One of the many ways Mark Lindquist, the primary investigator on the 2019 research project The Rustbelt Herbarium, spends his time is thinking about how to better design research so that it will benefit its intended end-users.

To him, this reflects an approach that hasn't always been evident with academia in the recent past: “Historically, universities have had a bad rap in terms of being these ivory towers that are not in touch with their surrounding communities. In my lab, we try to define beforehand the research questions by keeping in mind what is going to be beneficial to stakeholders.”

Along with Ph.D. student Daniel Phillips, the two employed this philosophy to investigate both the properties of and perceptions of vegetation growing at so-called “informal green spaces” across Detroit. Such spaces, sometimes referred to pejoratively as ‘vacant lots,’ have emerged across the city in part because of cuts to public services. These areas now serve as homes for spontaneous vegetation, better known as weeds, which tend to thrive in such urban, resource-depleted environments.

But while society largely has a negative perception of spontaneous vegetation, Lindquist explains that these plants can feature and attract an impressive amount of biodiversity. Compared to concrete, or human-engineered turf grass, “Weeds attract more wildlife – more birds, more bees, everything that people like.” Further, he says “as species ranges begin to shift due to climate change, there’s a chance to re-evaluate both the biodiversity contribution of spontaneous vegetation, but also the fact that what we think of as a native plant is changing.”

What’s more, such plants often provide vital ecosystem services like filtration of heavy metals, absorption of air pollution, or in the case of dandelions, they can provide an early source of spring nectar for urban pollinators. At the same time, Phillips recognizes that there is a tradeoff between ecological needs and humans’ needs in urban environments: "When we think about ecosystem services and cities, we're looking at things like biodiversity and habitat creation, microclimate regulation, and these things that we know that are important in from an ecological perspective. But on the other hand, we also need to consider the human aspects, like the need for safety and hygiene."

To get at this intersection and see if a balance is possible, Lindquist and Phillips sought the expertise of community groups like the Detroit Mower Gang and Downtown Detroit Partnership that had formed to address the void in landscape management void created by the city’s budget cuts. The two researchers recognized that while they had important academic knowledge, they could leverage these groups' accumulated “on-the-ground insights” to bring these data points together in a shared space of communication that would bridge the world of academia, government, and community.

Meeting mostly in informal settings, such as backyard barbecues, to observe their practices directly, the research team began to better understand how the Detroit Mower Gang and others make decisions about where and when and what to mow. Generally, when the groups would attend to an area, they would ‘clear-cut’ it, not accounting for any vegetation that may be present—a different approach than what the team would advocate for. At one point, the team showed off images they had collected of species often present at such sites and the biodiversity they could attract, which the mowers seemed receptive to.

When it came time to compile the study’s findings, a key discussion point was determining what would be the most accessible way to share the results with the researchers’ intended audience—partners in the study, city officials, landscape architecture academics, and even community members. This act was itself an embodiment of the co-design process, because, as Lindquist explains, “at the end of the day, not many people want to read a 6,000-word  journal article. We wanted to showcase the findings in a way that was accessible to everyone involved.”

The team decided that an ArcGIS story map (Mow Town: The Emergence and Management of Spontaneous Urban Vegetation in Detroit) presented an ideal way to integrate the spatial, visual, and audio components captured during the research process. A first-of-its-kind tool for the city of Detroit, the team has already used it in traditional settings, and the hope remains that it can inform future management practices that maintain biodiversity in urban settings.

As far as what the future might hold for spontaneous vegetation and whether society will change its perceptions, Lindquist remains optimistic: “One of the main things coming out of the research in this area is that perceptions depend on maintenance. So I think it's not so much the weeds themselves as it is how they're framed and packaged—and I think that shift is already starting to happen as people are made more aware of how biodiverse some of these communities are.” In all likelihood, Lindquist is right, for as Emerson said, “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”