Ecologist Converts Vacant City Lots to Wildflower Fields

Posted On February 21, 2018

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Abandoned buildings and vacant lots are signature signs of urban decay and blighted neighborhoods.  They can also become environmentally hazardous from chemicals and construction waste piling up.  University of Maryland, Baltimore County, ecologist Chris Swan is experimenting with repurposing the over 14,000 vacant lots throughout the city of Baltimore by planting native wildflowers and redeveloping the unused land.

While most ecologists operate outside of large cities, Swan is one of only a small segment of ecologists working within the urban sphere.  He started his project four years ago, in West Baltimore, to regrow native seed mixes and attract pollinators like birds and bees.  His goal is to identify the right mix of plants that will thrive in the poor soil composition and eventually improve it.  The most effective plants would also be able to absorb water.  Water run-off from the compacted soil in vacant lots can contain toxins like lead, arsenic, and asbestos, and end up in larger water sources like the Chesapeake Bay.  The more water the plants absorb, the less likely the toxins will flow into the bay.

Additionally, the urban gardens will likely improve the look of the neighborhoods and encourage community engagement.  Some local residents have expressed distaste for the project, likening his plots of plants to “yards of weeds.”  Others are optimistic about the new growth and excited about seeing lightning bugs and birds like swallowtails for the first time in their urban environment. 

At this time, the plots are temporary.  When developers purchase one of the vacant lots, they are able to build over the gardens without consequence.  Swan and the other ecologists understand that their project is a stopgap measure but hope the plots will encourage growth and make communities more livable.   The goal is to find a mix of plants that is close to the native species that grew in prairies, before the land was developed, and will eventually reproduce and grow on its own. 

Swan explains, “the idea is to take a problem which is huge and try and work towards a way of managing that space that’s better than it is now.”


Sources: Business Insider, CityLab