This article was written by Emily Gertz in October 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
My outdoor garden is my fourth-floor fire escape. It's a highly illegal place to grow plants, since the law worries, with reason, that they may block my escape (or a fire fighter's access) during an actual fire. Still, before the super caught me and evicted the planters, I grew herbs on mine for several weeks this summer. Given the height from the ground and the overall uninviting metal and stone environment, I was surprised that some birds and insects managed to find their way to my tiny bits of soil with their flowering basil plants. Their presence led me to consider how I might make my building's stony facade a more inviting rest stop and snack bar for critters trying to commute between the 585-acre Prospect Park, across the street, and the woodsy Green-Wood Cemetary about a mile to the west -- the largest green expanses in Brooklyn.
Wildlife corridors: they're not just for bears and wolves in the wilderness anymore. Urban wildlife need wildlife corridors between green open spaces in cities, ideally stocked with native plants that have evolved to flourish in local soil and climactic conditions, and feed the local animals. Creating this sort of networked conservation or green latticework in the city can connect us humans to our neighbors, too, because ultimately you need to engage with the people around you to convince them to do something different with their own properties.
Creating urban wildlife corridors can be portrayed as animal welfare, or as enlightened thinking: hey, we can take the needs of other living creatures besides ourselves into account in our urban planning and living. But if this sort of soft sell fails to persuade people, note that increasing the plantings in a city neighborhood has purely practical payoffs as well: more plants cool the neighborhood in summer by helping to disrupt the heat island effect of all the stone, concrete and asphalt, ultimately lowering energy costs for cooling in the summer. If they're native plants that can tolerate local conditions better than exotics, they'll generally need less water, soil inputs, or pesticides. And unlike asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, soil absorbs stormwater runoff that otherwise ends up overtaxing our increaasingly strained sewer systems, and draining into and polluting local water bodies and waterways.
There are a lot of gardens in my neighborhood, ingeniously crammed into small plots of dirt, or containers bunched on paved terraces and stone stoops, and even windowboxes -- as well as more than a few biggish front and back yards -- but in my unscientific visual surveys, they're generally not stocked with the native plants that attract, nourish, and provide shelter for the local birds, butterflies and other flying creatures. (I love me a beautiful geranium, but it doesn't provide lunch for a wandering bee.) My research into what the ideal native plants would be eventually led to a very nice neighbor dropping by my building one summer afternoon to give me two big, plastic pots containing small plants that, she told me, would grow into blossoming purple coneflowers and asters by next summer. This generous woman is Jennifer Hopkins, and she's working to establish green links for avian creatures between the park and the cemetery.
According to Jennifer, coneflowers and asters would be the most attractive to pollinators coming out of the park. "Sunflowers grow well in containers and attract alot of butterflies," she told me in email, "but the squirrels get them after they go to seed. Purple lantana is also good for window boxes as well as containers because it doesn't get very tall." Keeping a birdbath stocked shallowly with water would help the birds, she said.
Jennifer's had her eye on my building for years as a prime greening cadidate. The planters in front of my building are eyesores as well as net losses for greening the stoop: they're typically bare dirt or contain half dead ornamental fir plants. And the big lawn at the corner, also part of our co-op's property, is largely a wasteland of grassy turf and banal hedges. She even called the big old tree on the corner of our yard, which we've fought to save from years of poor care, a "weed tree," because it's non-native.
Right now I'm considering how much I can do to get these spaces more populated with native plants that will attract birds and pollinators. (Sorry Jennifer; the tree stays.) It's ultimately going to mean outreach, advocacy, and persistence with my fellow residents, the co-op board, and the building's management company, to change landcaping practices that have endured for a decade or more. Fortunately, there's hard data showing that street plantings improve property values, which is always a good selling point for a new idea. And hopefully the mainstreaming of green will make my case an easier sell; since really new and hip green retrofitting is currently out of the question for our buildings, which are nearly a century old, perhaps having a native plants garden will soon become a positive selling point for my fellow owner-residents. But no matter what, something growing and green in those concrete urns will be an aesthetic improvement over half-dead bushes.
So far, I've managed to place the pots of cornflower and aster plants on my fire escape with no pushback; the plants are still small enough to be invisible behind the lips of the pots. (I doubt my super reads blogs, but strongly suspect that my co-op board president does. Hi, Matt! Let's talk.) I think I'll be able to harbor them until next spring. Their next stop, hopefully, will be those planters.
Image: Renegade native cornflower and aster plants on a Brooklyn fire escape. Credit: Emily Gertz
Enviro-Conscious Apartment Living: Creating Urban Wildlife Corridors is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
I am trying to create an urban corridor (of sorts) at a cemetary in Brooklyn where my husband's great grandparents reside. The plot is unkept and we were looking to create a small oasis that looks good and is good for the wild life in the area. The soil is dry and bad and we have mulched and planted hen & chicks and a few things that have not stood up well to the weeds that grow-so much so that my husband has begun asking about "organic weed killer"the exact opposite of what we really want to do. I would love suggestions on what would grow well with little water,lots of sun & little care-we visit once a month at most as we live in Queens. I tried adding tea leaves and coffee grounds this past visit (to improve the soil) and have brought sun flower seeds earlier in the summer(thinking the seeds would be good for birds and the hulls would act as mulch) -and one seed has struggled to grow-amazingly!