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Fostering Public Engagement with Urban Flora

What would an urban park be without its flora? From the shade of a tree's canopy to the sweet smell of a flower, urban flora delight our senses and enrich our experience of outdoor space in the city. But did you know that the healthy functioning of an urban environment critically depends on plant diversity?

Shanna Blanchard, Coordinator of Career Development Programs at the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks, teamed up with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC) on April 27 to discuss the evolving value of plants in our urban spaces and offer a snapshot of some of the urban flora work happening in New York City. Three urban flora experts – Daniel Atha of the New York Botanical Garden, David Burg of WildMetro, and David Seiter of Future Green Studio – shared their unique approaches to urban plant assessment.

Part of GCC's Urban Ecology Lecture Series, the event explored the angles of advocacy (Burg), design (Seiter) and research (Atha), such as the Central Park Flora Project, which, according to Blanchard, are all necessary perspectives in advancing the valuation of plant diversity. But all three panelists believe that public engagement on why plants matter to cities is both lacking and challenging to achieve. In order to reach a wider audience, they stressed the importance of approaching public engagement from the various perspectives of park managers, landscape architects, activists, and researchers.

So what can public engagement on urban flora look like? One example is the Institute’s ROOTS (Restoration of the Outdoors Organized by Teen Students) program. ROOTS not only teaches students about the value of urban flora, it also enables them to contribute to plant diversity in Central Park. For example, in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a four-acre woodland in the Park, ROOTS participants have identified and removed invasive plants like wisteria and garlic mustard, as well as learned how invasives reduce diversity in our Park landscapes. ROOTS students' removal of invasives and subsequent plantings have increased the number of native species in the Hallett by over fifty. This represents a beneficial shift in the diversity of Central Park's flora that can hopefully be extended city- and world-wide.