Subnature: Two Acres of Urban Prairie

“Subnatures are primarily experienced as aspects of the seemingly subhuman conditions of contemporary urbanization and its subcultural peripheries…Subnatures are those forms of nature deemed primitive (mud and dankness), filthy (smoke, dust, and exhaust), fearsome (gas or debris), or uncontrollable (weeds, insects, and pigeons).

“Weeds are those plants that get in the way of the programs, agendas, or desires that we project into spatial constructs.” – David Gissen

Vacant lots and urban voids (such as the one photographed above) offer some of the most prominent urban examples of David Gissen’s definition of the subnature of weeds as described in his latest book.  If left alone, weeds will spontaneously colonize vacant, unused or derelict spaces in the city, even if the surface is paved. The seemingly aggressive temperament of this subnature engenders a wide variety of landscape maintenance and extermination regimes that attempt to control out-of-control weeds.

One example of this in Portland is the 2 acre urban void at SE 10 Ave and Belmont, previously documented by F.A.D. here.  The land has been vacant for years, and has developed its own renegade dynamic ecology:

When this subnature is deemed too feral, it is periodically tamed and cut down, like this:

Similar to countless other vacant lots, this sub nature is controlled through periodic tractor mowing.  The mowing regime essentially locks the landscape in a closed circuit of time, or a state of arrested development.  Whenever the community of plants, insects and birds emerges toward a more advanced state, the complexity is cut away and left to start up again. Like periodic burning, the clear-cut keeps the landscape as a perpetual urban weed prairie, or grassland devoid of trees.  The plants that have colonized and remained on this site are well adapted to the local climate, crappy post-demolition soil, and the maintenance/removal regimes.

But what if we let it go for 5 or 10 years…?   Would the first order weeds be replaced by more robust 2nd order woody weeds.  Would an Ailanthus forest emerge?

In the spirit of Gissen’s Subnature, F.A.D. and fellow co-conspirator have explored and attempted to engage with the subnatural ecology on this site.  F.A. D. has been documenting the yearly growth patterns in conjunction with the rhythms of maintenance regimes for the past three years.  In 2009 we decided to test the openness of the ecology by experimenting with inserting something else into it:   Helianthus annuus, or the common sunflower.  We chose sunflowers because they are easy to grow and because they complicate the idea of a weed subnature: sunflowers are simultaneously considered productive (both a food and alternative energy source), are also sometimes considered a weed (because they are so adaptable and can grow just about anywhere where there is sun and warmth), and  they are widely aesthetically appreciated.  Sunflowers are also heliotropic, which we hoped would add another dynamic time element to the installation.

Digital mockup of anticipated outcome after applying 6lbs of sunflower seeds (approx. 56,000 seeds per pound)

Last spring we hand-seeded the two acres with 6 pounds of live seed (far more seed than should have been required to seed the entire site) in parallel rows to highlight the ‘productive’ or agricultural overtones within the derelict weed ecology.

At the time of seeding we had an opportune combination of sun and rain and adequate soil temperature–what we thought were ideal conditions.  We watched from spring into summer and not a single sunflower emerged (luckily, the field was not cut down until later that summer).  The installation was a complete failure, yet the result was just as interesting as if we had seen a field of sunflowers.  The community of plants and other organisms on this site demonstrate a remarkably cohesive and competitive structure, leaving little room for the introduction of other opportunists.  Was it the weeds that out-competed the sunflowers, or the many birds we discovered on the site finding and eating the seed, or something else?  We will likely never know.


  1. I like this a lot, and I’d love to see something like this done in some unused corner of a construction site, like a dirt pile stashed for later earthwork.

    This is just like biological graffiti – you’ve obviously gone outside the law to enliven a fallow lot. Of course, an ecological canvas is a little different than just a dilapidated building – it’s more aleatory. You’ve got some Cage here, and the High Line’s borrowed wildflower banks is more like Messiaen’s Oiseaux.

    That said, randomness can bring about unsatisfying conditions. Here, you’ve got a surprisingly attractive lot here. I know too little about ecology, but best as I can tell, one of the reasons DC’s unmaintained spaces are so ugly is because the natural predation is disrupted by a lack of things to eat the fast-growing plants (mowing, the great leveler, comes instead) and the government-subsidized competition from invasive “non-weeds” like turf grass is pretty fierce.

  2. I like your analogy to graffiti–I was thinking about the same thing.

    And instead of the great leveler as a maintenance regime, what if we had goats and urban shepherds? I’ve seen it done to great effect in places like Mexico and Greece.

  3. Excellent idea 🙂 I liked it, this can be exercised every where and any where in world. Rgds, Mahesh, India

  4. Super-interesting, this post. As the beginning of an experiment in resilience/resourcefulness, it is a fantastic little document. Any chance you are going to keep pursuing this line of thought with real experimentation/observation? What if you used a scientific approach and tried changing one variable at a time- different seed, till the ground first, protect it from birds. Or you could try to change the approach wholesale a number of times- choose a different site/seed/planting method/cultivation regime. I love it and hope you find the time for it.

    Also, you might check out this photographer’s work: He seems to be fascinated with subnatures here in New York and gets some beautiful shots.

  5. Yeah–the seeding of this site is part of an ongoing experiment at multiple locations in the city, tweaking multiple variables to test the effects. Part of the experiment is to see how small the intervention can be and still affect the site in some way, thus going from minimal to more intensive measures, in contrast to typical landscape practice. This approach is highly iterative and entails failures (or lack of visible alteration) until we hit a critical point. Hopefully, this approach will give us a stronger read of the existing ecology from which to build upon. It’s the experimentation and ongoing relationship with the open site that I find more intriguing than a desired outcome, or end state.

    Thanks for the thiscityismine link. Nice images and related links.

  6. Robert Bierma · ·

    I have been very interested in this property for some time. It seems like such a waste to have such an urban space simple fenced off and not put to an greater use while it waits for someone to develop it. To me it seems like a plan could be developed that would allow for its more productive use without restricting its potential for future uses. The idea that’s been most appealing and viable in my mind would be to use of it as an urban farm with a produce stand facing Belmont street. With what ever other complementary uses could be found to be added; community space, education space, food carts. For the owners the income generated would pay for insurance and taxes on the property and it would showcase the property as more vibrant location, increasing its profile to potential investors/developers. The community would get; a beautiful new semi public community place, access to local produce, and a decent sized contributor to the local economy. It would end up being if made the largest close in urban farm in Portland, and probably one of the biggest in the nation. Would love to hear what you think about this idea.

  7. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the inquiry and apologies for the very slow response. I think lot of people have been interested in the idea of using this site for urban agriculture, as well as other things. The main challenges that seem to prevent that from happening is the potential liability for the owner and the problems that might ensue if, or when the developer decides to develop the property if a temporary use has been granted.

    I’m not sure if you are aware of the project, but we have been experimenting over the past year with another form of urban agriculture on this site – goat ranging – that provides an amenity to the surrounding community. I’ve documented those experiments under the title “Staring at Goats”. Here are some of the links here and here

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