Natural Cleveland is produced by Jill Collins and Justin Glanville. Jill is an urban naturalist and illustrator. Justin is a writer and urban planner.
Clevelanders, like people everywhere, live on the land, they note. We're just not as accustomed as others to seeing it. That's a miss, because understanding the land can help us connect more deeply to the world and each other.
After a house in the city has been torn down, there is little that exists to suggest a family once lived and loved the land there, that the land had humanity to it. Former gardens may remain for a time—in a circle of irises, for example, or the overgrowth of a rose. Note: there is an invasive rose and several native roses, such as swamp rose (Rosa palustris) and pasture rose (Rosa carolina), but flowers do not usually last long. In my neighborhood, Black-eyed Susans grew in a vacant lot, but they were gone the following year.
I have thought often about why these lots cannot maintain garden species while country homesteads can. Maybe it is because the city mows most lots. The soil is poorer, more polluted, and compacted in the city. The seed banks (seeds present in the soil) are not as rich as in the country. Weeds often thrive. Typical lot weeds include: henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), crown vetch (Coronilla varia), and birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus).
While some of these weeds have no claim to beauty, like mugwort, it is difficult to walk past a lot without pausing to admire the rounded pea-like leaves and the bundled pink flowers of crown vetch or the small, but startling yellow of birdsfoot trefoil.
Studies have shown that green space improves human health (see the National Geographic article entitled, "This is Your Brain on Nature"). Green space is likely to increase the potential of an area for a variety of wildlife (some ecologically positive and others with negative impacts on the ecosystem).
If left alone, what would become of a vacant lot? It is difficult to say. It depends on the land’s history and its connectivity. Areas near railroad tracks, rivers, or the lake would have a greater diversity of seeds and better access for wildlife. Fast growing trees, like mulberry (Morus alba) and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima, the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), would grow in a lot as they do through cement and chain link. Other trees might establish. Invasive species would swarm the area.
Invasives are a blight to the city, like the decayed houses that have to be torn down, but I personally hope that some good can come of vacant land. Maybe old seeds have waited a long time to germinate. Maybe birds and other wildlife can bring new and better plants to the land and it will be fertile ground for an urban forest.