Contributed by Guest Blogger Rick Sellano

Engaging urban populations in environmental issues is critical for creating beautiful, healthy cities, says Dr. Ari Novy, our recent guest speaker. Last Wednesday, February 1, we had the privilege of listening to a talk by Dr. Novy, Executive Director of the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, when he visited Morris Arboretum. A plant evolutionary ecologist by training concerned with plant conservation, Dr. Novy shared his insights on both the current and future interrelationships of plants and urban populations. He believes that some of today’s city environments are cause for concern, but more importantly, as an optimist, sees urban space as fertile ground for ecological opportunities.

According to Dr. Novy, as more people around the world move into cities, fewer have regular contact with natural or agricultural landscapes. Our success and survival as a society, Dr. Novy explained, rely on our ability to maximize the education provided by the presence of plant life in our cities. Dr. Novy is concerned about the disconnect he sees happening in these urban locations. By example, he pointed out that people are abundantly present in cities, but that plants are not necessarily so. Obviously, that’s not true in every case, but he believes it is an ominous circumstance. If plants do not have a strong urban presence, particularly in the form of agriculture, then there’s fallout. We lose track of declines in animal biodiversity, and we become less aware of “what goes into” the plants we eat.

But there is some good news about food. Perhaps owing to the direction of current cuisine, and likely bolstered by TV cooking programs, a farm-to-table approach to cooking and dining has helped bridge the gap. It’s a dash of hope to Dr. Novy. Still, he holds strong to his vision and tells us that our cities need better gardens, better parks. Dr. Novy is encouraged by the Orange County Great Park (expanding at the former El Toro Marine Air Station) and sees it as inspiration for the ideals of future urban spaces. Not yet completed, the El Toro expansion will boast almost 700 acres of parkland and a 194-acre sports park, an extensive range of sports fields, an agriculture component and a wildlife corridor. Dr. Novy highlighted that the El Toro expansion is an urban space that will provide a range of functions including resources to learn about plant evolution and ecology. That’s something he truly appreciates!

To wrap up, Dr. Novy reminded us that “…we rely more on plants than we think, for example, even in the clothes we wear…and a vast amount of the planet’s land is used to source clothing, food, and everything else we derive from plants.” Heightening our awareness of plant importance and land usage helps ignite necessary conversations on the topics of ecology and biodiversity. “This is a starting point… to explain the importance of plants to an ever-growing urban population,” he said. Dr. Novy sees our future prosperity as dependent on our ability to care for, understand, and appreciate plants. He encourages us to promote the use of urban spaces for agriculture and for people everywhere to teach others about the life cycles and important roles of plants.


Learn more about Dr. Ari Novy

Learn about future Morris Arboretum talks