Urban Prairies

Elizabeth Borneman


An urban prairie is a piece of land located within a city that has reverted back to green space through neglect, purposeful action, or a lack of management.

These tracts of land are becoming increasingly common as homes are foreclosed and not maintained, construction sites run out of money and are untouched, and unused vacant lots become home to new plants and animals once more.

These urban prairies often create their own miniature ecosystems within the greater concrete jungle of the city around them. In more spacious urban settings people may find urban prairies that were once meant to be shopping malls, parking lots, or housing complexes that have instead been left to nature.

Urban Prairies Provide Pockets of Nature

Urban prairies, while not always the most hospitable environments for people or animals, can provide areas of much needed color and natural growth in the midst of urban centers not known for their attention to the natural world.

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Urban prairies are often used to better the community around them. In cities like Denver, Portland, Detroit, and Seattle areas of vacant land are often cleared out and turned into green spaces (parks) or community gardens that can be used to feed the neighbors around them with fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the spring and summer.

Some communities have chosen to plant flower gardens in urban prairies and hold community gardening classes for families and children, to instill the importance of nature and caring for the green spaces that exist around us.

Lot in Detroit converted to an urban prairie.  Photo: Jtmichcock, CC BY-SA 3.0, MediaWiki Commons.
Lot in Detroit converted to an urban prairie. Photo: Jtmichcock, CC BY-SA 3.0, MediaWiki Commons.

Unique plants and animals whose habitats have been decreased by the expansion of urban centers may also find a valuable home within these urban prairies. In many cities urban prairies create a vital lifeline to local animal species such as foxes, rabbits, coyotes, and other creatures whose natural environments are changing rapidly.

Wooded areas containing walking trails or secluded parks are often places where these animal species can live in peace, coexisting quite closely with their human neighbors.

Creating an Urban Prairie

Unfortunately many urban prairies are dangerous due to the state in which they have been left. The time between when the property has been abandoned and when it has (naturally or with assistance from people) been turned into a green urban prairie space can constitute a long period of time.

The decomposing of a building, construction site, or home can take many years and leave weeds and grass growing over dangerous building materials such as old cars, nails, broken boards, and sharp metal objects.

Even if the property has been cleaned up by the owners or the state they can still be deemed unviable or unsafe to be used due to fire hazards, chemical waste, and a variety of other health and safety reasons that can prevent the property from being used as a green space or community area.

This row of house on Exeter between Seven Mile and Penrose in Northern Detroit shows the progression of increased blight starting in 2009 (top picture), 2011 (middle), and 2013 (bottom). Images: Google Street View via GooBing Detroit
This row of house on Exeter between Seven Mile and Penrose in Northern Detroit shows the progression of increased blight starting in 2009 (top picture), 2011 (middle), and 2013 (bottom). Images: Google Street View via GooBing Detroit

Benefits of Urban Prairies

The importance of maintaining the urban prairies in our cities is vital. Not only are these green spaces a vital part of the local environment, but can and should be used as a way to educate the population about the effects of cities on the green spaces we need to survive.

Urban prairies can be used as wildlife protection areas, running trails, as city revitalization areas, for parks and community green spaces, and as gardens to bring color to people’s lives and food on their tables.

Urban prairies can also be used to keep surrounding neighborhoods safer from natural disasters like floods, landslides, and from factories or industrial areas that may be polluting local waterways and the air. By purposefully studying the potential risks for floods and other natural disasters in the particular area of the urban prairies these spaces can be used for diverting water from local rivers should the water levels rise or building man-made lakes to contain the runoff.

Urban prairies can also be used as buffer zones between residential areas and industrial zones which can have a negative impact on the air quality and noise levels in the immediate vicinity of the industrial area. Urban prairies can protect residential areas from the pollution of the earth from chemicals and harmful runoff that may come from these factories and industrial zones as well.

In the end urban prairies are a way of life and should continue to be valuable parts of how we educate ourselves and the people around us on the impacts of urban areas on the natural environment. We can also use the example of urban prairies to inform our friends, neighbors, and lawmakers about the possibilities that come from maintaining and encouraging the use of urban prairies for activities that can benefit the community around them.

Urban prairies are here to stay; we need to make sure they are not left as dangerous, decaying ruins, but green and profitable spaces brimming over with and encouraging new life.


Ruins of America. Societal Collapse and the American Urban Prairies. July 2013. http://ruinsofamerica.blogspot.com/2013/07/american-urban-prairies.html

Wikipedia. Urban Prairies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_prairie


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.