Thursday, August 13, 2009

Urban Wastelands - Traditional Narratives and New Counter-narratives

Within the urban landscape, marginal nature seeks out neglected open spaces to establish itself. These can be “slivers” of leftover marginal land or whole large parcels of vacant land, but all of this urban space is “wasteland” from the perspective of the economic function of the city. Wasteland, vacant lot, derelict land, and brownfield are a few of names for the kinds of urban spaces in which marginal nature makes home. These are urban spaces defined by neglect and abandonment, where derelict structures decay and marginal nature is able to take hold. Urban wastelands and margins are literal “shreds and scraps” throughout the urban landscape, and so marginal nature can be found from the urban center to suburban fringe wherever leftover land is found.

These marginal spaces are assessed negatively by traditional narratives of good and bad urban space, for this is “wasteland” and “vacant/derelict land” which needs planning, management, and infill to be reclaimed by urban economic development and for proper social/environmental uses. The list of social, economic, and environmental problems associated with them is long. Sites like vacant lots and brownfields can harbor pollution, vermin, and disease from illegal dumping. They are also perceived as dangerous since they are used for illegal activity and since the homeless often utilize them for campsites, resulting in more trash and trouble. Thus, the dominant narrative of urban waste space is that wastelands are "problem" sites for the institutions charged with maintaining human and environmental health and safety. However, there are ecological and social counter-narratives about the positive values of these urban waste spaces.

In Kevin Lynch’s posthumously published book, Wasting Away, he celebrates “waste places” for their “ruinous attractions”,

"Many waste places have these ruinous attractions: release from control, free play for action and fantasy, rich and varied sensations. Thus children are attracted to vacant lots, scrub woods, back alleys, and unused hillsides…Adults, more inhibited by accepted ideas of beauty and value, will nevertheless also enjoy visiting a well-managed local dump or an established ruin…those screened, marginal, uncontrolled places where people can indulge in behavior that is proscribed and yet not harmful to others – are regularly threatened by clean-ups and yet are a necessity for supple society."[1]

Lynch’s libertarian argument turns the wastelands into sites of freedom from surveillance and control for humans. Thus, the wastelands become unique kinds of liberated spaces where social freedom and social marginality are seen as positive attributes of the urban landscape and “a necessity for supple society.” Though Lynch does not make the point, this issue of social marginality and wastelands is reinforced by the fact that wastelands are often literal human habitat, since they are a common location for homeless camps. This social counter-narrative, then, adds further complexity to the discursive dualities entangled with this kind of urban space, because it suggests a similar view of urban waste space as liberated spaces for nonhumans where they can be free of surveillance and control of humans. These urban waste spaces are perceptual ecotones where the boundaries of proper and improper nature and society meet and merge.

What emerges from the commingling of the proper and improper in these wastelands is a new narrative of urban waste space which casts them as a collaborative project between humans and nonhumans. This coproduction begins with the creation of this unique kind of opening in the urban landscape. Human agency creates the built landscape which ebbs and flows with development and dereliction and redevelopment. During ebb times, human neglect provides the temporal opening for the emergence of marginal nature, but these urban waste spaces are then shaped and filled through the agency of non-humans taking advantage of the opportunity and thriving. The nonequilibrium dynamic of periodic disturbance only adds to the diversity of the landscapes of urban waste spaces. This waste space is constantly changing with the process of urban development, a dynamic which favors a community adapted to disturbance – opportunists who make this wasteland home.

The creativity and novelty of marginal nature, its opportunistic, assertive, transgressive reclamation of urban wastelands and margins, reminds us that the built landscape is not just a homogeneous space of human action and domination but a heterogeneous nature/society hybrid. However, our perception of the built landscape as a nature/society coproduction is hampered by a discourse of urban space which delineates the value of urban space in reference to human society only. And so the reinterpreting of urban waste space from the perspective of marginal nature requires a rewriting of the narrative of the wastelands that includes nonhumans as collaborators in their creation. These nonhuman agents create spaces holding “ruinous attractions” which draw humans to them. A paradox arises from the uniqueness of this collaborative creation in urban waste spaces in which the meddling of well intend humans who seek to intervene in these spaces leads to the undoing of the qualities of these waste spaces that attract humans to them.

Future posts will explore this "Paradox of Meddling"

[1] Lynch, (1990) p. 26

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