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

Plants and Habitats of European Cities is apparently the ‘first explicit comparative account of plant diversity in several cities worldwide’ and the changes therein as a consequence of urban development...

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…)