On a morning run along Toronto’s east-end beachfront earlier this month, I noticed the city had planted beds of buddleia, monarda and liatris at intervals along the boardwalk, each pocket along my route teeming with monarch butterflies and look-alike viceroys. These are beds which in past years have contained the requisite annual blooms: tulips and pansies in spring, begonias and impatiens in summer, mums and ornamental kale in fall—many of which are hybridized to the point of sterility, producing no pollen or nectar for foraging insects. These changes are part of the Toronto Parks and Recreation department’s broader pollinator protection strategy, and if my observations on my morning run are any indication, they are bearing fruit—or butterflies, more rightly.
It’s a small step, but one we should take notice of and applaud. And, when considered alongside Toronto’s 2004 restrictions on lawn chemicals, it’s part of a dramatic shift away from the casual and widespread use of so-called “cosmetic pesticides” in residential and public spaces.
As Tina Adcock and others noted in a Spring 2017 Otter series on Hope and Environmental History, environmental historians are well-versed in narratives of decline: so much so that we must question ourselves whether stories of hope are appropriate or responsible stories to tell in this age of climate change and rapid extinction. We concede, some of us, by incorporating perhaps a concluding seminar on “hope in environmental history” into our upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses.
But as purveyors of gloom we risk losing our audiences altogether—both our students, and the publics we aim to engage through our work. Adcock’s reflection on the appetite among third generation environmental historians for “critical, hopeful environmental histories” was well received in this context.
One place to turn is to the history of cities.
We’re familiar with some of the stories cities have to tell: the role of women and progressives in the fight against urban air pollution in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries; City Beautiful and social welfare movements that brought greater green space and playgrounds to inner city neighbourhoods; and public health and sanitation efforts that removed the threat of waterborne contagion from city water supplies. Over time, cities have not only housed the activists who have pushed for change within their boundaries and beyond, but also served as testing grounds for experiments in more socially-equitable and environmentally-sustainable living.
But as environmental historians we are also well positioned to attune ourselves to stories of social and ecological resilience in urban centres. The work of practitioners and scholars in the fields of urban botany and landscape architecture yield some surprising findings that are worthy of our attention.
A recent article by botanist Peter del Tredeci in the journal Places, for example, urges a more hopeful reading of urban landscapes, and the stories of resilience and adaptation they contain. Author of the unconventional field guide Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast – one that includes introduced species within its catalogue of species of interest – del Tredeci argues that human-dominated landscapes need not be seen as “intrinsically negative, valueless or alien.” Instead, he reminds us, “an unpredictable future belongs to the best adapted.”
Del Tredeci has an eye well-trained to the opportunism of plants. Focusing his attention on eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, one of the most intensively urbanized regions of the continent, he notes that from a plant’s perspective, it is not the density of human population in the region that matters but the percentage of paved surfaces. “Buildings and pavement not only reduce the amount of land available for plants and animals but also have a profound effect on hydrology by decreasing water infiltration, increasing runoff and compacting adjacent soil.” Related effects of urbanization, including soil contamination and higher air and water temperatures, also take a toll on the viability of plant populations.
Del Tredeci finds reason for hope in the abandoned landscapes and “infrastructure edges” of twenty-first-century cities, where he argues “novel ecosystems” are emerging. The “product of the interacting forces of urbanization, globalization and climate change,” such ecosystems “are made up of organisms that have been brought together by the elimination or neutralization of barriers that had kept them separated for millions of years.” (He’s read his Alfred Crosby). Orchard grasses colonizing an abandoned city lot, crabgrass along a highway median, quick-growing, nitrogen-fixing tree species transforming a chain-link fence into an impromptu trellis: they generate hope not through their aesthetic appeal (although this is not entirely lacking), but through their self-sufficiency, their internal logic of succession and repair.
Eavesdropping on the conversations of botanists and landscape architects may be useful in thinking about our own approaches to these spaces. Here industrial brownfields and vacant city lots are “ruderal landscapes” (“new word!” shouts the logophile in me):
1.(of a plant) growing on waste ground or among rubbish.
noun: ruderal; plural noun: ruderals
1. a plant growing on waste ground or among rubbish.
The vocabulary here is evocative, and valuable not only for its descriptive possibilities but also for its prescriptive ones, for new directions in research. Hope, in this reading, lies in the cracks in the pavement, in the gritty spaces at the edges that have yet to be repurposed. For a historian of Toronto’s Don River Valley, this resonates.
That many of species colonizing these heavily disturbed landscapes are non-native is for del Tredeci a lesser concern. It is the “wild” he celebrates (in the sense of self-sustaining and unmaintained), rather than the native. Failing the ability and the means to loosen, cleanse, and reenliven compacted, contaminated soils, to remove roadways and restore wetlands and drainage corridors, colonization by non-native invasives is our next best bet (or maybe our first?) in restoring ecosystem function. Conservationists who vilify and seek to expunge invasive species neglect the considerable ecological services these species provide in controlling erosion, absorbing heat, and providing food and habitat for wildlife—not to mention the fact that in these post-industrial, post-residential landscapes, little else is up to the challenge. Del Tredeci concludes that invasive vegetation is a “symptom of environmental degradation, not its cause.” By setting aside the value judgments that separate native from non-native, at least for these most degraded of environments, we can learn to see differently, conditioning our vision with hope instead of despair.
There are seemingly few human actors in these vignettes of resilience and adaptation. At least, beyond those who planted these invasives in the first place, or encouraged their distribution in decades past. Instead, these are “nature without us” stories. Here our most appropriate role is one of non-intervention or perhaps limited assistance.
They are stories, furthermore, that are happening all around us, if we train ourselves to see. They are small-scale, slow-moving stories of repair, and, not unlike the small, slow repair work of citizen groups like the Task Force to Bring Back the Don to clean-up and reimagine the city’s most neglected waterway, or the adjustments to ornamental plantings made by the city’s gardening staff, they are worthy of our attention.
While our training as historians will guard us well from any overly optimistic conclusions, turning our attention more often to efforts that uplift and inspire—and even sometimes make a difference in mitigating the worst effects of capitalism and globalization—may widen our readership. Look out for those cracks in the pavement.
 The Ontario government followed Toronto’s lead with a complete ban on lawn chemicials and other “cosmetic pesticides” in 2009. Seven other provincial governments have cosmetic pesticides bans in place: Quebec, the first, in 2003, followed by Ontario and New Brunswick (2009), Alberta and PEI (2010), Nova Scotia (2011), Newfoundland and Labrador (2012), and Manitoba (2014).
 Novel ecosystems are not confined to urban areas. As del Tredeci explains, the concept describes any landscape that has been subjected to disturbance through urbanization, agriculture, industry or mining.
Latest posts by Jennifer Bonnell (see all)
- The Melville-Nelles-Hoffmann Lecture in Environmental History 2023 – Coping with Climate Change - September 19, 2023
- Back to the Woods: This Time, Seeking Stories - December 12, 2019
- 2018 Melville-Nelles-Hoffman Lecture in Environmental History - October 24, 2018
- Kate Brown to give 2018 Melville-Nelles-Hoffmann Lecture in Environmental History - February 13, 2018
- Cracks in the Pavement - October 19, 2017
- The Iinnii Initiative: Reintroducing Bison to Blackfoot Country - June 6, 2016
- Natural History for Historians? - March 28, 2016
- Lessons Learned from 18 Months of Trial-By-Fire Teaching - January 7, 2015
- Highway to Nowhere: The Don Valley Parkway and the Development of Toronto’s North-East - May 14, 2014
- From the Archives to the Bee Yard - June 25, 2012