Urban areas are increasingly being studied for their potential to help conserve biodiversity and provide habitat for numerous plants and animals. Despite the harsh conditions of the built environment, organisms of all kinds are able to survive in our cities, and as we find ways to make these spaces more hospitable for them, cities actually have great potential for species conservation, even for species that are rare, threatened, or specialized. One obvious way to accomplish this is to manage our yards, parks, and gardens as habitat, such as planting flower strips for pollinators. Another way, perhaps overlooked at times, is to manage and maintain vacant lots as habitat. Every urban area has some degree of vacant land that for one reason or another has not been developed, or that once was developed but has since been bulldozed or abandoned. Spontaneous vegetation quickly moves in to occupy these sites, and while some may see them as eyesores, their potential for providing habitat for an untold number of plants and animals is substantial.
In cities that are growing – like Boise, Idaho – vacant and abandoned lots are disappearing quickly as development strives to keep up with population growth. My first Weeds of Boise post took place at an abandoned Pizza Hut, which has since been demolished and is now the future site of a large building (see photo below). This is happening all over the city – the City of Trees is looking more like the City of Cranes these days. On the other hand, cities that are shrinking due to economic downturn, loss of industry, and other factors, have an increasing number of vacant lots, which offers the opportunity not only to maintain these lots as habitat, but also to carry out research that will help us understand how these locations can be best managed for species conservation.
Cleveland, Ohio is one example of a “shrinking city.” Due to significant population decline, Cleveland has a growing number of vacant lots, many of which are maintained by the City of Cleveland Land Bank. For researchers at The Ohio State University, all of this vacant land presents an opportunity to study, among other things, urban biodiversity. Hence, the Cleveland Pocket Prairie Project was born. By assigning different management treatments to groups of vacant lots and observing the differences between each treatment, researchers can help determine the best strategies for managing vacant lots, particularly when it comes to biological conservation. One of the major focuses of the Cleveland Pocket Prairie Project is to determine how vacant land can provide habitat for insects and other arthropods.
In a study published in Sustainability (2018), researchers in Cleveland compared the species richness and abundance of bees found on vacant lots to those found on urban farms. Bee collections were made three times a year over a three year period. Of the more 2733 bees collected, researchers identified 98 total species representing 5 different families. The vast majority of the species were native to the area. Significantly more bees were found in vacant lots compared to urban farms. In both vacant lots and urban farms, the total number of ground nesting bees decreased as the proportion of impervious surfaces near the study sites increased. Plants that received the most bee visits on the urban farms during the study period were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), and squash (Cucurbita pepo); while the top three plants with the most bee visits on vacant lots were red clover (Trifolium pratense), white clover (Trifolium repens), and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).
Bee communities differed between vacant lots and urban farms: 29 of the 98 total species were seen only in vacant lots, while 14 species were seen only at urban farms. Most of the bees collected in this study were ground nesting species, and researchers suspect the reason more bees were found on vacant lots compared to urban farms is that farms experience frequent soil disturbance in the form of tillage, weeding, mulching, and irrigation, while vacant lots generally do not. The researchers conclude that their study “adds to the growing body of literature advocating for the maintenance of minimally-managed vacant lot habitats as a conservation resource.” Vacant land that is “surrounded locally by high concentrations of impervious surface,” however, may not be the most suitable location to carry out conservation efforts.
In a study published in Urban Ecosystems (2020), researchers in Cleveland looked at the species richness and abundance of lady beetles in vacant lots. They were particularly interested in the potential that vacant lots may have in providing habitat for lady beetles that are native to the region. The study consisted of 32 vacant lots, each assigned one of four habitat treatments: control (seeded with turfgrass and mowed monthly), meadow (seeded with turfgrass and mowed annually), low-diversity prairie (seeded with three species of prairie grasses and four species of native prairie forbs), and high-diversity prairie (seeded with three species of prairie grasses and sixteen species of native prairie forbs). The two prairie treatments were mown annually. The majority of the nearly 3000 lady beetles captured across all of the plots over a two-year study period were exotic (introduced) species. Sixteen species total were collected: four exotic and twelve native.
The researchers predicted that the lots seeded with prairie plants native to the region would support a higher abundance of native lady beetles than those composed of turfgrass, especially those that are frequently mown. Surprisingly, a similar abundance and species richness of both native and exotic lady beetles were found across all treatments. What appeared to be important for native lady beetle abundance were vegetation features like bloom abundance, height, and biomass. The surrounding environment also matters. As the researchers put it, “vacant lots embedded in landscapes dominated by impervious surface and with a high degree of habitat isolation were less suitable habitats” – a similar conclusion to that made in the bee study.
The most abundant native lady beetle collected in the study was the ursine spurleg lady beetle (Brachiacantha ursina). The larvae of this beetle “infiltrate the nests of Lasius ants,” which is “one of the most common genera of ants found in urban environments.” Researchers posit that the abundance of B. ursina reflects the habitat preferences of ants in the Lasius genus. Several species of lady beetles native to the region are experiencing significant population declines, and the researchers were disappointed to find that none of the most rare species were collected during their study period. However, it was promising to find that “pollen and nectar provided by both seeded native and naturally occurring weedy plants” appeared to be important food sources for native lady beetles.
Both studies indicate that vacant lots can be important locations for habitat conservation in urban areas, particularly when they are part of a larger collection of greenspaces. In combination with managing our yards, parks, and urban farms as quality habitat for plants and animals, conserving vacant lots that consist of diverse vegetation (both planted and spontaneous) can help support insect populations within our cities.