They live among us (or is it the other way around..?)

They live among us (or is it the other way around..?)


Plants and Habitats of European Cities; John Kelcey and Norbert Müller (Eds.), 2011; Springer.

Despite semantic con­cerns to the con­trary (Stromberg, 2013), like it or not, we are now firmly in the Anthropocene – the period of Earth’s his­tory which is dom­in­ated by human activ­it­ies (Ellis et al., Global Ecology and Biogeography 19: 589–606, 2010). Although, Man’s influ­ence on the planet has gen­er­ally been regarded with some dis­may (after all, have we not become “Death, des­troyer of worlds”?…well, so far, just the one, and any­way not neces­sar­ily ‘des­troyed’, more ‘altered’…), we don’t have it all our own way; Nature fights back, or works around us. Take for example mankind’s impact on veget­a­tion. Whilst we have undeni­ably ‘mod­i­fied’ Nature’s verd­ant mantle – not least as a res­ult of our vari­ous agri­cul­tural exper­i­ments – and plant spe­cies have been sup­planted and occa­sion­ally extin­guished, we have also cre­ated new envir­on­ments, which have given the more ima­gin­at­ive flora new aven­ues for exploit­a­tion and col­on­isa­tion. One of the greatest of those oppor­tun­it­ies is human ‘set­tle­ments’. And – if proof were needed – this hab­itat is explored in Kelcey and Müller’s fas­cin­at­ing edited tome ‘Plants and Habitats of European Cities’ [PHEC hereafter].

Despite the antiquity of settled human-plant inter­ac­tions, PHEC is appar­ently the ‘first expli­cit com­par­at­ive account of plant diversity in sev­eral cit­ies world­wide’ (PHEC – back cover) – 16 met­ro­poles on this occa­sion – and the changes therein as a con­sequence of urban devel­op­ment (and deserves full credit for that achieve­ment alone!). Interestingly, those 16 cit­ies ‘chose them­selves’ (p. xvi), based on two cri­teria – first, suf­fi­ciency and avail­ab­il­ity of rel­ev­ant inform­a­tion, and second, will­ing­ness of author(s) suf­fi­ciently expert to pen the chapter. Such candour/honesty is so refresh­ing. Equally refresh­ing – and a fas­cin­at­ing read – is the Preface by Kelcey (“a rest­less itin­er­ant of Europe” – p. xiv), which cov­ers many aspects of urban eco­logy and the gen­esis of the present tome. The volume’s 16 chapters – “a series of indi­vidual essays” (p. xvi) – are indeed ‘idio­syn­cratic’ (the Editors (and Herbert Sukopp)’s word not mine (p. xvi) (but which I’m happy to echo). However, each fol­lows the same over­all struc­ture and order – a con­sid­er­a­tion of nat­ural fea­tures of the city (includ­ing geo­logy, topo­graphy, soil, cli­mate); an account of devel­op­ment of the city (phys­ical, eco­nomic and polit­ical from set­tle­ment to present day); how urbanisation-environment have inter­ac­ted; an account of the flora (prin­cip­ally angio­sperms and ferns), and notes on ‘spon­tan­eous’ plants; and ‘evol­u­tion’ of the flora – with dis­cus­sion on the mix­ing of nat­ive and non-native spe­cies. Where avail­able, accounts also include inform­a­tion on algae and bry­ophytes, lichen­ised fungi, and fungi. Subsequently, we have descrip­tions of the plant com­munit­ies of major nat­ural (! can there really be any that are truly nat­ural and not human-influenced in one way or another?) and semi-natural (more likely..?) hab­it­ats, fol­lowed by accounts of the plants in more typ­ical urban hab­it­ats. And that’s where the accounts get even more inter­est­ing – the rich vari­ety of these urban hab­it­ats – e.g. road verges, indus­trial zones, rail­way land, parks – and the degree to which they’ve been col­on­ised is dra­matic test­a­ment to the adage that Nature abhors a vacuum. Finally, the chapters end with con­sid­er­a­tion of envir­on­mental plan­ning, pro­tec­tion and edu­ca­tion aspects rel­ev­ant to the par­tic­u­lar city, with spe­cial emphasis on the European Union Habitats Directive.

No two accounts are the same; no two cit­ies are the same, but each is rich in detail and as much urb­ano­botan­ical inform­a­tion as was then known. Generally, there are no ref­er­ences within the chapters (which is a shame), but sug­ges­tions of Further Reading/Literature ‘Cited’ can be found at the end of each con­tri­bu­tion. Idiosyncratically – cer­tainly, in an aca­demic text – Almeria’s entry includes at least one Wikipedia ref­er­ence (which is ‘bad’..?), but does – and atyp­ic­ally for PHEC – also include in-text cita­tions (which is very good!). Almost as an aside – but another import­ant example of the refresh­ing cand­our and human­ity that per­meates the tome – is a com­ment about the chapters’ lim­ited num­ber of items of fur­ther read­ing (p. xvii). This paucity – authors were offi­cially instruc­ted to keep to “about eight pub­lic­a­tions” – was occa­sioned by ‘edit­or­ial pres­sure’, and should not be viewed as lack of famili­ar­ity of contributor(s) with the rel­ev­ant literature (!)

As befits a geographically-oriented tome, it is an ‘A-Z gaz­etteer’ (well, it cer­tainly goes from Almeria to Zurich – although it misses out many cit­ies in between – both alpha­bet­ic­ally and geo­graph­ic­ally…). But amongst such not­able fea­tured con­urba­tions as Berlin, Bucharest, London, Moscow, Vienna, and Warsaw, Milton Keynes (MK) stands out because it is NOT a city! Rather, it is “a large town in Buckinghamshire, about 45 miles (72 km) north-west of London”. However, it was “form­ally des­ig­nated as a new town on 23 January 1967, with the design brief to become a ‘city’ in scale”. And not for­get­ting that co-Editor John Kelcey (“not an aca­demic but a prac­ti­tioner” – blurb on back cover) was appoin­ted the eco­lo­gist of Milton Keynes Development. So, MK is OK, then. A nice col­our image is stra­tegic­ally posi­tioned at the begin­ning of each chapter, although usu­ally illus­trat­ing a major anthro­po­genic fea­ture of the city (and seem­ingly – and idio­syn­crat­ic­ally? – all such images seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid any veget­a­tion in the shot). Although con­tri­bu­tions are also illus­trated, it’s a pity that those images through­out weren’t in col­our – espe­cially ones that actu­ally showed some veget­a­tion (the sub­ject mat­ter of the book!).

In com­mon with many other ‘urban’ activ­it­ies, urban bot­any has a lan­guage all its own – e.g. aneco­phytes (p. 68 – “taxa that have evolved in sec­ond­ary hab­it­ats of cul­tural (man-made) land­scapes”); anthro­po­phytes (p. 641 – “plants grow­ing in arti­fi­cial hab­it­ats (e.g. segetal [“plants asso­ci­ated with cer­eal crops in a wider sense grow­ing in arable land” – p. 647] and ruderal [not defined in PHEC] spe­cies); alien spe­cies not indi­gen­ous to a given ter­rit­ory”); anthro­po­chory (or hem­ero­chory) (p. 644 – “plant dis­persal by human-related activ­it­ies”); erga­s­iophy­go­phytes (p. 643 – “cul­tiv­ated spe­cies that have tem­por­ar­ily escaped from present-day cul­tiv­a­tion”); stra­tio­bot­any (or polemobotany)(p. 647 – “botan­ical dis­cip­line deal­ing with the destruct­ive effects of war on plants”); and urb­an­o­phil­ous (p. 648 – “spe­cies that have a pref­er­ence for urban eco­sys­tems”) – with a pre­dict­able high pro­por­tion of terms pre­fixed with ‘anthropo-‘, or oth­er­wise with a human dimension/definition! But once you get used to that, it is still proper botany/ecology, it’s just in a land­scape that’s both famil­iar but a little out of the ordin­ary. But, it’s cer­tainly a legit­im­ate sub­ject for study, and may even become a life-saver if the FAO’s ‘greener cit­ies’ ini­ti­at­ive takes off world-wide with its emphasis on urban and peri-urban hor­ti­cul­ture. In fact, far from being merely ‘aca­dem­ic­ally inter­est­ing, but not-mainstream’, know­ledge of the urban ‘veges­cape’ may turn out to be cru­cial to our sur­vival as the human pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to become increas­ingly urbanised!

There is an enorm­ous amount of inform­a­tion in this tome’s 685 pages (which has the feel of a real labour of love); cer­tainly, too much to take in at one sit­ting. But that’s not what it is for: This is a resource to be referred to, con­sidered and eval­u­ated and used to inform fur­ther work – both in the 16 cit­ies covered, and maybe – hope­fully! – to provide a tem­plate for other cit­ies to be covered in future tomes. Still, every time you delve into the text you find fas­cin­at­ing nug­gets and I learnt many inter­est­ing facts from PHEC – some of them botan­ical (although one of my favour­ite was the rather non-floristic one that the Parliament Palace in Bucharest is the second largest build­ing in the world – p. 171). For instance, 2% of Augsburg’s area is sports fields (p. 44 – I don’t know how high that is, or how well used those facil­it­ies may be, but argu­ably the good inhab­it­ants of Germany’s ‘old­est city’ ought to be a very fit lot!), which con­tain the low­est num­ber of spe­cies (prob­ably a res­ult of their intens­ive use and man­age­ment, but which also gen­er­ate con­sid­er­able selec­tion pres­sure for those spe­cies that sur­vive there). Since the late 18th Century 2,178 spe­cies have been recor­ded in Berlin, 1,392 were still present in 2000 (a rather high rate of ‘extirp­a­tion’ [a term not defined in PHEC]..?), almost 20% of which were ‘non-native’ (p. 53). Railways account for 3% of Moscow’s urban area (p. 353), and rep­res­ent an ‘open, pion­eer hab­itat’ on which 432 plant spe­cies have been recor­ded (which is only 6 more spe­cies than recor­ded in that city’s 59 cemeter­ies with a com­bined area of 1,000 hec­tares – p. 355, and which is a tiny frac­tion of the city’s 1996 area of 944 km2!). And I think we can sur­mise that Plantago major has now lost its dubi­ous hon­our as the “white man’s foot­print” because it is lis­ted in only 12 of the 15 cit­ies (MK excluded for this Annex – pp. 594–595). It seems that title must now pass to either Poa annua, or Polygonum avicu­lare agg., which are found in 14 of the 15 (even though neither looks much like a footprint!).

Importantly, PHEC, which can be viewed as a manual for this nas­cent sci­ence of ‘anthro­bot­any’, and its sub­ject mat­ter of ‘met­ropo­flora’ (no doubt with its soon-to-be-coined sub-branches urbo-flora and suburbo-flora…), is more than just a cata­logue of plants that share our ‘hab­it­ats’, it is a baro­meter of so many soci­olo­gical, psy­cho­lo­gical, anthro­po­lo­gical, and other –logical – and not so logical – issues that mark out some of the idio­syn­crasies of the human con­di­tion. As the publisher’s blurb has it, “The book has been writ­ten and edited to be access­ible to a wide range of interests and expert­ise includ­ing aca­demic bot­an­ists and eco­lo­gists, land­scape archi­tects, plan­ners, urban design­ers, ordin­ary people with an interest in nat­ural his­tory in gen­eral and bot­any in par­tic­u­lar, under­gradu­ates and other stu­dents not only in Europe but through­out the world”. And it would cer­tainly make inter­est­ing read­ing for the botanically-inclined before they next spend time in any of the cit­ies covered in PHEC. Indeed, PHEC may even be the excuse you need to visit some of them!


Kelcey and Müller’s ‘Plants and Habitats of European Cities’ is a truly impress­ive tome that presents a fas­cin­at­ing glimpse into urban eco­logy in Europe. Let’s hope this inspires sim­ilar accounts for cit­ies in other con­tin­ents (and a few more European ones, too!).


Nigel Chaffey

(cur­rently not far from Bristol – a real city in the UK that was not covered in this edi­tion of PHEC…)

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.