This is the third post in the series Learning from and with Invasive Species: pluralities, refractions, futures, a 4 part series of pieces edited by Estraven Lupino-Smith concerned with how humans choose to relate to species perceived to be “out-of-place” as shaped by ontologies, socioeconomic context, place-based histories, and desires of knowing and belonging to the world. By drawing attention to invasivity as historical production and the fickleness of its adoption, the series takes up discussions around invasion ecology and its relationship to the politics of land, labor, resources, selfhood, and place-making.
Much like defining property, deciding what belongs in an ecosystem and what is invasive to it requires the drawing and re-drawing of lines (Warren 2007). It requires bounded territories and the creation of spatial and temporal thresholds that define nativeness and alienness. When investigating invasive species management through the analytics of racial capitalism and settler colonialism it becomes clear that the logics of property regimes are not only a part of, but central to, the invasive species paradigm.
In the settler-colonial city of Toronto, the only sanctioned ways for residents to manage invasive plants are as property owners through removing them from gardens and planting native species, or as bylaw-respecters in city parks, which includes walking on marked paths, keeping dogs on leash, and leaving all plant management activities to City staff. Proposed changes to Toronto’s Grasses and Weeds bylaw (2021) (now the Turfgrass and Prohibited Plants bylaw) included hefty fines for species on the City’s ‘prohibited plants’ list and was criticized for being hostile to Black and Indigenous growers, newcomers, and people not fluent in English (Toronto Urban Growers, 2021). In addition, just north of the city, a conservancy group organized invasive plant ‘Eviction’ events as a means of rallying interest for the cause of biodiversity. In this instance, invasive plants are understood as unruly forest tenants while nature conservationists position themselves as landlords.
These are just a few examples that clarify the close workings of property regimes and invasive plant management. In my work, paying attention to the micro-politics of property has been a meaningful way of noticing how invasive plant management operates within a racial and colonial project. It has also helped me to observe continuities between how the City treats all those it considers to be out of place. Property regimes in settler-colonial states are shaped by racial hierarchies and produce a constellation of relations that operate through exclusion (Dorries et al. 2019). They also function by repeatedly naturalizing white settler ownership, cementing their territories as the landscape (Brand, 2022). The appropriation of Indigenous lands by settlers originates in colonial expansion, and continues today through fence lines and clearing for re-development. (Blomley, 2003).
Plants deemed invasive are often maligned because of their unruly movements that transgress the borders established by settler power. In addition to the idea of invasive plants as trespassing the domain of landowners, as in the City of Toronto’s strategy for invasive management, dominant discourse around invasive plants also positions them as land offenders. In cities and towns neighbouring Tkaronto, op-eds and newspaper articles have referred to the plant garlic mustard as ‘threatening’ and worthy of ‘war’ measures. Headlines include “Wanted Dead” (Homeyer, 2014) and “Evil Plant on the loose” (Hill, 2012), describing its invasion of forests and gardens as a crime worthy of a death sentence. As part of a public education campaign, the Ontario Invasive Plant Council (2016) created “Ontario’s Most Un-Wanted” posters for invasive plants, featuring mugshots, alias names, and offenses to property.
Invasive plants are also linked to criminality in other ways, as they can be understood as both punishable offenses and broken windows. There are hefty fines for the presence of invasive plants on private property and residents are encouraged to report any neighbours transgressing the city’s bylaw on prohibited plants. Some identify the presence of invasive plants as a sort of incitement to crime – Green Seattle specifically lists invasive plant management in its guidelines for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) and the Toronto Police Service also includes garden and yard upkeep, including managing plants, as part of its CPTED guidelines for property owners.
The idea of invasive plant presence as an indictment was also present as one part of the City’s recent responses to encampments at Trinity Bellwoods Park. In addition to the violent clearing of the encampments at the park, assaults by police, and 11 arrests, the City also destroyed a community garden surrounding a greenhouse in the park, deeming it overgrown with invasive weeds that could potentially hide encampment residents’ belongings and hazardous materials. After their clearing of the encampments and gardens, they installed barricades and posted signs stating “Park Remediation Underway.” In public communications, the City said they needed to clear the encampments to ‘restore’ the park grounds – the restoration of the park was used to justify displacement and destruction.
Highlighting the intimacies between property regimes and relations to plants deemed invasive clarifies how invasive species management – understood as a morally good, neutral environmental practice in dominant discourse – works within a neoliberalized, racist colonial project that is committed to defining who and what has value and belongs in the settler-colonial city. Given the city’s property interests and investment in public relations, is it any surprise that the city weaponizes ecological restoration against the unhoused, and that they incentivize invasive-free properties through incredible fines? Who is surprised that invasive plants are vilified while their provenance and the ongoing violence of conquest and dispossession in the settler city go unquestioned?
What if property did not exist in the way we have come to know it? What if it did not exist at all? How else might we come to understand and relate to things? How else would we process and sanction those who transgress against us and our things?Walcott, 2021
Property regimes limit meaningful relations and collaborations with invasive plants in the city. Achieving more ethical relations to invasive plants (and ultimately, to all life) in settler-colonial places requires radically changing our relationship to property (Walcott, 2021). Dreaming of a world wherein the state does not weaponize property regimes against its most vulnerable residents, wherein it did not treat people as property nor as waste, it struck me that relations to invasive species would be radically different without property, too. Heather Dorries (Sagkeeng First Nation) recently wrote about “planning without property,” an approach to urban planning that builds on Indigenous traditions and is focused on supporting human and more-than-human practices of being and belonging rather than practices of exclusion and domination (Dorries, 2022). Taking up Dorries’ questions as well as Walcott’s provocation above, it feels urgent to ask how ecological restoration in the settler-colonial city can support being and belonging rather than exclusion and domination. What do we make of species deemed invasive when domination is no longer the main approach to environmental management?
Imagining the end of property as we know it opens up possibilities for a more liveable world (Walcott, 2021). It could mean an end to the policing and harassment of encampment residents in public parks and under bridges. It could mean transforming dominant approaches to ecological restoration and repair of broken relationships to land. It could mean divesting from neoliberal interests and desires. Without property, its enforced borders, and the policing of its defined territories, perhaps plants would not be deemed invasive at all – instead, perhaps their migrations, so shaped by conquest and industry, could help to highlight the land relationships severed by violent histories and presents.
Blomley, N (2003) Law, property, and the geography of violence: The frontier, the survey, and the grid. Annals of the association of American geographers 93(1): 121-141.
Brand, AL (2022) The sedimentation of whiteness as landscape. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 40(2): 276-291.
Doiron, G (2021) Invasive Plant Relations in a Global Pandemic: Caring for a “Problematic Pesto.” Environment & Planning E: Nature & Space. Epub ahead of print, Dec 13.
Dorries, H (2022) What is planning without property? Relational practices of being and belonging. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 40(2): 306–318.
Dorries, H, Hugill, D, Tomiak, J (2019) Racial capitalism and the production of settler colonial cities. Geoforum; Journal of Physical, Human, and Regional Geosciences, Epub ahead of print 21 July 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.07.016.
Encampment Support Network (2021) STATEMENT ON THE JUNE 22 2021 CLEARING OF TRINITY BELLWOODS ENCAMPMENTS. Available at: https://www.encampmentsupportnetwork.com/public-statements (accessed July 21, 2022).
Gilmore, RW (2017) Abolition geography and the problem of innocence. In: Johnson, GT, Lubin, A (eds) Futures of Black Radicalism. New York: Verso, 225–240.
Hill S (2012) ‘Evil Plant’ on the Loose. The Windsor Star, Apr 20, A1.
Homeyer, H (2014) Wanted Dead – Garlic Mustard. Valley News, May 21.
Ontario Invasive Plant Council (OIPC) (2016) Ontario’s Most Unwanted Series. Available at: https://www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/resources/fact-sheets/ (accessed December 20, 2019).
Safransky, S (2017) Rethinking Land Struggle in the Postindustrial City. Antipode 49(4): 1079–1100.
Toronto Urban Growers (2021) Protecting gardens on private lands. Available at: http://torontourbangrowers.org/news/protecting-our-front-yard-gardens.
Walcott, R (2021) On Property. Windsor ON: Biblioasis.
Warren, CR (2007) Perspectives on the ‘alien’ versus ‘native’ species debate: A critique of concepts, language and practice. Progress in Human Geography 31(4): 427–446.
Feature Image: Early spring garlic mustard along a fenceline in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. Photo by author, 2021.
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