Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Flora of Urban Wastelands: An interdisciplinary project

Interview with Audrey Muratet, one of the authors of Flore des Friches Urbaines.

I met Audrey Muratet at the Management and Urbanism Institute of Ile de France, in Paris, where she works in the Regional Biodiversity Agency. Audrey is one of the authors of Flore des Friches Urbaines, or Flora of Urban Wastelands, a guidebook that I discovered last year and discussed in a previous post. I was curious how the guidebook came about, and what the authors’ goals were for the book.

Flore des friches urbaines was a personal project that Audrey and the other authors, photographer Myr Muratet (who happens to be her father), and graphic designer Marie Pellaton, worked on over several years. It grew out of an interdisciplinary research project that also involved anthropologists, which was called Wasteland. The anthropologists and ecologists in the project studied the same wastelands. The wastelands for the project were principally located in the area surrounding Paris, in Seine-St.-Denis and Hauts-de-Seine. For her PhD in Ecology, Audrey studied about 100 wasteland sites. She and the other ecologists shared about 20 sites with the anthropologists. Of these sites, about half have now disappeared, due to development.

Although the ecologists and anthropologists worked together to understand urban wasteland socio-ecologies, each used their own methodologies and created their own disciplinary research products. Indeed, the ecologists, anthropologists and artists had very different methodologies. Their working methods diverged, for example, in the choice of wastelands to study: the anthropologists wanted to focus on 1 or 2 in depth, while the ecologists wanted a large, statistically representative sample. There was also a clear difference in the investment of time in the project-- the photographer, Myr, spent 10 years photographing in the wastelands, and learned Romani in order to communicate with the people living there (see Different methodologies were evident in the approach to formulating questions—ecologists start with hypotheses they want to test, while anthropologists develop their questions in the field. And, as the project progressed, the artists and scientists had different modes of formulating and responding to critique.

Yet the idea was to enrich each other’s disciplinary research frameworks by working side by side. The book is one form of result. And what a result! It is an unusually beautiful and functional botanical guidebook. As someone who does not have a background in botany, I often struggle to use botanical guidebooks to identify wild plants. Flore des Friches Urbaines, however, is easy and extremely enjoyable to use. I asked Audrey if they had specifically set out to make a beautiful as well as a functional guidebook.

Yes, in fact, Audrey told me, making a beautiful book was their explicit goal. Scientific books, Audrey pointed out, normally don’t consider the quality of the graphic design, or even the quality of the language used in the text. However, they wanted to create an object that would valorise wastelands, and present the beauty of these normally despised habitats. From her experience as a botanist and ecologist, Audrey had many examples of plant guides in mind during the design of the book. Marie Pellaton, the graphic designer and illustrator for the book, also played an integral creative role in the formulation of the material, as well as its aesthetic presentation. She designed the plant identification key, which has a unique fomat compared to other plant keys, including drawings. The “tables of differences” are also a unique element that they developed for the book: on the top of the page, similar related species are listed together with ecological information, and on the bottom a table summarizes key differences between them in flowering period, colour, leaf shape, flower size, shape and colour, and fruit size, shape and colour. Highlighting these small differences that experienced botanists know but that beginners have difficulty seeing, is, I have found, very helpful.

The beginning of the guide also presents a useful habitat typology for urban wastelands, allowing the wasteland explorer to interpret where they are and to anticipate the kinds of plants they are likely to find around them. The authors developed this themselves, according to the observable ecological successional process by which one set of plants replace another over time, since phytosociological typologies (an approach to systematizing plant community types used in botany) don’t exist for the urban environment. Wastelands, Audrey points out, have no ecological definition. They are “assemblages of habitats, characterized by a chaotic human presence.” I also liked this successional approach because it makes clear that urban wastelands are dynamic, full of life and change.

“I consider myself a botanist,” Audrey told me, “but above all an ecologist—naming plants is not the only interesting thing, what’s interesting is also to note the interactions of the plants with their environment.” Thus the book provides many ecological notes about the plants, such as their pollinators, habitat types, and adaptations to soil pollution. In France it is easy to get ecological data on plants from existing databases, especially pollination and dispersal data. However, to find information on adaptations to soil pollution Audrey had to compile data from original research in the scientific literature. The association of all this data together in the guidebook is a valuable resource. It also gives the novice botanist a sense not only of plant taxonomy, but also of the habitats in which they find those plants, and the relations the plants may have with their surroundings. Having these clues at your fingertips helps to interpret and to animate the wastelands.

The photographs also illustrate and complement the ecological perspective on botany. Many photographic botanical illustrations zoom in on the plant, giving little sense of scale or how the plant sits in its surroundings. Myr Muratet tried to photograph the plants in their environment, in their entirety. Thus, the photographs seem to me to be particularly good at capturing the essence, the character, and the form of each species. This is no easy feat considering the interspecific variation in plant morphology—individuals of the same species can look surprisingly different. Audrey explained that as a photographer Myr is more interested in humans, but for this project he applied himself to photographing the plants, and over time even learned to recognise and name them. Perhaps, I wonder, if it is actually his eye for humans in their environments that allows him to see plants with this distinct vision, as if they had personalities and relationships. Audrey suggests that the photographs also succeed as illustrations because they derive from a single vision, whereas most botanical guides compile photos taken by many individuals.

Colour is important in botany, and is treated carefully and beautifully in the guidebook. Myr worked very early in the morning or in the late afternoon to get the right kind of light and shadows to make the plants most visible against their backgrounds. Afterwards he also carefully graded the colours, which adjusts the tone and colour palette, in the print version, so that they resemble the true colours that you see outdoors. Botanical guides often seem to be too yellow, Audrey says, possibly to make them appear bright, whereas these if anything the photographs in Flore des Friches Urbaines have a “cold” colour palette typical of Myr’s work. Thinking about colours also led them to create a section at the end of the book on identifying plants in winter. I found this section enchanting, since it almost literally brings to life the apparently barren winter landscape. Audrey pointed out that while there are precise colour descriptions of living plants, there are no colour descriptions of plants when they are dry and dormant in winter, yet, she explained, there are many different colours present: a rainbow of different browns and greys, reddish colours, blackish colours. Some plants, such as the Apiacae (umbellifers) are in fact easier to identify in winter.

Colour, though, is not everything. “When I go to wastelands,” Audrey says, “I do a lot of touching and smelling..”

I asked Audrey if they had difficulty publishing this magnificent but unusual book. She told me that they had the good luck of getting in touch with Xavier Barral (who recently died, a scientifically and artistically minded editor who had set up his own (very well-known) publishing house in 2002; he immediately understood exactly what they wanted to do.

Audrey has many ongoing projects. She hopes that they can eventually translate the book into other languages, and she would like to reproduce the project in other cities of the world. She is currently, within the Ile de France Management and Urbanism Institute, part of an interdisciplinary working group on wastelands. She is particularly interested in looking at the temporalities of wastelands and their ephemerality. She is also working on a “Manual of urban ecology” with Francois Chiron from BIOVEINS, summarizing the current state of research on urban ecology, along with photos by Myr to give a view of the anthropology of urban wastelands. It will come out in May.

I was very inspired by Audrey’s work. I hope this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration valorising urban environments will become more common, and take root in many cities around the world.

Meredith Root-Bernstein, 9 March 2019