the world, which is getting wetter. Has dealt with that threat by creating this ring around the city.

It’s not a green belt, it’s more a wild belt. Preemptively of letting the land flood. Turning the agricultural edge of the city into a much more rugged—not wild, but it is wild in a way, but the word I’d use is rugged. It’s a rugged landscape where there’s a mixture of some grazing, but also a return of a huge amount of beavers and eagles—and things like you wouldn’t normally find on the edge of a continental European city—are coming back into this much wilder landscape.

And you can go out of the city, which is civilization, or however you want to put it, very ordered—and being the Netherlands, it is very ordered and very pretty. And you go out into its contrast, the inverse, which is a wild landscape.

So it’s a great contrast for people to go out into a defensible landscape. I use that word defensible really seriously, because often on the edge of the cities, we used to have walls and ramparts. But having a more naturalized landscape that is not agricultural could bring us real benefits when we are thinking about heat island effects, air pollution, water, wildfires, all these things that are coming with the climate emergency, actually on the edge of the city. To have a wilder rim as this edge, which is very productive in terms of its biodiversity for all kinds of reasons. It could well be a way that we think about how cities can cope with weather extremes and things like that.

But I think it more seriously and much more pertinently for the world is that where we’re urbanizing most intensively in the modern world is in biodiversity hotspots around the world. Where urban growth is happening at its most volcanic is in Asia and Africa, and it so happens that human beings like to live in places where nature likes to live and nature thrives. Who would’ve thought?

But in any case, some of the huge damage which is being done by sprawling urbanism is going to occur in places where there is a huge amount of very, very valuable biodiversity and rare species. And that interface of city and natural landscape, particularly in these biodiversity hotspots in Asia and Africa and in other places, is of a matter of concern for us all.

Sarah Beck: I do want to get into some of the research that you cited on urban ecology.

What you were just mentioning, global cities that are expanding into places that are already biodiversity hotspots. I think this gets a little messy to talk about. And it’s interesting because when we talk about urban areas having a greater percentage of biodiversity, some percentage of that biodiversity is native or endemic plants, but they also have these novel ecosystems made up of this wonderful, intertwined human side of this.

As gardeners, I think, as horticulturists, we want to curate these environments, these gardened environments. Part of this is as we look at the future of cities and we look at people being integrated with nature, do you have any thoughts on just how we can start thinking about that?

Ben Wilson: So looking at it from my historical perspective, let’s go back really far, which was to look at ancient Rome. Or to look at how ancient Rome developed. One of the first places that came under study for novel ecosystems was the Colosseum in Rome, which was abundant in all kinds of species.

Hundreds and hundreds of different species that were cataloged from the Renaissance through till now really, but much earlier than any other urban space. They noticed, Percy B Shelley said it was like walking on a rocky Mediterranean mountainscape, that you were just surrounded by the manmade brickwork of the Colosseum turned into a rugged mountain with all these species that came from everywhere.

They weren’t native to Italy, they weren’t native to Rome. They were from all over the place. So they really puzzled people, but it made the Colosseum a talking point, and it became a talking point for several reasons. One was “Where did these seeds all come from,” but also, “Look what happens when a civilization falls.”

So you’ve got two things going on there really, don’t you? Like, “Gosh, wow. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the city, but from a biological point of view, but also it shouldn’t be here, it’s signifying the decline and fall of the civilization because of its setting in the Colosseum.”

I’m going to stop in Paris on my way to my next example, which was a great guy who wrote a book in the 19th century where he says, “I remember in my youth that the streets of Paris were full of all kinds of exotic plants and things growing in the things, especially the keys where cargoes had been unloaded from barges from the river were abundant in wildflowers. But now we’ve got these pesky people that come and pull everything out, spray.”

This is in the 19th century, this guy was lamenting the decline of biodiversity in the streets of Paris. The pavements and sidewalks of Paris were being ruined by people who were being far too tidy.

But then fast forward to the real bit that I want to talk about, which is probably in the Second World War when European and Asian cities came under devastating aerial bombardment, and suddenly you have places in the city that are left to their own devices. And because you’re in a situation of total war, people start seeing and celebrating the plants that are growing because it’s almost like very quickly, astonishingly quickly, bomb sites get mantled in greenery and plants.

Now in places like London or Dresden or Hamburg or Hiroshima, places that had this amazing explosion of plants very quickly, were built over very quickly. So those sites disappeared.

West Berlin was entirely different because West Berlin was cut off from its countryside. Its botanists and biologists were cut off from the countryside, and a lot of buildings weren’t rebuilt because they were just left whilst Berlin was no longer the capital of West Germany.

So you had a lot of places the Germans called brachliegend, which means fallow field. And these sites, because there were lots of underemployed biologists, let’s say, botanists, they start studying these sites and they start studying this plant succession in these sites. And just seeing how dynamic and—for the first time from a scientific point of view—seeing how biodiverse these places were, and how in the aftermath of a bombing event, you get very swiftly taken over by pioneer plants, and then a successional growth as you get more woody trees and shrubs and things like that.

Sarah Beck: I was fascinated by that, like how do you allow for that wildness that people are attached to?

Ben Wilson: How do you plan for spontaneity is a really good question in urban planning, but also in urban landscaping. Yeah. In this one part of the Südgelände, which was an old rail depot that got taken over no longer wants to turn back into a rail depot, it’s going to revert to forest, right? Just what happens in those places. So in order to manage wildness, if you like, you have to bring in sheep to eat back woody growth in some parts of it. And when it’s in a city you need to allow people access to it. So then you have raised metal walkways that stop people from trampling on the plants or disturbing ground-nesting birds.

And so you get a managed wildness in the city, that it’s not the abandoned space it used to be, but it is full of wild plants. An amazing array of birds and mammals and insects and vast amount of bees that like being there. It’s a real nature reserve in the inner city. But it had to be taken under some form of human stewardship in order to have to maintain its biodiversity and stop it just turning into a thick and impenetrable wood.

Sarah Beck: That’s fascinating, this idea of creating a pathway through a space like that and that creates that interface for the human experience. You’re on this elevated pathway, but you’re still experiencing to some degree whatever that wild progression is.

Ben Wilson: You’re experiencing a bit of Berlin history as well.

Sarah Beck: Imagine if the Colosseum had been left in a similar state of disarray.

Ben Wilson: Exactly. It doesn’t take a war to create these spaces. The cities are in a constant state of turnover. It does return quickly. There are certain plants that we should welcome. That we should welcome in building sites because the city is in a process of being pulled down and rebuilt at any one time. It could be up to a quarter of a city can be building sites at any one time. Those spaces, those in-between spaces, those leftover bits you do get, it’s like a disaster has happened and then you get the pioneer plants.

So the Dutch, I go back to as being quite good at thinking about this, have an idea of what they call temporary nature (tijdelijke natuur), which is to allow nature to—knowing that it’ll be built upon, not arresting development totally. But because the city is so diverse, there’s a mosaic of lots of different ecosystems and lots of different uses of land and lots of different manifestations of nature.

Because it is like a mosaic. You can have areas that you can leave fallow for a few years and then build upon and to encourage that, incentivize it through the tax system, through building regulations and things like that. So to create things that can be really beautiful, but they’re beautiful for being temporary.

Sarah Beck: Talk about that a little bit just in terms of your sense of the future and how looking so closely at the past and how we look at these landscapes. Is there a really amazing way forward here? Can we think about dealing with climate change, dealing with biodiversity loss, accepting this much messier city landscape? What is that optimistic outcome that we could see if we’re really putting energy toward understanding what can happen in urban environments?

Ben Wilson: One way I look at history and why I thought history was important for this book is that cities are in a constant state of metamorphosis.

There’s not one city, there’s not one way of doing things. There’s constant change. And that change, as we’ve been talking about, is mirrored by nature. So that’s one thing to say that to think historically is really important. So when I think historically about cities, I look back and think the idea of having a totally controlled, non-tidied-up city is a very recent invention and idea, and came from, again, thinking about the United States, that in the period of very fast urban growth in the 19th century, cities are bounded in nature.

As a historian, not just of urban ecologies, but of urban social systems and political systems as well, is that I always take note that the most successful cities are the cities that can adapt the fastest.

And now what does that adaptation mean? Well, in a way it means moving away from another side of this story, which was the idea that we could engineer our way out of all kinds of problems. A Promethean idea of city building was that it was purposefully where we could control the forces of nature, the flows of water.

Sarah Beck: Yeah, that went really well.

Ben Wilson: Yeah, depending on where you are, whether it’s rising sea levels, hurricanes, extreme weather events, rainfall, there’s extreme heat, wildfire, all these things.

I would say the answer lies in a lot of things I’m talking about. Those wilder spaces. Getting rid of the harder surfaces of cities and making them more natural in terms of their hydrology, in terms of their permeability with wild plants.

The clues of nature are all there in a way and that adaptation process is a form of, depending where it is, almost like a managed retreat in a way At least a retreat away from our Promethean engineering aspect to using and working with nature, experimenting, being creative and turning flat roofs into places that can soak up rainwater or cool buildings down or to stop, again, the collapse in pollinators by having a transition to much wilder spaces. Having more trees to cool cities down. All these things are well within our ability to do so. It’s unarguable that they make cities more pleasant places to be. I really do appreciate how people do think differently about this.

Sarah Beck: Does it help us to see a way forward in terms of that? You talk about political, and I’m just thinking about the will. Would we be able to look at all of this? In the book, you say something really interesting, just about how we really need to make cities biophilic. We need to actively encourage and maximize a functioning ecosystem. How do we find the will for that?

Ben Wilson: Part of that is about understanding, it’s about education. It’s about taking that historical view of seeing cities as always being experimental places. We can afford to experiment. If it doesn’t work, you change it. It’s a constant form of change in cities, which makes them, after all, very invigorating places to live.

But also, Why don’t we do more of these experiments? Why don’t we grow more food on tops of buildings, or utilize space in lots of different ways? Why don’t we use the bits of grassland and things like that, that grow alongside or in between roads and things like that? Why don’t we deliberately maximize them for biodiversity and put biodiversity first?

Where I live, because I got angry about stuff, I got them to put up notices saying this land’s being left, not because we’re bad local authorities. It’s for the insects and for the birds, and things like that. We’re just doing that. So a bit of education does a bit of good, I think. And to see, from my historical perspective, that the cities were very dependent on their ecosystems for a very long time.

And when you start looking at that, maybe you start looking at your street, your neighborhood in a different, but also your own garden. And then these are huge garden yards and things like that are really huge part of the urban landscape. The biggest amount of nature in the city is found in the home or just outside the home. But actually if we did experiment with cities instead and made them a bit wilder, kids love it. Kids love that wildness.

If you think differently about the city, and I have certainly by doing this book, to look and appreciate what’s growing on the side of a wall or alongside a canal or wherever it happens to be, and suddenly finding and knowing the history, why are those plants there? Kowing there’s a bit of history there.

If we like city life and we want to protect our cities and carry on making them livable in a time when we’re going to hit weather extremes, then I think our future really is urban. I think we’re good at living in cities.

I think we’re much less prone to waste resources and burn and create waste when we live together. Yeah, give us the cities that mirror that in a ecological sense as well. That would be my urging and I’d say that was not a crazy, radical, futuristic view. It accords with history as well.

Sarah Beck: I feel like something that Ben Wilson touched on—that maybe I hadn’t really thought about this way before—was this idea that cities are places of flux and change. The thing that he said that really struck me was he was talking about short-term wild spaces inside of cities. Can we get to a place where we can sort of accept that this is going to keep changing?

Saxon Holt: I was totally reminded of what Miridae is doing in Sacramento. They’re asking citizens to go drop piles of seeds into cracks in the pavement, into easements or abandoned lots and to see what survives and do a scientific study of what survives. And it’s temporary. It’s not going to be there forever, but it’s a study in what we can do with those wild, unexpected places within cities. Ben talks that we need to honor them and respect. They’re not permanent.

Sarah Beck: I really am excited to talk to you about this because I think there’s a lot to unpack when we talk about the incredible biodiversity that’s in a city and the fact that there are so many layers. There are the endemic—what we consider native—plant species, but there are also many plants that are coming because of cultural mixing and this wonderful, the thing that we love about being in a city, which is that diversity of human culture is reflected in the diversity of the plants. And when he cited the biodiversity research, it definitely corroborates a lot of things we’ve seen.

We know of a number of urban ecology labs right now that are doing pollinator studies and they’re seeing more diversity of pollinators coming to some of these community garden spaces that have like tons of different plants growing that are from different human influence.

Take that aside from anything that might be invasive, which as we know is still a pretty small percentage of the plants that get brought here. What do you think about this? Like, does this help us when we talk about this this new reckoning with what cities are going to be like? How do we start looking at this level of biodiversity? It makes me think we need to be a little more flexible.

Saxon Holt: He cites the evidence that cities are more biodiverse than the regions outside them in most cases. And that’s because the community of people who live in cities have brought things there. In some cases, as you said, alien and invasive, but most of the time, plants they love. Medicinal plants, ornamental plants, things that they want to have in their gardens and as part of their lives. To honor that and recognize that that’s increasing biodiversity is pretty much a game changer, in a way, about what we expect cities to do.

The whole concept of cities is to make them habitable for us. For humans. Of course, we want to make it habitable with the critters and the greens and nature. Of course we want to do that. We know how nature is good for us, but ultimately, they have to work for us as humans. That biodiversity we bring from, whether it’s ornamental plants or food crops or medicinal plants from other parts of the world is a good thing. If we can honor that and allow people to have community gardens, allow people to have some say in what street trees to get planted in their neighborhood.

In my work with the Summer-Dry Project, I try to advocate for plants from all summer-dry climates that are adapted to our summer-dry climate. And that includes a lot of ornamentals and there are times when I have to debate folks about, well, is that bringing biodiversity of the right kind? Do the hummingbirds like these? Is it the right kind of plant? Will it be invasive? All legitimate concerns.

Sarah Beck: I think you just hit on something. I think what you’re saying is keep the critical eye. Of course, we want to look at if we’re making large landscape decisions in urban environments, yeah, let’s figure out which of these species are going to have a variety of different benefits.

Saxon Holt: As we touched on earlier, cities are creating their own ecosystems with pavement and heat sinks and wind patterns. The cities are different from the lands outside them. We know they’re warmer, but they’re also different for soil construction and for wind patterns, and of course water. We’ve almost forced all the water out of cities into storm drains. They should be percolating into the ecosystem.

So cities are different from the rural areas around them. And so to talk about what an ecosystem is going to be. What it is an ecotone, where different ecosystems interface. Cities are their own ecotones, and it’s cool that we can think about them in that way.

It was always the social history or economic history, but now the landscape is an important part of cities. And it’s really neat that we’re honoring that people are even talking about cities being ecosystems. Ecosystems of nature, not ecosystems of businesses. They are actual living ecosystems.

Sarah Beck: Yeah, we’re not referring to a tech ecosystem right now.

Saxon Holt: Yeah, let’s reclaim ecosystem for the gardeners.

If we talk about cities in that way, we understand they’re going to be concrete jungles. They’re going to be deprived soils. Mm-hmm. There’s going to be heat, there’s going to be different weather patterns. Let’s adapt. Let’s figure it out

Sarah Beck: It’s an exciting time in the world and I think, again, just to sort of reflect on some of the people who have really inspired us recently at Pacific Horticulture. I think of the people who have big ideas right now.

In so many ways, it’s so positive. I loved that this particular story goes deep into the history. It gives, I feel, a little bit of comfort, honestly, from what you were saying about the fact that we’ve seen some of these things before. Change and flux, it happens.

Saxon Holt: Cities can become this. We don’t have to pave everything over. One of the terms I did want to use that Ben mentioned was the green metro system, where we have a network of green habitat corridors, and he called it a metro system for the green.

But that’s how we can take our streets and cities and redefine them as green spaces and not car spaces. We can redefine them. I think we’ll have to and I do think the citizens of cities are going to demand it. They’re going to become increasingly uninhabitable without the green spaces. Everywhere you hear, the cities have taken out their downtown and made it pedestrian friendly, you never hear anyone complaining.

Sarah Beck. Well, this was fun.

Saxon Holt: This was genuinely fun, Sarah. I thank you for continuing to do this work.

Sarah Beck: Aw, thank you so much, Saxon. I so appreciate the work that you do and especially your support of Pacific Horticulture.

Saxon Holt: Someone needs to do this work, you know? And it’s important. So I’m happy to support the work you’re doing for all of us.




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