Urban Foraging: Where Cultural Knowledge and Local Biodiversity Meet

Leonie К Fischer[1]-2-3’, Jonah Landor-Yamagata2-4, and Ingo Kowarik2-3

  • 1 University of Stuttgart, Institute of Landscape Planning and Ecology, Germany
  • 2 Technische Universitat, Berlin Department of Ecology, Ecosystem SciencelPlant Ecology, Germany
  • 3 Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research (BBIB),

Berlin, Germany

  • 4 Urban Tilth, Richmond, CA USA
  • * Corresponding author: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it , Keplerstrafie 11,

D-70174 Stuttgart, Germany


A woman, possibly in her mid-50s, hair pulled back, walks amidst the roadside vegetation in a park in the city of Oakland (U.S.) picking low-growing plants. She wears rubber gloves and carries a plastic shopping bag. which holds her 6-inch-long harvests. She belongs to the Mien ethnic group, possibly from Southeast Asia, and is gathering young flower stalks of a plant familiar to her from this region. It grows in open areas, she explains, and the shoots should be picked before they become too old then cooked lightly so they are still crunchy, with beef or bacon. Later investigation identified the plant as Hypocliaeris radicata. or hairy catsear, a plant native to Europe with wide global distribution.[1]

The collection of wild plants is a traditional human-nature interaction that spans from prehistoric times through to modern days (Moffett 1991, Kubiak-Martins 1999, Hummer 2013. Antolfn et al. 2016). In contemporary urban areas, this practice adds to other aspects of multifaceted urban space planning, the “edible green infrastructure” (Russo et al. 2017, Russo & Cirella 2019)—a range of private and public places where plants are deliberately cultivated for consumption such as domestic, community and market gardens. While urban gardening and farming present highly visible interactions between people and plants and are often the focus within urban agroecology research, we address a rarely studied form of

PHOTOS 5.1A, B: Collecting edible flowers, greens, berries etc. is an outdoor activity that connects people to urban nature and enables them to prepare and eat fresh, local, healthy food.

urban agronomy: the collection and harvesting of plants in places where they have not been explicitly cultivated for the purpose of consumption.

Today, the use of wild-gathered plants has been studied in rural communities around the globe (Pieroni et al. 2009, Ladio & Lozada 2003. Bharucha & Pretty 2010. Sujarwo et al. 2016), where gathering non- cultivated plants can contribute importantly to food security and nutrition (Lockett & Calvert 2000, Arnold et al. 2011), medical care (Willcox 1999, Pouliot 2011) and economic livelihoods (Shackleton et al. 2008). In urban areas, on the other hand, the collection of wild-growing plants has been largely overlooked by researchers and planners as an important part of the urban food system and of green infrastructure (McLain et al. 2012, Shackleton et al. 2017). A range of recent studies from North America, however, have revealed the significance of this practice for urban food access, green space planning and environmental stewardship (McLain et al. 2014. Poe et al. 2014, McLain et al. 2017, Synk et al. 2017). This research, and others, have begun to shed light on foraging practices of people in cities around the globe, in both the Global South (van Andel & Carvalheiro 2013, Unnikrishnan & Nagendra 2015, Mollee et al. 2017) as well as North (Wehi & Wehi 2010. Poe et al. 2013. Palliwoda et al. 2017). This still small but growing body of work has shown that gathering wild plants can be surprisingly prevalent in urban areas: practiced by over half of respondents in three South African cities (Kaoma & Shackleton 2014);

47% of respondents in Kampala, Uganda (Mollee et al. 2017); one-quarter of urban and rural residents in New England, U.S. (Robbins et al. 2008), and 5% of park visitors in five European cities (Fischer et al. 2018).

Generally, urban foraging involves the collection of plants growing outside areas where they have been purposefully cultivated for consumption, i.e. the domestic gardens, community gardens and agricultural fields where most work on urban food systems and urban agroecology is focused. We define urban foraging as the gathering of raw biological resources (e.g., plants and plant parts, fungi) in urban and peri-urban areas for food, medicine, crafts, small-scale sale, or other purposes (adapted from Shackleton et al. 2017). These “forageables” include wild and domesticated species that occur spontaneously, those that spread or persist without human intervention, and those that are introduced primarily for non-edible/ material purposes—such as landscaping (Poe et al. 2013). Urban foraging can occur in a wide variety of spaces, both managed and unmanaged, public and private, including parks and forests, abandoned lots, alongside rights-of-ways and in nature preserves (McLain et al. 2014). It thus relies on the role of various urban greenspace types in harboring considerable biological richness (e.g., Kowarik & von der Lippe 2018) which, in addition to fulfilling habitat functions, also include a wealth of forageable species for humans that ultimately become a component of urban residents’ daily nutrition and the circular economy of the urban food system as a whole.

While it is likely that foraging occurs in most cities around the world, the particulars, including species and quantities gathered, harvesting environments, socio-demographics and motivations of foragers are varied and related to specific times and places (Synk et al. 2017. Landor-Yamagata et. al 2018). Intriguingly, over the past decade or so in the Global North, foraging in general has enjoyed some time in the limelight, even becoming trendy (Reyes-Garcia 2015). Explanations for this rise in popularity could include increased interest in locally-grown foods and urban agriculture, desire of urban populations to connect with nature, as well as influences of ‘tastemakers’ such as well-known restaurants that showcase regionally-foraged ingredients (Luczaj et al. 2012). On the other hand, and in stark contrast, foraged foods have also provided essential nutrition and added variety during times of great hardship, such as recent war and famine (Redzic 2010. Luczaj & Pieroni 2016). Research has also shown that some species collected in times of crisis were later abandoned and stigmatized as “famine foods” (Svanberg 2012, Reyes-Garcia 2015). Thus, though urban foraging has certainly experienced waves of popularity in both times of prosperity and hardship, overall it has remained an important practice in urban food- based movements.

This chapter investigates urban foraging research broadly, presenting it as a growing edge of the evolving scholarship concerning the ability of diverse elements of the urban green infrastructure to provide food and nature-based benefits—both material and non-material, social and ecological—to people living in cities. We discuss existing urban foraging research approaches, including approaches such as interviews and questionnaire studies (e.g., Chipeniuk 1995. Poe et al. 2014), vegetation-related methods (e.g.. Fischer et al. 2019, Stark et al. 2019), and research based on user-based data (Arrington et al. 2017, Hurley & Emery 2018). Drawing from these studies, we summarize the health, economic, social and ecological benefits as well as the connections between its cultural and ecological dimensions of urban life that urban foraging reveals. A clearer understanding of the benefits and challenges that urban foraging presents could lead to a greater understanding—and perhaps legitimization—of this multi-faceted practice, which in many places is officially discouraged, if acknowledged at all. Ultimately, this chapter aims to expand perspectives on nature- and food-based practices in urban areas that contribute to the ecology of cities and their food systems. While foraging generally is often not discussed in agroecology, its role and prevalence in cities for nutrition and its contribution to urban food systems requires that we consider it in the urban agroecology movement—and in regard to the benefits and challenges bound to it.

Urban Biodiversity as a Prerequisite for Collecting Edible Species

Urban foraging directly depends on a city’s biodiversity—primarily its diversity in ecosystems that harbor a range of plant communities and its richness in plant species, which include wild-growing spontaneous species as well as cultivated plants. Thus, collecting edible plants simply requires that a certain

PHOTOS 5.2A, B: Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) and rose hips (Rosa canina) at the Schoneberger Siidgelande. a former vacant land in Berlin that was transformed to a "Nature-Park". Here, even though given the comparably low legal regulations in Germany, picking the fruits is prohibited.

species pool is available in an area and the edible species within this pool and their occurrences within the area are known to people. Several studies have now assessed the species collected by urban foragers (e.g.. Wehi & Wehi 2010, Synk et al. 2017, Palliwoda et al. 2017), and also revealed the potential of urban floras to provide edible plant parts that could be collected (Wang et al. 2015, Hurley & Emery 2018, Klein et al. 2019). To know which plants to collect and where, when and how to prepare them is part of the local ecological knowledge that is involved in urban foraging. Local ecological knowledge about foraging is maintained in many ways; for example, studies reported that knowledge is passed from older to younger people and from experienced foragers to less experienced beginners (Hurley et al. 2015, Landor-Yamagata et al. 2018). The role of local ecological knowledge and its intergenerational transfer in urban foraging mirrors traditional knowledge often discussed in relation to cultivated plants in urban home gardens and community gardens (Corlett et al. 2003, Taylor et al. 2015. Glowa et al. 2019).

Often, people involved in urban foraging report incorporating voluntary codes of conduct to avoid overharvesting and practices aimed to encourage desired species to persist (Hurley et al. 2015, Charnley et al. 2018). This is an important point when relating urban foraging to nature conservation issues in cities. Up till now, some studies indicate that urban foraging largely does not threaten species of conservation concern; for example, red-listed species in Berlin (Germany) were not reported as collected species by the general public, and rarely from people that had a more profound background in urban foraging (Landor-Yamagata et al. 2018, Fischer & Kowarik 2020). In this regard it is also of interest in which surroundings, and in which urban ecosystems people collect wild edible plants, and whether these may play a role for the conservation of specific plants or populations. After all, potential threats of foraging to urban biodiversity are not entirely unwarranted—especially when foraged products are destined for the cash economy (Petersen et al. 2012). Longer-term in-depth research about how foragers interact with and potentially affect harvested species and the ecosystems in which they occur would be instrumental in understanding how foraging could contribute to biodiversity goals while minimizing threats to urban ecosystems. However, the benefits it provides on multiple levels indicate its potential to be a valuable tool for both urban biodiversity and human well-being.

  • [1] Own observation J. Landor-Yamagata
  • [2] Own observation J. Landor-Yamagata
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