Project Overview

The Urban Flora of New York City LifeDesk will create within the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) a resource for professional and citizen scientists, educators, and enthusiasts with interests in the plants that thrive in the harsh wilderness of the city. New text, photographs, and bibliographies will emphasize commonly encountered plants in New York City’s urban flora, including those being actively planted in restoration efforts and invasive plants that often thrive in the urban habitat. These additional resources in the EOL complement efforts of the local parks departments, conservationists, and community groups aiming to develop an appreciation of the natural world and the ecosystem services that exist within urban landscapes.

Why an urban flora?   Urban ecosystems are inherently different from the more natural settings that once existed in their place: the urban heat island effect increases temperatures, air and water pollution challenge physiological processes, and fewer permeable surfaces (pavement and buildings) leads to differences in water quality and rain absorption (McKinney 2002). An initial framework has been proposed for what filters would contribute to urban community assembly rules; these include initial habitat transformation from rural to urban, fragmentation of green space within the city, the distinctive qualities of the urban environment, and human preferences for planting (Williams et al. 2009). All of this contributes to the uniqueness of the urban setting as an ecosystem and makes it one that can be studied just as one would study any more “naturally” occurring ecosystem, such as a salt marsh wetland or old growth forest.  

The plants that live in this altered world deliver many benefits to the environment and the residents of the city. Urban plant life provides several ecosystem services, including filtering the air, storing and filtering rainwater, and regulating temperature fluctuations (Bolund and Hunhammar 1999). There are also cultural ecosystem services provided by the urban flora; these services are defined as “aesthetic, artistic, educational, spiritual, and/or scientific values of ecosystems” (Costanza et al. 1997). Having a knowledge resource like this LifeDesk featuring the plants that make up an urban flora could enhance these personal benefits because there will be a source of information for those residents that are curious about the world around them and for those K-16 educators in the city who would like to integrate plants and urban ecology appreciation into their curricula.

Why New York City?   Besides the vast size of this city in both area and population, there are many botanical resources located in New York City as well as an effort by city offices to promote green activities. Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been working on its New York Metropolitan Flora Project to create a herbarium collection of all plant species within a 50-mile radius of NYC. Other engaged community members and researchers can be found at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and the USDA’s NYC Urban Field Station in Queens. In 2007, the city administration and the Department of Parks and Recreation launched a 10-year MillionTreesNYC project whose goal is to plant and care for one million new trees on both public and private property by 2017. This project is just a small part of the plans for creating a more sustainable New York. This is a city that has a vested interest in its natural spaces and one whose residents and professionals would most likely make use a reference source like this Lifedesk and the EOL. 

One of the most exciting activities promoted by the city is the development of green roofs on city-owned and private buildings. The City even offers a tax credit for properties that install and maintain green roofs ( 2011). Currently, ten NYC Rec Centers have been equipped with green roofs that aim to mimic two native communities: a rocky summit community found along the Hudson River and a grassland community found on Long Island. The Greenbelt Native Plants Center (part of NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation) is a 13-acre facility on Staten Island that provides native plants for these and other green roofs and park restoration projects. Then there is the Highline: a 1.5 mile piece of reclaimed elevated train track that has been remodeled and turned into a publicly accessible green roof. It is planted with both native species and some of the invasive plants that had been growing on the track before it was developed. It is an excellent example of an urban flora by including the native plants that have been able to survive with the opportunists that thrive in the highly disturbed habitat of the city.

The creation of an urban plant resource will benefit the EOL, city residents, students, and plant scientists. It will help at least two of the 100 questions facing plant science research today: “How do we ensure that society appreciates the full importance of plants?” and “How can we use plants and plant science to improve the urban environment?” (Grierson et al. 2011). Having a resource where a curious urban resident can easily look up the plants around him or her will foster a feeling of connection to the natural world inside the unique ecosystem of the city.


Bolund P and S Hunhammar. 1999. Ecosystem services in urban areas. Ecological Economics. 29: 293-301.

Costanza R, R d’Arge, R de Groot, S Farber, M Grasso, B Hannon, K Limburg, S Naeem, RV O’Neill, J Paruelo, RG Raskin, P Sutton, and M van den Belt. 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature. 387:253-260.

Fuller RA, KN Irvine, P Devine-Wright, PH Warren, and KJ Gaston. 2007. Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology Letters. 3:390-394.

Grierson CS, SR Barnes, MW Chase, M Clarke, D Grierson, KJ Edwards, GJ Jellis, JD Jones, S Knapp, G Oldroyd, G Poppy, P Temple, R Williams, and R Bastow. 2011. One hundred important questions facing plant science research. New Phytologist. 192:6-12.

McKinney ML. 2002. Urbanization, biodiversity, and conservation. BioScience. 52(10):883-890. 2011. “Tax Reductions for Residential Property.” The City of New York, n.d. Web. Accessed on 23 Sep 2011. <

Williams NSG, MW Schwartz, PA Vesk, MA McCarthy, AK Hahs, SE Clemants, RT Corlett, RP Duncan, BA Norton, K Thompson, and MJ McDonnell. 2009. A conceptual framework for predicting the effects of urban environments on floras. Journal of Ecology. 97(1):4-9.


Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith