Tales of the City: Journey to America

Tue, 25/02/2014 - 09:46
New England Aster by tywkiwdbi

…………from New England Aster to Californian Poppy

River of Flowers intention is to grow a wild city where honeybees, wild bees, butterflies and other wild pollinators can flourish. Since we cannot do this on our own, our intention is also to find others to work with and create a River of Flowers in every city of the world. Through the generosity of Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, River of Flowers was able to travel to North America to gather ideas and good practices from innovative and inspiring projects, which might work in cities in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. 

Our aim is to 'Feed the Bees that Feed Us!' so I visited urban projects growing edible plants as well as those growing wild forage. I started out with good intentions to find answers to questions that I had been trying to answer in the UK but my journey soon became an invigorating rollercoaster of a ride, full of highs and lows that left me with more questions than I went out with. I never expected to find myself in situations, which simultaneously disturbed, delighted and transformed me. It was depressing to see the desolation of streets, abandoned as if in a war zone, where nothing green and growing could be seen for miles around. I was told how difficult it was to find any fresh food in these places let alone spot a glimmer of nature or catch the flutter of a bird’s wings within this concrete tangle.

Broken Promises © John Fekner

Yet at the same time, it was thrilling to find ordinary people who were rolling up their sleeves and doing something about this, gathering together in their blocks and on their streets to change their neighbourhoods by growing food, flowers and friendship. On my journey, I met people who could describe the concept of River of Flowers far better than I could, and who could powerfully resonate with it. The whole experience expanded my views about how and where to grow wildflowers in the city and prompted me to re-evaluate the direction and approach that River of Flowers would take in the future.

Chicago Lights © Jacqui Cheng

I found treasure! Many organisations had already created their own version of 'river' of flowers. Here is a tiny taster of them, some of which I have already written about in previous Wild City Blogs or will be writing about in future Tales of the City. Still to come are the tales of the Growing Communities of Toronto, the Milwaukee Renaissance, Chicago Lights and Mission Possible in San Francisco:

In New York City, there is a River of Flowers in the sky, flowing along the Highline, formerly an abandoned elevated railway, which now carries forage and habitat for pollinators high above the streets of Manhattan. Back on the block, the actions of Liz Christie and the Green Guerillas, and later on the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), founded by the divine Miss Bette Midler, and GreenThumb, an arm of the Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks), have saved over 450 community gardens from redevelopment, and created pocket parks and larger parks. Among its other activities, The Trust for Public Land (TPL has formed a multitude of partnerships to construct greenways through Queens and Harlem. 596 Acres Brooklyn has carried out an audit of available land (always a good idea) in Brooklyn and is working with the community to secure these vacant lots legally so they can be planted up with edibles. The botanical gardens have got stuck in too and head up several community projects to get New York City growing. Throughout the city, there is a spectacular array of floating farms, restaurants and apiaries in the sky as well as those on the ground in vacant lots and streets for River of Flowers to link up with. See River of Flowers NYC Brooklyn and River of Flowers NYC Manhattan.

596 Acres Brooklyn © 596 Acres Brooklyn

Toronto, a pesticide free city, hosts a fabulous network of community gardens, the Toronto Community Garden Network (TCGN) and amazing rooftop farms, such as the Access Alliance Green Roof and the Big Carrot Green Roof not to mention the private rooftop paradises, which has created a ‘river’ of forage flowing throughout the city. Community groups have taken part in studies on food growing and wild bee studies launched by Toronto’s Ryerson and York universities so no wonder that the those I met were so clued up on pollinators, the relationshipof pollinators to food growing and why we should ‘feed the bees that feed us’. I found wild trees flourishing in urban orchards. The David Suzuki Foundation, based in Toronto and Vancouver, connects all community growers through its HomeGr/own National Park, and its Rangers are planting wildflowers in recycled canoes laid along the path of the buried Garrison Creek lying under the streets of Toronto. Adding to the River of Flowers Toronto, are the activities of Garden Jane, growing food with wildflowers in parks such as High Park, Orchard People facilitating orchards in parks, Roadsides, creating pollinator patches on the ground, and Toronto Balconies Bloom, creating these above it. There is even a Pollinator Festival! See River of Flowers Toronto.

Community Canoe  © Park Bench - Neighbourhood Network

Milwaukee is undergoing a Milwaukee Renaissance! It has a real river flowing through the city, steadily being cleaned and planted up with wildflowers by the actions of the Milwaukee River Group. The Riverwest Co-operative is a focus for the food movement in that area of Milwaukee and credited with re-generating the area. I discovered the Bee Pod, an intriguing bee-friendly hive at the Urban Ecology centre, in the heart of urban Milwaukee. The collaborative energy in Milwaukee between growers of all kinds, including the aquaponic farmers at Growing Power, which has revolutionised food growing in the mid-West and beyond, and those in community gardens such as Alice's Garden is very strong, and has left a great legacy in the city. See River of Flowers Milwaukee.

Bee Pod © River of Flowers

I found Chicago to be more focused on food than flowers than the other cities I visited although the city has a new TPL greenway in the making, the 606, which will run along an elevated track high above the city. Innovative organisations, such as the Sweet Water Foundation, which originated in Milwaukee, and the Gary Comer Center have helped to re-vitalise the food deserts of south Chicago along with Growing Power Chicago, Growing Home and the Chicago Botanical Garden. These have partnered up with one another and other organisations, community, commercial and city, to grow edibles. Immigrants and refugees from all over the world including the Burmese, have settled into their new homes more completely having been given the opportunity to grow their own food at amazing community spaces such as Global Gardens and Chicago Lights. See River of Flowers Chicago.

Global Gardens © Andrea Bauer

San Francisco, the last of the cities that I visited, has to thank the Friends of the Urban Forest for the streams of pollinator forage that flow so plentifully along the streets, blooming in sidewalk gardens and on street trees. The city has played a major part by converting many pavements to parks as well. There is a river of aerial apiaries floating on restaurant roofs throughout this city thanks to the efforts of beekeepers such as Urban BeeSF and Marshall Bees. National nonprofit organisations such as the Pollinator Partnership, which also has a branch in Toronto, and the Trust for Public Land, are both based in San Francisco, and their influence can be felt right across the continent. My ideas on planting for pollinators were transformed by my visits to UC Berkeley’s Bee Lab and Bee Garden, and by finding out more about the wonderful Green Hairstreak Butterfly Corridor, both fine role models for Rivers of Flowers everywhere. See River of Flowers San Francisco.

Californian Poppy © River of Flowers

Plants in the city can absorb exceptional amounts of water before this flowes into the drains; asingle street tree can take up over 1000 gallons per year! In every city I visited, there were excellent examples of collaborative action between the city authorities, key nonprofit groups and the community, to transform the hard impenetrable urban surfaces of the city into softer more absorbent ones, and so ensure that the waterways around and in the cities would not be contaminated by storm water overspill. 

River of Flowers asks the question: If all the rain gardens, bioswales, street trees and planting in parks could be planted up with native, pollinator friendly wildflowers and wild flowering trees, how sustainable could our cities become for growing food and protecting wildlife?

The Pollinator Pathway © The Pollinator Pathway

I was not able to visit every inspiring urban project I came across such as the Pollinator Pathway in Seattle conceived by artist Sarah Bergmann, the Edible Schoolyard created by chef Alice Waters in Oakland, designer and revolutionary horticulturalist Ron Finlay’s magnificent food experiment HQ in Los Angeles, the aptly named Boston Tree Party and Pollination Guelph, a group of dedicated 'pollenistas' in this small Canadian city with its richly informative website reaching out far and wide. Please contact me here about any other innovative and inspiring projects in your city, which could be featured in our  Wild City Blog: Tales of the City.

I would like to thank everyone who is making the city a better place for pollinators, plants and people. I have also expressed my gratitude and acknowledged you in my report for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website. You can read the report on Growing Wild and Edible Plants in the Urban Landscape here: 


New England Aster © Tywkiwdbi

New England Aster or Michaelmas Daisy (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is an insect pollinated, perennial plant in the Asteraceae or Daisy Family. It is native to almost every area in North America east of the Rocky Mountains apart from the far north of Canada and part of the southern United States.

California Poppy © Liz Loveland 

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is also known as Golden Poppy, California Sunlight and Cup of Gold. An insect pollinated wildflower in the Poppy or Papveraceae Family, it is native to the United States and Mexico.