NYT on “Wild Life of American Cities”

Illustration by Sara Cwynar for the New York Times

A New York Times Magazine article titled “Bloom Town: The Wild Life of American Cities” got my attention and that of several Rant readers, who wrote to me about it.  And no wonder – it appears to be about a subject we’ve written about here over the years, and I eagerly read it.  Then I read it again in an attempt to determine the POINT of it.  Then I consulted a very careful reader friend of mine who declared herself bored by the article because it “has no central message” and was mere ” filler.”  So I feel a lot better about not gleaning its message myself.

Though maybe I didn’t try hard enough.  I was put off by the statement early on that “urban plants were more likely to be able to fertilize themselves,” by which the author was referring to reproduction, not the making of nutrients.   The author is listed as the science editor for BoingBoing.

So sorry, readers, I won’t be summarizing and commenting on this article but please offer your own take on it right here in a comment.


  1. I wasn’t particularly “wowed” by this article. Maybe the point is that research into the differences between wild urban plants and wild suburban plants is taking place. I guess we should get excited by this, but without much more to go on, (yawn) I just feel sleepy.

    The article states, “As damaging as urbanization can be to its immediate environs, city living, on the whole, is greener than living in the suburbs.” Why is that?? Who says so? I didn’t find much support for that statement in this article.

    My freshman college English teacher would have given the writer a “C” for this article, just as she gave me a “C” for not providing support for such statements in the first paper I submitted to her.

    • I think the idea that people living closer together is more efficient in lots of ways – and therefore greener – is pretty well established. Suburban sprawl causes all sorts of problems, from loss of natural areas to increased driving to bigger homes that have to be heated and cooled, etc.

  2. Ecological homogenization in urban areas- how our cities are all starting to look and feel the same, from how we plan them to what we plant. How this leads to carbon storage differences in unexpected places- like Phoenix. How (thanks to the increased warmth in cities), more exotic varieties self-sow and self-fertilize and survive, while the wild plants in the immediate surrounding areas don’t survive in that environment. How such urban planning concepts (used in backyards) might be more sustainable than previous practices (lawns in the desert). How a group of scientists is about to conduct a giant, multi-city study on this phenomenon. I understood it just fine…what is it that is confusing? And I am an English professor. 😉

  3. Fertilize
    1. Cause (an egg, female animal, or plant) to develop a new individual by introducing male reproductive material.
    2. Make (soil) more fertile or productive by adding suitable substances to it.

    I don’t think it is fair to criticize the author for using the primary definition of the word “fertilize” in this article, rather than the secondary one used in gardening/farming circles. It is, after all, a science article by a science writer aimed at the general public, not a gardening article.

  4. I think the author stated her premise very clearly in the first paragraph: that widespread, homogenous plant choices for landscaping in an urban locality (due to popular trends or what’s available in the local garden centers, for example) have profound consequences for the unique environment there, including things like soil ecology and carbon sequestration. These changes reflect the fact that an urban environment over time can change the local ecological climate substantially from what was there before (“terra-forming”, if you will). It is suggested that suburban landscapes also change the landscape, but in a less positive way ecologically than the urban landscape.

    The author makes the point that the studies are still in progress, but I find the whole thing fascinating. Do landscapers give much thought to how their choices affect the local ecology? Probably they do, if they can fit it into their client’s desires and budgets. But how often do they fit those choices into the larger-scale picture of regional climate change?

  5. MKB has a reputation for simply presenting science while trying to avoid the common pitfalls of injecting bias or overstating the research. This probably seems odd to a lot of people since the media hardly ever approaches science this way because it isn’t sensational enough.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here