Park As Pharmacy: Medicinal Botany in Cities

This is the introduction to my undergraduate thesis at The New School. Full paper is available on request and please take a look at the Park As Pharmacy field guide.

Walking through the streets of any city, we find bits of green reaching out from the most unexpected cracks and crevices. As urbanization continues, the composition of local plant species will continue to shift towards those best adapted to the harsh urban conditions of high temperatures, low nutrients, compacted soil, unpredictable water, and little direct sunlight. The most resilient urban flora tend to be uncultivated species that grow against all odds in spaces that can no longer support the species of the pre-urban ecosystem. Among the many species observed locally in American cities are native and non-native plants that have been used historically, here and overseas, for treating a variety of health conditions and supplementing diets. However, as people in America have shifted towards valorising a controlled aesthetic for nature in human habitats, uncultivated species have become stigmatized as a sign of neglected environments. Rather than continue to disregard them as “weeds”, we can re-conceptualize our relationship with these plants by researching and amplifying their functions. They are already providers of important ecological services, and have much potential as sources of medicine and nutrition. We can create a resilient and productive complement to existing efforts in engaging people in ecology and botany through urban agriculture and local park stewardship. In amplifying the understated properties and socio-ecological value of wild urban plants, we provide an opportunity for urban dwellers to start noticing the bits of green as they move throughout the city. This everyday awareness could help people build up the enthusiasm required for participating in more effort-intensive botanical activities like cultivation, maintenance, and foraging. My project aims to evaluate the ecological and social potentials for using wild urban plants as a resource for engaging people in herbal medicine and the urban environment.

Plants give us food to eat, clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and beauty to admire in natural and built landscapes. For a large majority of the developing world, plants are also the primary source of healthcare through the traditional practice of medicinal botany for reasons of financial and cultural accessibility (WHO 2002). While herbal medicine is a much less dominant form of healthcare in industrial/post-industrial cities, we, here in New York City, are still very much reliant on the medicinal properties of plants, with 25% of modern pharmaceuticals being sourced from wild flora and more being synthesized from natural compounds (Rates 2001). However, the end products of the modern pharmaceutical industry have become very disconnected from any natural sources. The distance between where the plants are cultivated or collected to where the medicine is consumed has grown significantly with multiple levels of processing and packaging added in between. At the same time and perhaps as a consequence, the consumer's level of knowledge about the medicine's properties has decreased along with the level of interaction and understanding of the material being consumed. While this results from a standardization of products for safety and efficacy, the psychological detachment of people from the medicines they use corroborates the current lack of concern for the conservation of the natural resources consumed in the process, as well as the problems within the industry to be discussed shortly. Biomedicinal care has become dominant all over the developed world. For those in less modernized places, access to biomedical healthcare may be prevented by geography and lack of infrastructure, but even for many people living in industrialized cities, the high costs of prescriptions, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, and health insurance form a barrier to their well-being. For those who can access and afford modern health care, the excessive use of processed pharmaceuticals, such as common OTC analgesics (painkillers), may have negative long-term impacts on the organ functions and immune systems of users, as well as the ecosystems and drinking water resources exposed to pharmaceutical manufacturing industries (Mazer and Perrone 2008, Bancos et al. 2009, Bloetscher 2011). The observed abundance and historical medicinal usage of wild urban plants provide an approach to reducing costs, over-usage, and pollution impacts of certain pharmaceuticals – using commonly available, naturally pharmacological plant species as an alternative source of treatment for common conditions, such as pain and inflammation. This would be in addition to their role as a primary source of connectivity to nature for local communities.

            Questions to be answered through this research include: what species of wild urban plants with medicinal properties are available and what are the barriers and opportunities for engaging people of different backgrounds and lifestyles in medicinal botany? To answer these questions, I used New York City as a case study and research the ecological, medicinal, and historical properties of commonly found, uncultivated species in Central Park. As one of the less managed urban green spaces in New York City, Central Park's species composition can be presumed to represent the city's range of wild urban plants, including those in less accessible, but ubiquitous spaces like vacant lots and sidewalks. I then explored and evaluated an activity-based approach to engaging New School students and general park visitors in the underutilized properties of these wild urban plants as a way to plant the seeds of curiosity about the practice of medicinal botany in cities.