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Early this summer I met a friend for breakfast at a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While waiting for him to arrive I spent some time staring at a lot next door—a vacant lot, as the spaces are called, but also the block’s one concentrated patch of greenery. It was scraggly and unremarkable, but a welcome respite from the neighborhood’s densely packed brownstones and sunbaked pavement.

Afterward we walked to the old Domino Sugar factory, located on the banks of the East River, a once-industrial zone that’s passed through gentrification and into the luxury development phase. Near the factory was a small park, previously the site of another vacant lot. On it the local hipsters had erected a giant teepee, outside of which a young woman explained that the park would soon be replaced by condos. When the bulldozers came, she hoped the teepee could be raised elsewhere. There was a vacant lot nearby, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and South 4th Street. “Right now,” she said, “there’s nothing there at all.”

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As it happened, that was the lot I’d just been enjoying. And while there were no buildings on the lot, and plenty of space for a teepee, there was certainly not nothing there. Compared to its surroundings, it was positively bursting with life: a pocket grassland where the hand of human development had skipped a beat. It was even a bit wild, a space where life exists independently and spontaneously, rather than being paved under or converted to some approved purpose.

It’s natural for us to elide the existence of what we don’t notice, but when we do, we cultivate our own subtle form
of emptiness.

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The young woman could hardly be blamed for not noticing it. Not many people do. We are in the habit of seeing untended nature as a sort of blankness, awaiting human work to fill it. It’s right there in the name: vacant lot. A place where spontaneous life is invisible, or at best considered so many weeds, the term used to lump together and dismiss what thrives in spite of our preferences.

It’s natural for us to elide the existence of what we don’t notice, but when we do, we cultivate our own subtle form of emptiness. In cities, so-called vacant lands account for a sizable portion of our urban space: roughly 15 percent in most cities and about 6 percent in New York City. That’s a whole lot of life we’re not noticing.

Cities contain green spaces, of course. And New York contains two of the best: Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. But parks are destinations, manufactured for experience. They are places to go on a weekend, or a lucky work-free afternoon. Vacant lots are part of our daily surroundings. They are found in places where a property owner waits for the right deal, at the edges of roads and train tracks and parking lots, the liminal zones nobody can be bothered to beautify.

Even nature-lovers don’t much care for these places. If they notice them at all, they see them as something to restore and reclaim. They’re not a significant piece of nature, like a wetland or a forest. Instead they represent unfulfilled potential, as recreational spaces or ecosystem service-providers or simply a nature more to our tastes. Something ought to be done with them.

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Yet there are other ways of perceiving vacant lot life. They have their own ecologies, well suited to urban conditions, and possess a surprising, even lovely richness. They’re where you can hear crickets and songbirds on the way to work. They’re alive, and alive with the lessons of wildness: that humans are members of life’s communities, a neighbor rather than an owner. “This ethical idea,” wrote environmental historian Roderick Nash, “may be the starting point for saving this planet.”

It’s a starting point that begins in our own neighborhoods. Environmentalists proclaim the virtues of living in cities, leaving space for nature outside them. That nature will only be allowed to flourish, however, if we respect it. It’s a lesson to learn not from wilderness vacations, wildlife documentaries, or weekend visits to the park. It’s a lesson to learn from everyday habitats, even in New York City. It begins with taking a close look.

There’s Nothing There: In fact, this vacant lot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a wild urban garden of plant life, containing horseweed and field pepper, bull thistle and clover, wood sorrel and Virginia creeper.Brandon Keim

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When I first saw the Williamsburg lot, I recognized a few of the species—horseweed, for instance—from an ill-fated attempt at seed-bombing my own block’s vacant lot. (The seeds failed to penetrate the weeds, the dense existence of which I’d somehow overlooked.) So my recognition of the Williamsburg lot’s vitality was a coarse sort of appreciation: a step up from considering the lot empty, but far from acknowledging it in any detail.

“You can’t understand anything about plants until you know what their names are,” said Peter Del Tredici, a botanist at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide, indispensable to any city naturalist. “Even biologists don’t bother to learn the names. They just consider them weeds. That lets you ignore and disregard them.” I called botanist Marielle Anzelone, founder of New York City Wildflower Week, an annual event that teaches people about the city’s unappreciated flora, and especially its rare flowers. Anzelone is herself quite rare: someone who can walk down a street and put a name to just about every tree and flower and blade of grass.

We started our walk beside the fence along Bedford Avenue. Through Anzelone’s eyes the undifferentiated green came into focus. Old stems of goldenrod ran along the fence. There was horseweed and low-growing field pepper and broadleaf plantain, anthered stems growing from ground level leaf rosettes. Wood sorrel, pokeweed, boneset, and white snakeroot, its leaves whorled with trails left by larval insects. Japanese knotweed and Japanese brome, daisy fleabane, calico aster. Trailing over a cinder block were the vines of a Virginia creeper. Inside the lot, Anzelone found Boston ivy growing along the building, underneath the graffiti, along with sapling zelcova and pin oak trees. She identified more field plants: yellow-flowered black medic, a thorny clump of bull thistle, a patch of clover.

Whenever she found a native plant, one that could trace its lineage deep into the region’s evolutionary history, a note of excitement crept into Anzelone’s voice. For her, nativity is bound up with a sense of place, of rooting oneself beneath the froth of the contemporary. A clump of path rushes—a species that grows from sidewalk cracks—might conceivably trace its ancestry to seeds that took root when the great Laurentide ice sheet receded 20,000 years ago, leaving behind the essential features of New York City’s present geography.

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They’re alive, and alive with the lessons of wildness: that humans are members of life’s communities, a neighbor rather than an owner.

Only a few of the plants in our lot were properly native, though. Most originated in Europe and Asia, arriving in the last few centuries with settlers, or imported by gardeners. Yet they have their own sort of nativity. They belong to a community of plants lately recognized by ecologists as characteristic of urban areas. They are, in the argot, ruderals. Disturbance specialists, wasteland-growers, found in abandoned spaces across New York City and much of the eastern United States.

These plants “live fast and die young,” said Steven Handel, an ecologist at Rutgers University. They are annuals and short-lived perennials, able to flower and fruit and make seeds quickly, before someone cuts them or builds over them. Most have seeds lofted and dispersed by the wind. “Think of Brooklyn as an ocean of asphalt, with little archipelago islands of vegetation,” Handel said. Some are dropped by birds, or carried in the fur of small mammals—mice and rats and feral cats—or on the shoes of local primates.

Moreover, these plants thrive in urban conditions, which are extreme. Like most large cities, New York City is a heat island, asphalt- and rooftop-trapped heat raising summer temperatures by an average of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Vacant lot soil can be nutrient-poor and root-stuntingly compacted; at some point in the recent past, a building stood where Anzelone and I do. It’s also dry, receiving relatively little precipitation from rainfall that evaporates or flows into sewers rather than collecting as groundwater.

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Out of this, ruderals spring. With each passing year, their growth and eventual decomposition enrich and soften the earth, fixing nutrients and enlivening the soil. In the process they sequester carbon and clean the air. They cool surrounding air, too, and help capture rainfall that otherwise swamps New York City’s overloaded sewers. Those are ecosystem services, performed efficiently and free of charge, though that’s just one perspective. Vacant lots serve others, too, creating food and habitat for the few creatures that live in the urban matrix, outside the protection of parks and conservation lands.

Anzelone and I sat for a while by a bumblebee-frequented patch of white clover. Something that’s little-appreciated, she said, is how vacant lots provide pollinators with food throughout the growing season: dandelions in spring, followed by clovers, then asters and goldenrod that bloom until first frost. Urban gardeners rely on pollinators, but it’s not gardens that sustain them. It’s places like this. Handel estimates that, in a decent-sized New York City lot, some 500 insect species can be found.

I caught the electric green flash of a virescent sweat bee. Under a plantain leaf was a sow bug. Anzelone noticed a syrphid fly, part of an order that looks like bees. A black-and-yellow swallowtail butterfly flew overhead. House sparrows landed on power lines and foraged in a fallen Ailanthus altissima, or Tree of Heaven. In the suburbs, house sparrows are considered a songbird-threatening nuisance. To me they’re musical neighbors. In my neighborhood I’ve also watched mockingbirds challenge crows, listened to cardinals sing their territorial bounds, thrilled to the blue-streaked flash of a kestrel falcon. They hunt the sparrows.

The vacant lot struck me as something like ecological graffiti. Not a cause of degradation, but a response to it. Mostly homogeneous in style, yet still a vibrant affirmation of life, and in some places beautiful, even special.

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Across the river in Manhattan, where the pace and density of development rarely allows empty places to flourish, there are few vacant lots. Until recently, though, there was one immense and particularly notable vacancy: a mile-long, 30-foot-wide stretch of elevated railroad track called the High Line, built in the 1930s, to haul freight down Manhattan’s lower west side.

Soaring above meatpacking plants and warehouses, the High Line ceased operation in 1980, its last train delivering three carloads of frozen turkeys. The entrances were fenced off and locked up. The track itself, with only its steel-beam underbelly visible from street level, was largely forgotten, going quietly feral as the neighborhoods gentrified.

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Now the warehouses are galleries, boutiques, and upscale lofts, and the High Line is an oasis of elegantly modernist paths lined with lush plantings conceived by world-renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf. There are some 210 species of flowers and shrubs and grasses, the names alone a litany of vegetative delight: rosemary willow and northern blazing star, twilight aster and white turtlehead.

This new High Line is widely celebrated as a visionary example of green urban design, the triumphant reclamation of disused space. Not much of what was reclaimed now is recalled; mostly it’s remembered as an eyesore. There’s but one formal record of what lived in the decades between its uses as railway and park, a study published in 2004 in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society by a St. John’s University biologist named Richard Stalter.

“The elevated railroad is a relatively inaccessible ‘island’ and my access to the High Line was through an artists’ loft to the roof of an adjoining building. There, a ladder and rope provided a ‘bridge,’ ” wrote Stalter. When he arrived, Stalter didn’t see a wasteland. Through his eyes, the tires and bottles and trash helped create “a multiplicity of habitats” in what was an example of ecological processes also found along roadsides and, more to the point, bare rock and newly formed islands.

Nearly all of what lives there is what someone has chosen. Nature’s spontaneity, testament to life outside human control, is gone.

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On the High Line, as on volcanic promontories rising from the sea, wrote Stalter, lichens and moss had taken a tenacious hold on stone and steel, growing and dying and thereby creating a first skein of organic matter. Eventually enough gathered for a few wind-blown grass seeds to take root, adding their own trace deposits to the nascent soil. Abetted by wind-blown dust, it soon could support even larger plants. By the time Stalter arrived, a layer of soil covered the High Line in depths ranging to nearly three feet.

And what grew in that soil! Stalter documented no fewer than 161 species of lichens and plants, split between two zones: a small area of shrubs and low-growing trees, and a larger area of grasses and flowers. These included many species found in the Bedford Avenue vacant lot—but unlike that and most other lots, the High Line was never mowed to keep vegetation in check, and perhaps for that reason accumulated many more.

Among these were nine species of aster and goldenrod, and also lesser-known plants like joe-pye weed. Art Shapiro, a former Staten Island resident who’s now an entomologist at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), described it as “a short, shining moment” when the High Line was “an absolute butterfly heaven.” Stalter didn’t inventory the invertebrates, but he did compare the floral diversity to other sites around New York City. Altogether, he wrote, it appeared to possess “one of the highest levels of species richness of any temperate zone urban environment in the region.”

If the old High Line was a disused eyesore, it was also a botanical cornucopia, and all the more remarkable because it was untended. Nobody watered it, or added soil or fertilizer. Nobody weeded it. What’s there now is a fundamentally different type of nature than before: a garden, and in a sense far less sustainable, requiring careful tending and more water than is naturally available.

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It’s also brought pleasure to millions of visitors, helped popularize a vibrant, less-manicured gardening aesthetic, and is far more pleasant than whatever would have been built had the High Line, spanning what’s now some of the world’s most expensive real estate, been torn down. There is joe-pye weed, and plenty of bees and butterflies, and birds, too. A few years ago, visitors watched peregrine falcons swoop down from their nest on the local Drug Enforcement Administration offices, which abut the High Line on 17th Street.

Yet when I walk the paths, something is missing. It’s aesthetically pleasing but not inspiring. Nearly all of what lives there is what someone has chosen. Nature’s spontaneity, testament to life outside human control, is largely gone. Of course people will argue that humans are part of nature, too, which is true; but there are different ways of being in nature. On the High Line, it’s too easy to forget that verdancy is not the result of careful management, but life’s inexorable course, present wherever we don’t suffocate it.

“On a planet increasingly permeated with human intentionality, areas we allow to be there for themselves, that we allow to become what they will, can stand in contrast to human hubris,” wrote Roger Kaye in an essay for the National Parks Service. “They can counter the dominating presumption that everything exists in relation to us.”

Kaye, a wilderness specialist and pilot for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, likely had a very different setting in mind. The principle still applies, though, in the city. Marvelous as the High Line is, it exists in relation to us. It’s no longer wild.

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Walk the Line: The Rockaway Rail Line, abandoned long ago, stretches beneath black cherry and white mulberry trees in Queens. Its wildness may soon be tamed, as plans are afoot to turn the railway into a park.Brandon Keim

About 10 miles southeast of Manhattan, as the pigeon flies, a ribbon of defunct railway echoes the High Line before the landscape architects moved in. It’s part of the Rockaway Rail Line, running 3.5 miles through Queens and Brooklyn. The last train rolled in 1962; the rails were fenced off from the public, and nature left to go feral. Now it’s described as a blighted eyesore, a neglected ruin. It’s also a place to know better.

On a hot June day, unable to find a way up that didn’t involve climbing a utility pole, I walked the elevated southern section at street level. Over its concrete edges poked red cedar and black cherry trees, multiflora rose, the brown seedheads of pigweed. Seeing me take photographs, a man in a sleeveless T-shirt with a faded cross tattooed on his shoulder introduced himself. “It’s like a wildlife preserve up there!” he said, home to raccoons and possums and a great many birds. The latter were his favorites. Early in the morning, when he left for work at a plumbing supply store, cardinals and lately bluebirds were out singing.

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That elevated section, said Handel, the Rutgers ecologist, resembles the old High Line: life filling and slowly softening an expanse of rock and metal. The northern section is also like the High Line in its feral nature, though topographically quite different. With richer conditions to start from, it’s now a forest, old enough for trees to wrap trunks around the rails. Undergrowth is dense, in many places nearly impenetrable, but in a few spots at least it’s possible to access on foot.

Trees will be beaten back, the poison ivy and bittersweet vines torn out, soil and water imported. Nobody, I suspect, will spare much thought for the birds.

On another day, I visited with Anzelone, the New York City botanist. She characterized the denseness as a mix of woodland natives and non-natives, many considered invasive. There were black cherry and white mulberry trees, horse chestnuts and pin oak and sassafras. Coiling some of the trunks and canopy were oriental bittersweet vines. There was Virginia creeper, and beds of poison ivy: a nuisance to humans, but manna for animals, who feed through winter on its fat-rich berries. Filling the understory were raspberry and porcelain berry bushes, nightshade and buckthorn: more manna.

Swallowtails flittered through openings in the canopy. A catbird thrashed in the brush, and a female cardinal perched nearby as we came upon several small trees in white plastic buckets. Tags identified them as part of the Million Trees Initiative, New York City’s effort to expand urban tree cover. It took a moment for the absurdity to sink in, the implicit invisibility of the lushness around us. Someone was planting trees in a forest.

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A local community group, Friends of the Queensway, hopes to turn the Rockaway Rail Line into a park called the Queensway. It would feature bicycle paths and gardens and meeting spaces; it would, argue the Friends, create jobs, improve public health, and simply be a fun place to go. Artistic renderings of the park look lovely. I’d be happy to have it in my neighborhood.

At the same time, I feel regret for what will happen should the railway become a park. Most of the verdancy will go. Trees will be beaten back, the poison ivy and bittersweet vines torn out, soil and water imported. Nobody, I suspect, will spare much thought for the birds.

Many scientists who consider these places from an ecological perspective see them as scrap heaps, dominated by invasive species that produce diminished, homogeneous ecosystems. The plants and animals living there don’t need to be counted, and thinking otherwise risks a certain ecological Stockholm syndrome. After all, one could also celebrate the ruderal possibilities of a mine-tailing pond, or the parking lot borders of proposed developments in lush, ecologically rare Staten Island wetland forests.

Yet the Rockaway Rail Line, like the city’s vacant lots, is to my eyes a treasure. Shapiro, the UC Davis entomologist, told me he saw vacant lots as “founts of evolutionary and ecological creativity” for dense urbanity, a space where megacity nature adjusts to our industrial presence, evolving the future’s resilient ecosystems. To me they’re simply rich, a place where nature’s chorus refreshes the soul and you can feel a vital pulse of wildness. They’re already homes, too. Life pushes back in vacant lots, asserting membership in a community of which, as Aldo Leopold put it, Homo sapiens is not a conqueror but “a plain member and citizen.”

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What it means to be a good neighbor to these communities, respectful and sharing, is a koan for the Anthropocene age. Ultimately it’s our communities who decide what happens in their backyards. Confronted with a vacant lot, most people will prefer parks and gardens—somewhere to grow food and enjoy a neatly tended nature, one that’s also not fenced off and gathering trash.

But these might be imagined from the perspective of vacant lot life, even inspired by it. As we think about developing our vacancies, we can get to know them: enjoy their plants and animals, challenge ourselves to plan in ways that support as much life as now exists. What we mow out of habit rather than need can be left to grow free. A few places might even be protected—pocket wilderness parks, with trails and benches, to go with our gardens. Maybe some of that Rockaway rail line poison ivy can be left for the birds.

Since visiting that Williamsburg lot with Anzelone, I’ve made my city sojourns with an eye to ruderals and the untended. There’s far more life than I ever realized, and our own landscaping often suffers from the comparison. On one neglected side of a street, untended green will overflow, buzzing and blooming; on the other, a few desultory shrubs and factory-grown flowers stand in deserts of mulch and inch-high grass.

Recently I went back to Williamsburg, curious to see the lot in late summer. It’s now a hole in the ground, with construction starting on an apartment building. It was difficult to begrudge. People need homes, and construction jobs. Later that day, I stopped by a vacant lot in my neighborhood. Until recently, it was a glorious profusion of Queen Anne’s lace and chicory and milkweed, food for monarch butterflies that pass through New York City on their migration to Mexico.

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Now it’s mowed flat. There didn’t seem to be any construction. Maybe someone complained to the Department of Sanitation, the city’s vacant lot-mowers, about the unkempt growth. It’s not unkempt now. It’s obliterated. Shorn, silent and motionless, it’s something close to nothing. Yet amid the stubble were stalks of fallen milkweed. Their pods were bursting with seed.

To see vacant lots that Brandon Keim photographed across the city, click here.

Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist who writes about science, technology, and nature. His work has appeared in Wired, Aeon, Scientific American Mind, and other publications.

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