Novel ecosystems vs. urban wilderness


I’ve been thinking about a symposium (“The Changing Nature of Nature in Cities”) I attended at the New York Botanical Garden in November.   The topic  of the symposium was “novel ecosystems” – fundamentally, this is the idea that some ecosystems, especially urban ones, have been so radically transformed that it is impossible or impractical to restore them to a native status.  If the soil consists largely of construction rubble or has been chemically altered by decades of polluted rainfall, and the climate is changed (by the urban heat island effect) does it make sense to remove whatever has proven adapted, even if that is ailanthus trees?  As Peter Del Tredici, one of the symposium’s speakers, suggested, perhaps such weeds are the real natives of these artificial ecosystems.  Perhaps we should be embracing this new incarnation of the wild, suggested environmental writer Emma Marris.

Bronx River gorge in the New York Botanical Garden forest
Bronx River gorge in the New York Botanical Garden forest

The location of the symposium was a poignant one for me.  As a student at the New York Botanical Garden in the 1970’s, I loved the melting pot of the Garden’s 100-acre forest.   In it mingled all sorts of strange, exotic plants, squirrels lived side by side with a wild parrot, and one member of the NYBG arboretum crew had, for a while, homesteaded there, growing vegetables on an island in the Bronx River.  It was a dream-like, Henri Rousseau-esque landscape.  Any hard rain turned up glass marbles, relics of a slingshot-armed street gang of the 1960’s, the “Ducky Boys,”  who were, arguably, as native to that setting as the Indians who had carved a turtle petroglyph on a boulder there.

Nearly all of this has been swept away as the Botanical Garden administration has attempted to return the forest to its native state.  Yet natural recruitment of native plants has proven problematical in this island of vegetation surrounded by miles of asphalt, and native plants struggle to compete in a soil that has been so enriched with nitrates from auto exhaust and air pollution.  Todd

Forrest, NYBG vice president for horticulture, admitted that it can be a challenge to find and insert any native species that will reproduce naturally in many ecological niches within this “novel” setting.

I understand the need for such attempts to restore ecosystems within the city; the NYBG forest has become an important center for studying techniques and challenges.  But I miss the unique vitality of the forest I knew; it epitomized the living New York in a way that the current museum display cannot.   I suspect that coming to terms with, and learning to respect, the novel ecosystems growing up around us is, as the symposium speakers insisted, going to be a key to connecting with our 21st century wild, and learning to respect and treasure Nature in all its incarnations.

urban wilderness

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Well, it is a slight step away, IMO, from the naturalistic school but it makes sense. There are areas of the planet now, I suppose, that would require transplantation to Pluto so those areas could completely returned to natural here.

  2. Welcome to Garden Rant, Thomas! Your story raises a big issue and that’s what we like. Louisville, KY is struggling with a loss of an estimated 9% of its tree canopy, in parts of the city, over the last 7 years. Remnants of a hurricane, an ice storm, the emerald ash borer and neglect have taken a toll. The city, and tree advocates, are trying to find the resolve to turn the tide. There’s plenty of local know-how. Non-natives will certainly play a part.

  3. Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab:

    “We no longer have the luxury of letting Nature find its own level, but have to consciously foster wildness and diversity everywhere we live.”

    Now, I agree to a point, but the real culprit, as indicated in the study above, is agriculture.

    For example, last week’s analysis in NATURE points a finger at agriculture:

    “The continuing spread of agriculture is destroying millions of hectares of wild habitats every year, leaving animals without homes.”

    So, I believe the new field of “conservation agriculture” must be where the action is as the earth’s population grows.

    Of course, we now know that 51% of Americans live alone. And, it’s growing. That cannot be good for the environment. Our community is fighting a multifamily development zoning. Here’s the type of thing we as lovers of the environment are up against. Below is a google earth photo of a Ryan Homes development, one of many going in all over our region. Just look at the devastating and permanent changes coming to an area when one of these developments go in. (You can see the roads leading trough the forest.),-76.5667798&spn=0.0155853,0.0268046&cid=493905689352844913&q=Creekside+Village+Apartments&output=classic&dg=ntvb

    Sometimes it’s just too overwhelming, but I hope to play a role in bringing about changes specifically to how we do agriculture for I think that’s where we are going to need the greatest change.


    • I suspect that the area which will be fundamental to any change which has a hope of sustaining the health of our planet and biodiversity is acknowledging that we humans cannot keep expanding our population forever. There are no ways of doing agriculture that can be expanded indefinitely, and people have to eat. I certainly agree with you otherwise, and the gist of this article, but whether we think the planet can hold ten billion, or one, or only one hundred million, there is a limit.

      51% of us Yankees live alone? Yikes! As an old man in good shape I may end up in this three bedroom house alone, and it would make sense to find a roomie or two. I don’t want to scale down and leave if I can still maintain my garden – I’ve only been doing it for ten years, and I’m just getting started!

      • Interestingly, the recent recession may have caused a “cultural shift” among Hispanic women here in the U.S.

        “The recent baby bust is notable because it was mostly attributable to young Hispanic women who are legal U.S. residents.”

        Is it possible that the first world experience of declining births might ultimately have its benefits for the planet and its inhabitants? I have to hope so.

        Yet, a declining population is not enough as we become the breadbasket for the rest of the world.

        It is so very much up to the few who want to preserve open space to play a great role. I cannot see how we make progress without government intervention, without legislation encouraged by the few of us who care.

        Oh, and, who are the new young ones who will replace the Gen-Xers and baby boomers who seem to do a lot of the caring? The 70 million millennials? In my community of insectivore nestbox monitors, across this country, we have no idea who will take over the work required to maintain and monitor a trail. We are all worried.

        Will the millennials step up? I wonder:

        “If you think caring about the environment is the realm of young people, think again. They barely care about it at all.”

        At least, perhaps, the well known low millennial birth rate will be of benefit to the planet.

  4. Thanks for the welcomes and the comments. I agree with you Marcia, that our lifestyle and our economics place little value on natural areas. And Allen, we haven’t felt the impact of the emerald ash borer yet in my hometown, but it is coming and, as a state forester put it, “kiss your ash good-bye”. Another tragic loss.

  5. “I suspect that coming to terms with, and learning to respect, the novel ecosystems growing up around us is, as the symposium speakers insisted, going to be a key to connecting with our 21st century wild, and learning to respect and treasure Nature in all its incarnations.”

    Nature no longer exists. We’ve touched everything, either directly with a tractor or less directly with methane and CO2. What still gets me about the whole novel ecosystem discussion is that, to me, it feels like denial through rapid acceptance — or, an attempt to wiggle out of or remove oneself from the sadness of loss and the acceptance of what caused that loss. What I mean is, yes, we have no choice but to live in and deal with a world of novel ecosystems, and we have no choice but to micromanage everything if we have any hopes of more easily transitioning into god knows what we’re creating; but at the same time we need a little anger, a little sadness, a little pain in the realization of novel ecosystems — a little sense that we aren’t giving up so we can move on, but that we’re giving up because we have forced the choice upon ourselves… and the deeply-absorbed lesson that we must never force this choice upon ourselves again.

    And yes, we have a lot of work to do with agriculture, from hedgerows to prairie strips to realizing organic ag might better withstand climate change without the loss in yield.

    • I disagree (respectfully) that the idea that Nature no longer exists merely because humans have had a pervasive impact on it. The natural world and its dynamics still rules the planet, even if we have managed to temporarily deform or damage it. We have the knowledge we need to partner with it, rather than just exploit it, and if we want to have a future, that is what we must do. Nature is always evolving and changing — we are (tragically) destroying much that was beautiful, but something beautiful and new will appear in its place. The question is whether we want to be a part of that. That’s the wonderful thing about gardening, it offers us a way to partner constructively with Nature if we choose.

  6. The more we learn about the ways humans have always altered the landscapes (think native American burning the prairies), the more it seems we are always living in novel landscapes. Our job now is make them as organic and sustainable as possible with resource available to us. Whether folks in NYC want to spend efforts at Botanic Garden or the High Line, is all good.
    Does it seem sometimes that folks in the cities long for wildness, while folks in the country want to tame the wildness?

  7. Great topic and one I frequently contemplate as I choose plants for my garden. My climate zone is warmer than the one my locally raised neighbors grew up with and the weather patterns are changing so their “old reliable” plants may not be so reliable and growing with natives? Many of the (formerly) native plans do not do well in the disrupted soil of my yard or in the new climate here.

    How do I best support the local ecosystem? Do I try to restore historic plants that might struggle? Go with natives from near-by regions that are better adapted? Of pick plants at the garden center that are covered with native pollinators?

    There’s a lot for an environmentally minded gardener to think about in this era of climate change and lack of true native ecosystems (at least any near where I live in coastal Massachusetts)!

  8. Important topic. I am a strong advocate for the use of native plants in the landscape, but I am no purist. My biggest concern regarding the concept of novel ecosystems is that some people will argue that since everything is changing all of the time, why even bother to protect the remaining “wild” landscapes and native species This blog is not making such an argument, but it’s just a matter of time before someone does.

  9. “Nature” to most people now is anything without a roof… A century ago people lived with the bugs and the critters and the plants and knew their names, ate them, played with them and interacted with them in various ways that fostered better understandings of the natural world – even while they were destroying it. They simply couldn’t imagine that nature would ever actually stop.
    Now it is hard to find anyone at all that can name ten trees and identify them. The battle is lost if we don’t start educating young people and increasing their environmental fluency.

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