During the Second World War, says Ben Wilson in The New York Times, rubble-strewn cities astonished residents by rapidly sprouting plant and animal life. Blitzed areas of London “brimmed with pink swathes of rosebay willow herb”, so much so that the shrub earned the nickname “bombweed”. In central Münster, Germany, piles of rubble were quickly veiled with “pussy willow, mountain maple, birches, yellow mulleins and wild strawberry”. These disaster-loving plants often evolved on coastal cliffs or arid mountainsides, “pioneers of nature” ideally suited to running riot in ruined cities. Today, when every metropolis has acres of “in-between land”, there’s nothing to stop us recreating the magic of urban wilderness.
Sheffield is already using plants that thrive in “disturbed, acidic, dry and nutrient-poor urban environments” to grow dense meadows. In the US, Freshkills Park on Staten Island, once the “world’s biggest garbage dump”, has been returned to the “bald eagles, ospreys, herons and grasshopper sparrows” that inhabited the terrain before it became landfill. The vast roof of Chicago’s City Hall is now a kind of “aerial prairie”, home to 20,000 plants that keep the building cool in summer and absorb huge amounts of rainwater. Properly understood, urban nature can bring us tangible benefits and deep pleasure. “We should embrace it and learn to love the curious, unpredictable hybrid ecosystem that sprouts from the concrete.”