What is an Urban Meadow?

To make it easy, this page utilizes photographic examples to show what an urban meadow might look like, what an urban meadow is NOT, what you WILL find in an urban meadow, and what you will NOT find in an urban meadow.

Urban meadows are low-impact, self-sustaining plant communities that provide ecological benefits.

Urban meadows are smart, sensible ways to preserve or restore natural areas. Urban meadows are not just "greenery". Much of the greenery or traditional landscape that we see in urban areas relies heavily on maintenance to keep plants the right size, to keep plants alive, to prevent weedy overgrowth. Urban meadows far are more than adding green to cities. Urban meadows create natural ecosystems in cities.

At its most basic level, an urban meadow takes a little bit of this (wild meadow)...
...and inserts it into this (fully developed area, with very little natural or wild space remaining).

The meadow in the first image above, has likely evolved over hundreds, if not thousands of years. During this evolution plants have flourished if they are best suited to the rainfall patterns, temperatures, drainage patterns, sunlight, wind, and soil of that area. Many species of plants occupy the same area, providing an extremely resilient landscape that is home to a huge diversity of microbes, small insects, large insects, birds, butterflies, and other fauna.

In the second image above, the city of Chicago, like many cities, is a dense jungle of concrete, stone, steel, and asphalt, with only tiny fragments remaining of the ecosystems it replaced. Though dense urban development offers many advantages over sprawl, there are massive downsides to choking out all natural areas.

The High Line: An Exemplary Urban Meadow

Urban meadow at the High Line in New York, NY

The High Line once was an elevated railroad in lower Manhattan. The railroad fell into disuse and disrepair. The elevated railroad's gravel bed began to form a sort of soil over the many years, and left in the hands of Mother Nature, this soil began to sprout a wide variety of beautiful plants. Essentially, The High Line became a meadow. This saved the railroad from demolition. A few visionaries saw the potential for this to become a park (with meadow intact, not just hard paving, and not ornamental flowers and shrubbery). A talented design team converted The High Line into one of the world's best known parks... and that park happens to be an urban meadow!

Though The High Line is a wonderful example in so many ways, it is far from a typical case, as The High Line is a highly visited landscape in a dense city. The High Line is as much "experience" as it is ecosystem, and thus it requires an unusually high maintenance effort for an urban meaodw.

Tall grasses and spent wildflowers at The High Line in late summer / early fall
Tall grasses and spent wildflowers at The High Line in late summer / early fall

So what makes The High Line an urban meadow? Let's start with the least important but most readily apparent attribute: aesthetics. In the three photos above, you can see green grasses, brown grasses, several spent flowers, and (if you look hard) a few not-so-showy flowers. To many people, these look like weeds. But they are, in fact, highly intentional plantings, designed and selected by very talented horticulturalists, ecologists, and landscape architects.

Urban meadows are "natural" or "naturalistic" plantings. I.e. they grow in masses just as they do in the wild, which has a different look, feel and texture than the manicured landscapes many people are used to. Urban meadows have something of a "hands off" look. Most of us have been culturally trained to associate "hands off" with neglect. And what are neglected, unwanted plants? Weeds. To the untrained eye, urban meadows are often perceived as weeds.

Aesthetic perceptions are one of the greatest barriers to urban meadow adoption. Smart design + a little education can overcome that barrier.

Since urban meadows are "natural" plantings, they incorporate several naturally occuring plants, i.e. species native to that area. Urban areas are altered from natural ecosystems, and the constant gaze of human eyes demands a bit more consistent aesthetic than might be possible with only native plants. For those two reasons, urban meadows often incorporate some non-native plants, to create a landscape that is both ecologically functional and attractive to people.

Urban Meadows Closer To Home

Colorful urban meadow in a residential neighborhood in Washington, DC

At the opposite end of the spectrum from The High Line, are urban meadows such as this, in Washington, DC. This is a bright, beautiful, sunny, colorful, and fun DIY landscape. Homeowners can do this; apartment buildings with a little space at street level can incorporate this; this can be done in planting strips at urban office buildings; a similar approach can be done in parks. Whereas The High Line is visible, it's huge and daunting, but you can do this!

sidewalk meadow planting

Urban meadows can be large or small! The cute example above is a very small urban meadow on either side of a sidewalk, also in Washington, DC. This lovely planting was installed and is maintained by a multicultural day care center. There are several native grasses, some Achillea (which is native to many parts of the world), several native Asters, some native Solidago (goldenrod), and a few friendly exotics, including a very fragrant rosemary.

If you are new to this site and new to the concept of urban meadows, by reading this far, you mgiht be thinking "OK, I've got it. Urban meadows are just messy, and look weedy." That's an understandable first take, but it is very much an oversimplification. Read on!

What is NOT an Urban Meadow?

Sometimes the easiest way to explain what something is, is to illutrate what it is not. Urban meadows can manifest themselves in many different ways, which can make the difficult to define. But urban meadows never look anything like the images below.

NOT an urban meadow
NOT an urban meadow
NOT an urban meadow
NOT an urban meadow

The four images above show examples of landscapes that are NOT urban meadows, characterized by the predominance of mown lawns, lack of species that provide much habitat value, obsession with tidiness of the landscape (neatly sheared shrubs, carefully trimmed turf), creation of landscapes that require constant maintenance (imagine how any of these look without mowing or pruning for a month or two), and general lack of anything (except one rhododendron) that a bee or butterfly would be attracted to. All these photos show greenery, but in all cases, what is shown is essentially an ecological wasteland.

Urban meadows are the antidote to ecological wastelands.

What You Will Find in Urban Meadows

Successful urban meadows attract and feed bees and butterflies. But many ornamental plants do the same, even if not planted in so-called meadows. The difference with urban meadows is that these bee- and butterfly-attracting plants grow in harmony with many other species, as part of a rich ecosystem that starts with the soil.

Melanargia galathea (marbled white butterfly) feeding on a clover blossom
Healthy soil is the foundation of any ecosystem.
Monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed
Seed pod opening in fall
Single bee on white flower
Two bees on thistle flower

The several images above zoom in to urban meadows. When looking at urban meadows from afar, even when just casually passing by them on the street, you might not notice the real benefits. To understand the benefits, look closely, and consider what is going on.

Benefits other than pollinator habitat might be hard to see. These include stormwater benefits, cooling effects, building a rich and fertile soil, and doing so without requiring chemical pollutants. But the presence of pollinators (and birds, and mantises!) is visible! And this visibility is great for geting our attention.

Lurie Gardens: Another Great Urban Meadow!

Another great urban meadow, on par with The High Line, is Lurie Gardens in Chicago's Millenium Park. Check it out below and in the gallery of projects.

Pink coneflowers blooming at Lurie Gardens urban meadow in Millennium Park Chicago
Yellow achillea blooming at Lurie Gardens urban meadow in Millennium Park Chicago

Lurie Garden, is designed as a model for sustainable, ecological urban horticulture. From luriegarden.org "Visitors find respite and inspiration in four seasons. In early spring, sun-hungry bulbs and perennials stretch through soil and begin anew. Summer and fall teem with the flutter of butterflies and birds. Winter’s seed heads and ornamental grasses capture snow and ice, creating graceful art forms. Lurie Garden is living art – a palette of texture and color blending Chicago’s unique culture, ecology, history and people."

Urban Meadows are Low Maintenance

If you have read this far, hopefully you have a better idea about what an urban meadow looks like, a few ideas about what it does NOT look like, and some idea about its ecological differences. But you might be thinking "That looks like a lot of work!" Think again!

Urban meadows are relatively low maintenance. Initial planting is similar to any other initial planting (water, weed, some replacements). But after initial planting, maintenance drops off signifiantly. This is because urban meadows are natural ecosystems, and nature doesn't need our constant help.

Traditional landscapes rely extremely heavily on constant human intervention (maintenance!). See below for a few visuals of what is NOT required for care of urban meadows.

NOT for urban meadows
NOT for urban meadows
NOT for urban meadows
NOT happening in urban meadows!

So I Just Stop Mowing and Trimming? Easy. Right?

Overgrown shrubs are NOT an urban meadow
Overgrown shrubs are NOT an urban meadow
Weeds are NOT an urban meadow
Weeds are NOT an urban meadow

I Have Ornamental Grasses. That's a Meadow, Right?

Grasses are a great start, and tall grasses are one of the more common meadow plants, but it's just that: a start.

This planting is almost entirely one species of Miscanthus grass, with a little sage on the far right, and some Indiangrass in the back right. Notice how much bare ground (mulch) is visible. This is NOT yet a meadow.
Mix of grasses and a few wildflowers at The High Line (repeat of image from top of page). Notice there is no mulch! There is no need for mulch, as plants cover all available space. This full utilization of space minimizes weeds and maximizes ecological benefits.

The pair of images above contrasts two different approaches to growing a grassy landscape. The first image is just grasses. The second image is a meadow. The difference? The second image mixes species together in ways that minimize weeding, maximize seasonal impact, maximize the use of soil, and maximize habitat value for bees and butterflies.