The Urban Bio-Labs project brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Open University and the University of Oxford with non-academic partners from the heritage (Oxford Preservation Trust) and art-science sectors (Artecology) to explore how plants can be a vehicle for renewing public engagement with urban heritage and its futures. Building on our academic research base, the project aims to strengthen on-going collaborative relationships with the partners through knowledge exchange and develop impactful engagement activities under the theme of built heritage-plant interactions.

In recent years, Britain's heritage sector has become increasingly interested in urban sites, yet many remain threatened by a decade of austerity. As a result of decreased maintenance, mosses, lichens, ivy and other 'weedy' plants have thrived. These plants often prompt ambivalent and sometimes strong reactions from people who associate them with decay and loss. At the same time, our research suggests that these undervalued 'spontaneous' plants can support urban wildlife and, when managed appropriately, enhance or even protect historic assets - for instance by protecting walls from damaging frost or enhancing the aesthetics of heritage spaces. The contrast between these interpretations strongly suggests the need to initiate public dialogue around the roles that spontaneous vegetation can play in designing more resilient heritage futures at a time of accelerating environmental change.

The project will include six workshops spread over a year. At sites jointly identified with project partners, we will develop a new methodology for understanding the value of plants at cultural heritage sites in Oxford. Social science research tools will be combined with citizen science methods and arts-based interventions to engage a diversity of residents. With our partners, we aim to explore how plants can empower communities to tell unheard stories and devise future scenarios for their local heritage.

The project is funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Fund.

Twitter: @urbanbiolabs