Friday, August 28, 2009

The Open Question of Marginal Nature -

The Discourse of Urban Nature and the Wasteland

In the United States, the foundational myths of Nature that we celebrate are the myths of wilderness and pastoral arcadia. They are the foundation of the discourse of American nature from which we assess the value of nature in America. However, we are now predominately a country of urbanites who have only occasional contact with wilderness or pastoral nature. To compensate for this urban depravation, we have incorporated green islands of nature into our cities to allow for contact with approximations of wild and rural landscapes. These deliberate systems of gardens, parks, and preserves are “green space” for formal, mediated encounter with officially managed “pedigreed” nature that incorporate elements of both wild and pastoral landscapes. Thus, our understanding of what constitutes “official” urban nature in cities is shaped by culturally dominant metaphors of Nature, which valorize urban nature that is either deliberately welcomed into the urban landscape – parks and gardens - or that redeem the built landscape through reminding us of native landscapes obliterated by the creation of the city – preserves, sanctuaries, and refuges.

Urban nature that falls outside of the categories of official planning is acknowledged positively when it can be discursively altered to fit within these narratives of wild or pastoral Nature. Thus, urban “wildlife” is another mediated, managed kind of urban nature found in the city. This urban fauna is judged as good when it in some way fulfills our expectations of wild or pastoral “urban” nature or condemned as pestilent when it fails to follow the narrative for “good” fauna in the city. This narrative of nature declares that everyday house sparrows, grackles, and pigeons are urban pests that further degrade the city, but nesting red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons are redemptive “wild” additions to the urban scene. However, this discursive categorization of good and bad urban wildlife illustrates the American expectation for urban nature to be decorative “natural” signifiers and to be managed as urban amenities like “green space” or “urban wildlife”. Moreover, it creates the odd circumstance that upon crossing the city limits a “rock dove” becomes a “winged rat”. The nature/society questions raised by urban fauna are numerous, and they have spawned a great deal of academic attention. What is marginalized in this new academic narrative of urban nature/urban fauna is another kind of urban nature which is the habitat for many of these “urban wild things.”

This other urban nature emerges in the wastelands and weedy margins of the urban landscape from the central business district to the suburban/rural fringe of a city. This other urban nature capitalizes on our neglect and flourishes through its own agency in urban wastelands like vacant lots, sewage ponds, unmaintained roadway and railway verges, derelict brownfields, and untended margins. Although we think of these places as idle and degraded land, nature is always busy "developing" these sites to its own standards of economy. Taking advantage of an opportunity, “weeds” – those plants out of place - colonize the bare earth, sprout from crumbling walls, or force their way through to make root-room in concrete and brick. A diverse community of urban fauna then claims this "fortuitous landscape" amidst the garbage and the flowers. This unplanned, unmanaged urban “open space” or “green space” is far more ubiquitous in the urban landscape than planned, managed, and officially sanctioned “open space” or “green space”. This rogue habitat emerges as the everyday backdrop to urban life, and, though hidden in the margins, it is close at hand for informal, unmediated encounter with “nature” – but what kind of nature is this ragged, prosaic habitat?

This assertive, resistive community is a hybrid type of nature both weedy and wild - the unintended product of human activity and nature's unflagging opportunism, which I call marginal nature. Marginal nature in the urban landscape is neither pristine nor pastoral, but rather it is a kind of nature whose ecological and cultural meaning is an open question.

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