We live and work in cities, enjoying experiences that fill our days with stimulation. But as we roam our metropolitan landscapes it hits us sometimes that for every inch of sidewalk we step on, there is one less inch of grass, and for each lamp post a tree is missing. We surely need sidewalks and lamp posts, so we surely accept these trade-offs. But we all too easily slide into thinking that we chose sidewalks because we did not really need grass and trees, so that we lost nothing by losing them; or even forget that there were (and always are) trade-offs at all.
Not only we have few opportunities to see and experience plant life in cities that are increasingly being designed and redesigned for cars (how different, for a child, is life among plants than life among cars; how different would city life be for a child if there were no cars). We have also grown accustomed to enclosed spaces; and we don’t work the land for our food; and we have digital lives. Net result (one among many): we are less inclined, able, motivated, and interested in spending time among plants. This is most unfortunate: the loss is experiential, cognitive, emotional, relational, aesthetic, and has negative repercussions on our health. In addition, as we lose touch with plants we also renounce a powerful educational tool for sustainability. Veteran urban planner R.T. Hester - who elaborated a vision for the future of urban agriculture and its connections to urban design and democratic practice in his masterful Design for Ecological Democracy (2006) - was unequivocal about the importance of cultivating city plants, particularly for food production:
Just as wild nature teaches, so too does farming […] Farming requires an understanding of vital, complex and invisible processes such as water, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon cycles. In fact, most of what we need to know to design intelligent cities can be learned from farming […] Farms should be integrated into the everyday life of cities […] to become part of dense neighborhoods, schoolyards, rooftops, balconies, and community gardens […] Provide small, urban farms, and entice the public to grow food. Engage every child in her own food production […] The splendor of urban agriculture is that while we cultivate the land, the land cultivates our minds (Hester 2006: 344)
These thoughts have a long and noble genealogy. In Schools of To-Morrow, one of the philosophers who most has helped to sculpt the meaning of modern democracy in our spirits, John Dewey, wrote:
The vegetable garden is the obvious starting point for most city children […] if they do not have tiny gardens in their own backyards, there is a neighbor who has, or they are interested to find out where the vegetables they eat come from and how they are grown (Dewey 1915: 268)
Dewey described the civic value of gardens, as he had observed it through his own educational experiments in Chicago:
The work is given a civic turn: that is to say, the value of the garden to the child and to the neighborhood is demonstrated: to the child as a means of making money or helping his family by supplying them with vegetables, to the community by showing how gardens are a means of cleaning up and beautifying the neighborhood. If the residents want their backyards and empty lots for gardens, they are not going to throw rubbish into them or let other people do so. Especially in the streets around one school has this work made a difference. Starting with the interest and effort of the children, the whole community has become tremendously interested in starting gardens, using every bit of available ground. The district is a poor one and, besides transforming the yards, the gardens have been a real economic help to the people (Dewey 1915 : 272).
Others had experimented with school gardens before. Horticulturalist T. H. Bailey was enthusiastic:
[The school-garden] supplants or, at least, supplements mere book training; presents real problems, with many interacting influences, affording a base for the study of all nature, thereby developing the creative faculties and encouraging natural enthusiasm; puts the child into touch and sympathy with its own realm; develops manual dexterity; begets regard for labor; conduces to health; expands the moral instincts by making a truthful and intimate presentation of natural phenomena and affairs; trains in accuracy and directedness of observation; stimulates the love of nature; appeals to the art-sense; kindles interest in ownership; teaches garden-craft; evolves civic pride; sometimes affords a means of earning money; brings teacher and pupil into close personal touch…sets ideas for the home, thereby establishing one more bond of connection between the school and the community (Bailey 1911: 13)
Both Dewey and Bailey thought that gardens and gardening could educate citizens about the ecological and social peculiarities of place, as well as about modes of civic engagement that would foster participation, a lively community life and, ultimately, a well-functioning democracy.
These thoughts seem all the more important, and their practical pursuit more urgent, now that we face a powerful, three-fold challenge. We are losing touch with nature, in our cities, growing a degree of separation from its everyday manifestations, a loss of familiarity with them, that no other species has ever experienced. At the same time, our global and local environments are undergoing unprecedented changes, most of which are triggered by the demands of cities and may have negative consequences for cities. Finally, we are seeing our democracies (and also our democratic values) come under increasing pressure in response to major political, economic, and cultural transformations, mostly ignited by globalization.
This three-fold challenge, which links our everyday individual lives to processes of planetary proportions and to the open question of how to manage them politically, is a hard one. Yet if Hester, Dewey and Bailey are right, important support for our efforts to negotiate it may come from an unexpected source: these beings we call plants, which in cities we encounter little and pay little attention to when we do. The cultivation of plants in cities is one way of taking up all three aspects of the challenge above, in an imaginative and experimental way. We can grow a new familiarity with plants by interspersing their cultivation - food plants and ornamental plants alike, why limit ourselves - among the beats of our daily routines, winning back a set of enriching experiences and relations from which we have much to learn. And that learning is of the sort we need: a learning of familiarity, not just information; a tactile, physical learning of everyday coexistence with the non-human. The difference between awareness and engagement. Many of us by now are environmentally hyper-aware but still have never grown a plant of basil in a pot, and have no idea what basil tastes like if you have grown it rather than bought – literally, and emotionally.
Work with plants, then, way more than we typically do. Simple – no groundbreaking novelty, it seems. Yet even this little change in our daily routines would have to overcome very powerful countervailing forces and tendencies. Some are obvious: where will all these plants find space in our cities? Wouldn’t all that space have been good for parking lots, supermarkets left in sole charge of food distribution, or real estate development? And then, considering that we got jobs, where will everyone find the time to grow that kind of everyday familiarity with plants that comes from working with them? And will we be able to square that project of familiarity-building with environmental justice, or will the distribution of these new experiences map out to replicate or worsen existing patterns of injustice, or maybe even create new ones? How will we redesign our cities to make them not just green cities, but cities for plants and work with plants? And then to the fundamental question: aren’t cities for people? What is this new relation we should build with plants, and what form will it take so that all needs are met, both human and non-human? Can that even be done? These are all trying tests, particularly if we keep in mind what was noted above - that today we do not need to grow plants: we can just buy them, vegetables and ornamentals. We can also order them online. We are not an agrarian society, nor even an agrarian species anymore - we are a urban, industrial, digital one. So we are not poked by necessity, and that’s not a condition that tends to prompt change.
There is an even more powerful challenge. There is such thing as “plant blindness”, it seems. The term was invented by Wandersee and Schussler in 1998 and defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment”. Schussler and Wandersee explained that because plant barely move, often grow in clusters and often are or look similar to one another, our brains tend to lump them together (that’s when we say things like “green spaces”. But we don’t lump animals together and call them “furry bodies”, say). Furthermore, we, as humans, tend to notice creatures that are most similar to us (explained by the so-called “preference for bio-behavioral similarity” theory), which accounts for the comparatively much higher attention that is generally paid to animals than plants – in popular culture as much as in science. In short, plants are both too similar to one another and too different from us, and this conjunction dims our brain’s interest, turning us blind to them.
We surely tend to find animals “more interesting” than plants. We often name animals, assign them human characteristics, and typically perceive inter-species and even individual variations among them quite sharply. This encourages our empathy, which is key for conservation decisions and efforts: what feels right or desirable about protecting polar bears in the Artic (even if we will never see one) is not delivered by a rational list of reasons of why we need or value polar bears, but - says environmental psychologist Kathryn Williams - because they “tug on our heart-strings”. Williams’ research points out that most humans feel prompted to want to protect “charismatic animals”, particularly large mammals with forward-facing eyes and human-like characteristics. Tough luck for all the other animals, and even tougher for plants.
Pointing at the fact that plant blindness will likely be further hardened in an increasingly urbanized and technologized world, Wandersee and Schussler theorized that it would lead people growing up in the future (but they were writing in 1998: that people is us and that future is now) to greatly underappreciate the importance of plants - in their lives, in human affairs more generally, and the biosphere at large. Wandersee and Schussler also hypothesized that lack of familiarity and engagement with plants would lead to increasing inability to appreciate the unique features of the life forms belonging to the non-animal kingdoms - further reinforcing the very peculiar, though strongly rooted and cherished notion that there exist a natural ranking of beings, with plants stationed below humans and animals, less worthy of our intellectual and moral consideration or even not worthy of that at all.
Consequences of such tendencies and attitudes towards plants may ramify into inconsiderate societal choices that may, in turn, impact our individual and collective lives negatively. For example, as Christine Ro points out in a recent article, plant blindness has been leading to marginal interest in plant conservation, particularly if compared to interest in animal conservation (and especially in conserving charismatic animal species such as tigers and elephants - many species of which are sadly but surely being rushed to extinction nonetheless). Yet there is little animal life that can prosper in plant-depleted ecosystems. At the same time, plant biology courses around the world are shutting down at a dizzying rate, and public funding for plant science is drying up. Yet plants are fundamental for our wellbeing. Plant research is critical to countless scientific breakthroughs. Around 30,000 plant species are used medicinally, including plant-derived anti-cancer drugs and blood thinners. Many more species are used in non-mainstream medicinal practices the world over. Emerging technologies like genome editing can be better refined using plants, which are inexpensive and easy to breed and control. Plants can inspire powerful and adaptive bio-mimetic design. They can clean the air of our cities. They are our basic food source, whatever our dietary choices and persuasions may be: as things stand, there can’t be juicy steaks without plants.
So far, relatively few studies have been conducted on plant blindness. What we do know thanks to Wandersee and Schussler is that children recognize that animals are living creatures much earlier than they recognize that plants are. If you can see its symptoms in children plant blindness must have evolved with us, at least to some extent. It has also been reinforced by culture, particularly in and by those cultures drawn to marking imaginary hierarchies among entities and beings. And it may become a permanent condition in an increasingly urbanized and technologized world, possibly a central component of what has been called “nature-deficit disorder” - the idea that children, spending less and less time outside, might more easily develop depression and other behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and physical pathologies. On the other hand, research in various disciplines consistently reports on the positive impacts on wellbeing and mental health that are associated to exposure to nature, along with reduction of negative emotions (sadness in particular). But if both these sets of findings are accurate, then it seems quite possible that the indoor generations of the present and the future might be breaking away from nature faster than human psychology can take. A form of psychological unsustainability.
Prof. Schussler has argued that one key strategy to reducing plant blindness is by increasing the frequency and diversity of ways in which we engage with plants. In fact, according to Schussler, just about “every interaction with plants is the best strategy”. From Hester, Dewey and Bailey we know that such human-plant interactions are and should not be limited to observing, studying, cataloguing, and appreciating plants ethically and aesthetically. These are all important forms of plant-human interaction, but the possibilities expand very greatly and in the deeper and most fecund way if the methods chosen are not detached but tactile and experiential, the contexts are contexts of practice, work, and creativity, and the practices in question are embedded in our everyday routines. In this way we can build a familiarity and intimacy with plants that is very needed, and yet tends to be sabotaged by the form of our cities, the technologies that innerve our lives, hierarchical cultural tropes, and even our brain’s tendencies.