The Living Roof: A failed experiment in native plant gardening

Living Roof, California Academy of Sciences, March 2011

When the California Academy of Sciences reopened in San Francisco in August 2008, its “living roof” was considered its most unique feature.  Thirty species of native plants were candidates for planting on the roof.  They were planted in test plots with conditions similar to the planned roof and monitored closely.  Only nine species of native plants were selected for planting on the roof because they were the only plants that were capable of self-sowing from one season to another, implying that they were “sustainable.”  A living demonstration of “sustainability” was said to be the purpose of the living roof. 

So, 2-1/2 years later, what have we learned from the living roof about the sustainability of native plants in San Francisco?  The results of monitoring the roof since June 2009, are reported on the “fromthethicket” blog about Golden Gate Park.

Two of three of the predominant species on the roof after 2-1/2 years are native.  The third–moss–is not.  It is described by “fromthethicket” as “varieties of early succession mosses, the types that commonly show up in disturbed soil.”

The monitoring project has divided the roof into four quadrants.  Non-natives now outnumber natives in two of the quadrants, those which are not being weeded.  Although natives outnumber non-natives significantly in the other two quadrants, non-natives are also growing in these quadrants.

California Academy of Sciences, April 2011

We had the privilege of meeting the ecology consultant who designed the plant palette for the  living roof for the academy and many other institutions around the world.  He would not be surprised by this monitoring report.  He advised the Academy to walk the streets of San Francisco and identify the plants growing from the cracks in the sidewalks.  These are the plants he advised the academy to plant because these are the plants that are adapted to current conditions in the city.  The Academy rejected this advice because they were committed to planting exclusively natives on the roof.

The designer also advised the academy not to irrigate the roof, because the point of the roof is that it is a demonstration of sustainability.  Again, the Academy refused because they knew that without irrigation most of the native plants would be brown during the dry season, roughly half the year.  They wanted the public to believe that the plants that are native to San Francisco are beautiful year around.

There is a lesson to learn here for anyone who is willing to learn from it.  The living roof is not natural because it is irrigated and intensively gardened (e.g., weeded, fertilized, replanted, reseeded), yet non-natives not only found their way there on their own, but are dominating it within only 2-1/2 years.  Native plants are not sustainable in San Francisco without intensive gardening effort.

Peter Del Tredici has been telling us this for several years.  He is a Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and a Lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

In a recent publication*, he advises the managers of public lands in urban areas to abandon their fantasy that native plants are sustainable in urban settings:

“The notion that self-sustaining, historically accurate plant associations can be restored to urban areas is an idea with little credibility in light of the facts that 1) the density of the human populations and the infrastructure necessary to support it have led to the removal of the original vegetation, 2) the abiotic growing conditions [e.g., temperature, salinity, moisture, etc.] of urban areas are completely different from what they were originally; and 3) the large number of non-native species that have naturalized in cities provide intense competition for the native species that grew there prior to urbanization.”

Sure, he says, we can grow native plants, but they require at least the same amount of effort as growing any other plant and are therefore just another form of gardening:  “Certainly people can plant native species in the city, but few of them will thrive unless they are provided with the appropriate soil and are maintained to the same level as other intentionally cultivated plants.”

He concludes that native plant advocates are making a “cultural value judgment:”

“…people are looking at the plant through the subjective lens of a cultural value judgment which places a higher value on the nativity of a given plant than on its ecological function.  While this privileging of nativity may be appropriate and necessary for preserving large wilderness areas or rare native species it seems at odds with the realities of urban systems, where social and ecological functionality typically take priority over the restoration of historic ecosystems.”

We hope that the managers of our public lands in the San Francisco Bay Area will soon catch up with the scientific literature as well as acknowledge the actual experience of years of failed “restorations.”  Aside from the waste of scarce resources, these efforts are poisoning our parks with toxic herbicides and destroying beautiful and healthy plants and trees to no useful purpose. 

* “Spontaneous Urban Vegetation:  Reflections of Change in a Globalized World,” Nature and Culture. Winter 2010, 209-315.