VESPA: a new team focusing on the role of vegetation in urban areas

This jointly managed research team was set up in 2017 by IFSTTAR and Agrocampus Ouest in order to conduct research into the exchange of water and chemical substances between plants, the soil and the atmosphere in urban areas. This can provide vital information in order to foster the increasing presence of vegetation in urban areas.

Residents are increasingly demanding vegetation in urban environments. But in addition to their aesthetic value and calming function, plants provide other benefits in urban areas: they cool heat islands, improve the management of stormwater and pollutants, and clean up both water and the soil... and of course, in urban gardens they can be a source of food and pleasure.

However, plants do not perform these various functions in isolation: they are constantly interacting with the urban environment, in particular exchanging water and chemical substances with the soil and the atmosphere. We need a better understanding of these interactions in order to ensure that plants can flourish and provide their multiple benefits in urban areas.

The “soil-plant-atmosphere” continuum

This is the core concern of the joint research team “City Water Soil Plants Atmosphere (Ville Eau Sol Plante Atmosphère - VESPA) whose steering committee held its first meeting on 2 June 2017. VESPA was set up by IFSTTAR and Agrocampus Ouest, both of which belong to a research federation known as the Institute for Research on Urban Sciences and Techniques (Institut de Recherche en Sciences et Techniques de la Ville). During an initial five-year period the team will carry out research in urban areas on transfers of water and chemical substances within the “soil-plant-atmosphere” system, which forms a genuine continuum”.

The VESPA team can call on some thirty scientists working at IFSTTAR’s Laboratoire Eau et Environnement (LEE) in Nantes and the Angers-based research unit “The Physical Environment of Hortcultural Plants” (Environnement Physique de la plante Horticole - EPHor) which is part of Agrocampus Ouest.

Reports Véronique Ruban, the head of LEE and co-chair of VESPA’s scientific committee.

These two bodies complement each other to a high degree with regard to the topic of “soil-plants and-water” in urban areas. For more than 30 years, the LEE has been carrying out research into the management and quality of water in urban areas, urban soils and flood risks. For its part, the EPHor, carries out a large amount of research into physical exchanges between plants and their environment in areas which have been greatly affected by humans or which are highly artificial.

A number of potential applications

Their obvious complementary no doubt explains why the LEE and the EPHor have already been working together on a number of research projects, indeed since 2008. The new VESPA research projects could have very practical applications: vegetated systems for stormwater treatment (ditches, ponds roofs…), environmental appraisal of the quality of the soil for urban food crop production, creation of soils from the by-products of urban activities (for example deconstruction materials)..., or alternatively developing ways of adapting plants to the urban environment. In order to successfully carry out its work, the research team could also develop ties with partners from academia and firms operating in France or abroad.

“And if VESPA’s work proves to be successful, it could be extended beyond June 2022”, Véronique Ruban states confidentently.