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The Impact of Native Plantings in the Urban Environment

We would like to imagine that if Jane Jacobs were alive today she would enthusiastically expand her perspective to embrace all species in our urban ecosystems.

By Ruth Loetterie


May 2, 2019

We would like to imagine that if Jane Jacobs were alive today she would enthusiastically expand her perspective on the life of a city—a dynamic dance performed by the human community—to welcome other species to the dance as well. In the decade since her passing, ecological studies have led many shapers of cities to recognize the importance and benefit of accommodating species beyond Homo sapiens in the complex ecosystems of our urban spaces.

A study published at the end of last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is just one of several that expand our human understanding of how our cities should be shaped. The study demonstrates the links between urban songbirds and plants—specifically native plant species. One case study from the research looked at the Carolina chickadee populations in the Washington, D.C. metro area. The study found that in areas with less than 70 percent native plant biomass, the Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations.

Doug Tallamy, professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware has been promoting our human role in sustaining this ecological interdependence for the past decade. His book, Bringing Nature Home, reveals that while plant species that originate in other parts of the world may please our human eye, they make little contribution to the health of our ecosystem compared to their native counterparts. While they may provide shade or stabilize soil, they do not support the ecosystem’s food web—they cannot be eaten by local insects whose specific dietary needs are the result of countless years of coevolution with local plants. Monarch butterflies are the posterchildren of this plight- their populations are quickly diminishing due to the reduction of milkweed in our landscapes. And without insects to nourish young birds, the survival of our feathered friends is endangered.

It is critical then that our urban spaces, as well as all landscapes, contribute to the ecosystem supporting native plant species that insects depend on to survive. For many, this emphasis on the planting of native species represents a new approach to our public and private spaces, an approach dependent on developing an appreciation for the wondrousness of the plant species endemic to one’s neighborhood and region. At IBI Group’s office in Boston, that wondrousness lies just outside our door in the one block section of the 1.5 mile-long Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway that is devoted to native species.

2019 marks the second year that IBI Group has been enjoying a weekly stroll of the Greenway’s native plant section enhancing our knowledge and appreciation for the numerous species growing there. On Tuesday, May 7, our walk will be Jane’s Walk—expanding her perspective of cities to include our native plant species, insects and birds whose lives depend upon them. We are sure that Jane would approve.

Ruth joined CRJA-IBI Group in 1980. Since that time she has worked on a variety of projects from master planning and site design of public and mixed income housing to signage design. More recently her work has focused on the master planning and site design for a variety of institutions – colleges, universities, secondary schools, neighborhood groups, nature centers, and botanical gardens. Ruth enjoys working with institutional communities to plan and design facilities that meet their needs and reflect their image and unique character, using workshops to gather the critical information and discover collective solutions. Ruth serves on the board of Grow Native Massachusetts, a small non-profit that promotes the recognition of the ecological potential of every corner of the state, no matter how small.

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