Embedding ecological experiments into urban public art
Over 50% of the global population currently lives in urban areas, and 3.2 billion more urban residents are predicted by 2050. At the same time, urbanized areas produce most human-associated carbon emissions and urbanization is considered the most irreversible form of human-driven land use change. Ecological research can help inform urban planning to reduce these environmental impacts, and can strengthen the connection between city residents and natural ecosystems. Despite the research needs, relatively few ecological studies have focused on urban landscapes. One reason for this bias is the rapid environmental changes, extensive spatial heterogeneity, and difficulties in gaining access to land for research sites in urban areas. Here we argue that ecological experiments can be integrated into temporary public art to yield valuable results for urban ecology while revitalizing vacant urban lands and helping transition them into centers of community engagement.
Our project, Urban Flower Field (UFF), illustrates some of the opportunities and challenges of this model. We created UFF in an urban commercial/residential section of St. Paul, MN. It consists of an ecological experiment embedded into temporary public art designed as a community gathering space. The experiment uses wildflowers to test whether plant biodiversity enhances phytoremediation. Flowers are planted in 96 1.6m-diameter circular plots containing 1, 2, 4, or 8 species. The 96 plots are arranged in eight spirals that extend out from a circular central patio. Field stones, decorated by community members, line each spiral. Artistic signs and paintings explain the artistic vision, the science experiment, and the biology of the experimental wildflowers. The ground design is reflected in a vast mural painted on a brick wall bordering the site. The project has encouraged community interactions. The site is a public space, and residents, professionals, and visitors often gather there informally. Public events at the site, including stone painting, film showings, and art-science discussions, have further facilitated community engagement. The project has no major infrastructure and thus can be easily converted to other uses. As a result, it has the potential to serve as a field site for urban ecology research and as an inspirational public space without complicating future development of a permanent park on the site. We will discuss the potential for this model to be broadly applied, and identify some of the challenges created by promoting community engagement within an active experiment.