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Interview Urban Solution

Welcoming wilderness into the city


Words by Lena Bril

Photos by Nick Helderman

You have to know about Fabcity, the testing ground for urban life, to find it. This hidden treasure has a temporary campus on Amsterdam’s Java Island, where students, artists and creatives are developing a self-sustaining city. A bright blue van marked Gewildgroei has just pulled in next to the ‘Smart Living & Working Area’. Bennie Meek and Vincent Wittenberg, two designers from Eindhoven, get out of the car carrying pavement stones with open circles in them; these circles allow wild vegetation to grow in the middle of the concrete and it’s just one of the ways the designers are trying to show that weeds should be welcomed in our city. We sat down with the designers to talk about Gewildgroei and starting a revolution against our perception of weeds.

What does ‘gewildgroei’ mean?

In Dutch we call weeds ‘onkruid’, which literally means the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. The word is incredibly negative. When you want to classify all of the plants in the city, there simply is no word for desirable wild plants. That has to change. We came up with the term ‘gewildgroei’, which means ‘wanted spontaneous vegetation’. By creating a new word, we want to open up the discussion about green in the city, and give people a new perspective on unplanned flowers and plants.

Why do you think we should change our perception of weeds?

Green and grey are now strictly separated from each other in the city. Look around you: parks are neatly ordered and plants are removed from between the tiles. All nature in the city finds its origins on the designer’s drawing board. Did you know that the biodiversity in the city is much higher than in the countryside? Why should we destroy wild nature? If you think about it, it’s crazy that we fight these magnificent, rare plants and flowers in the city just because they are unplanned vegetation. We need to look at spontaneous nature in a different way, and instead of working against nature and eradicating weeds, we have to learn to work with it. Everything that grows spontaneously is also part of a system. We should just let nature grow autonomously and only interfere on exception. The city will benefit from it. Butterflies, for example, are loved by everyone and more than welcome in the city, but butterflies and also bees are attracted to specific plants and flowers which we now routinely pull out of the ground.

Everything that grows spontaneously is also part of a system.

Why is it important to have more growth in the city?

Having more green in the city is not only pleasant to look at, but plants and flowers can also contribute to our quality of life. Our climate is changing. It’s unavoidable and it’s going to rain more and more. Plants and flowers absorb excess rainwater better than concrete. Plants and flowers also provide a solution to the heat island effect: cities are hotter than their surrounding areas. Though we all agree that green is important for the quality of life in the city, municipalities have less budget for urban nature. Gewildgroei is a great solution for both problems: more plants and flowers and less cost for the construction of planned green spots in the city. We have seen that people are ready to change their minds, even on a governmental level. The chemical control of weeds has also recently been prohibited which causes urgency for the municipality to rethink weeds. Other methods of fighting weeds besides pesticides are much more expensive, so cities have to look for alternatives. And that’s where we come in.

This means more plants and flowers and less cost for the construction of planned green spots in the city.

What are you doing to speed this process up?

One of our campaign resources is a wooden sign that says ‘gewildgroei’ that we stick in the ground next to plants and flowers that are normally considered weeds. It’s only a small act, but it has impact. Normally, people walk past a dandelion or a butterfly bush. The sign catches their attention; people are curious and stop to take a better look at the plant. With a little luck, we are planting new ideas in the heads of passersby. We also travel around the country in our blue van. The design is a replica of the type of van that municipal services managers drive. Just like the wooden signs, the van gets a lot of attention. We give people information about wild nature in the city. Oh, and, we’re also working to get the word ‘gewildgroei’ into the dictionary.

What can people do to support Gewildgroei in their city?

We have designed a special tile for Gewildgroei. Most plants grow on the sides of the pavement. We designed a tile where Gewildgroei is given free rein. If all is well, the tile will be available to buy soon at garden centres. With these tiles, you can give wild plants and flowers the freedom to grow into public space whilst also showing support for our movement. You can also make your voice heard in the local government of your city. Municipalities usually only get complaints about weeds, so their immediate reaction is to eradicate them. Why do we complain about urban wildlife? Let them hear something positive too!

Watch our video with Bennie and Vincent here.