Friday, January 15, 2010

…the danger…is being tempted into some biological slumming. The habitats I’ve described in this book are in no way a substitute for the official countryside. Nor are they something to be cherished in their own right, necessarily.

- Richard Mabey, Unofficial Countryside

(Wastelands)…have very high diversity (and) large connected vacant sites are particularly outstanding habitats, ranging from pioneer stages, in heavily disturbed areas, to pre-forest stages in others.
- Herbert Sukopp, Development of flora and fauna in urban areas

… the reference point is not an original condition of a natural landscape, but rather a condition defined based on the current site potential and the greatest possible degree of self-regulation. From this perspective, therefore, the natural capacity for process is the central point, not a particular, retrospectively determined and often idealized, picture of nature.
- Ingo Kowarik, Urban Wild Woodlands[1]

The Weeds and the Wild: Marginal Nature and Urban Ecology

A scientific mode of engagement with wasteland ecosystems holds the potential for a more objective and neutral narrative of marginal nature. However, we who study these fortuitous habitats are familiar with Mabey’s ambivalence about his attraction to this marginal nature which he labels “biological slumming.” This lifeworld is subject to a range of interpretive ecological readings: a weedland community of inappropriate nature, a cosmopolitan community of uniquely adapted ruderal organisms, or an invading force of alien species destroying the integrity of our homeland. There is some truth in each view, but all are influenced by cultural perceptions of good and bad nature. Thus, the assessment of the ecological standing of wasteland ecosystems is necessarily both scientific and cultural.

The ecological setting for wasteland habitat begins with a presettlement ecosystem. In America, this setting is associated with the myth of wilderness as first nature. Wilderness is that pristine pre-Columbian place that continues be the standard of American nature despite the work of geographers, historians, and ecologists who have established the role of Native Americans in transforming the ecology of America.[2] For thousands of years, Native Americans had been busy manipulating and cultivating wilderness in ways that European American eyes failed to see, or chose not to acknowledge.[3] Now we reify native species as the embodiment of the original moment before our own arrival, a misapprehension bound up in the retrospective discourse of conservation biology and restoration ecology and then deployed as the focus of nature protection in America.

The issue of what is native or alien to a place is a question of biogeography which is transformed into scientific programs of conservation biology and restoration ecology. Here in the wastelands, the question of native species and first nature arises most sharply when a patch of remnant habitat is found. In the wastelands, these remnants are promoted as highly prized reminders of the past; benchmarks for restoration; and “shrines” for nature enthusiasts.[4] They are the standards used to judge the rest of wasteland nature and to label it as degraded habitat. The quest for these remnants is one aspect of engagement with wastelands, but one where only remnant shreds and scraps are valued. Habitat in urban waste space as a whole is devalued when compared to the few sites with remnant first nature. Moreover, this remnant first nature is the catalyst for restoration projects that seek to transform wastelands.

When no remnants are found, this ecological meddling in the margins can take the form of claiming them for the functional landscapes of second nature, which entails the transformation of the ecological community in wastelands for social purposes. The sports fields and lawns of urban pastoral parkland typically consist of non-native turf grasses. The reclamation of vacant lots into community gardens and urban farms replaces wasteland weeds with cultivated plants, most of which ironically are non-native species. Vegetation managed as functional infrastructure in flood plains or along waterways also consists of native and non-native vegetation. Thus, the wastelands disappear as we turn them into landscapes of second nature.

The German urban ecologist, Ingo Kowarik, uses the iterative concept of nature to argue for appreciation of wasteland habitats.[5] The focus of his research is woodlands that grow without human help in urban industrial waste spaces. He argues that these “urban industrial woodlands” must be recognized as a distinct kind of ecological community. The woodlands that have grown in the derelict iron and steel foundries and mining areas in the Ruhr valley are well studied German examples.[6] They, also, have been extensively studied in old railyards, abandoned railways, and other vacant lands in Berlin. If these woodlands are compared to original mature woodlands outside of the city, they are classified as degraded woodlands. Kowarik argues that this comparison amounts to judging them with a retrospective standard of nature based on past conditions. He characterizes this standard as “a particular, retrospectively determined and often idealized, picture of nature.”[7] This picture of nature is usually a first nature image of woodland. He argues for a “contemporaneous” approach to evaluating these urban woodlands which does not value them based on a retrospective judgment about the anthropogenic origin of the site. Additionally, they should be evaluated with a “prospective” approach which assesses their potential for capacity to grow without the intervention of humans. Both their self-generation and successful growth independent of human cultivation indicate their ecological functionality from the perspective of ecosystem process.

Based on these ecological attributes, Kowarik argues that urban industrial woodlands have more similarities to first nature woodland, to which they are usually negatively compared, than to cultivated, intensively managed forests or parkland/garden trees. He suggests a revision of the iterative classification of nature where urban industrial woodlands are recognized as a fourth nature following on traditional first and second nature and including the Renaissance idea of gardens as third nature. Fourth nature “encompasses the natural development that occurs independently on typical urban industrial sites, without horticultural planning or design,” which emerges as a kind of “new wilderness.”[8]

One goal of his proposal is to shift the focus of urban nature conservation planning from particular sites which manifest first nature remnants or pastoral attributes to significant examples of each of the four types of nature.[9] A second goal is more controversial, especially in America, since he asserts a “fundamental equivalence of values” between these four kinds of nature which is a direct challenge to the primacy of wilderness, "The second goal is to convey, through a simple distinction between natures of the first, second, third and fourth kind, that a fundamental equivalence of values exists among the four different nature types. The original nature, which is identified as the “correct” nature from a scientific perspective through the application of the retrospective perspective of naturalness…is therefore not automatically more valuable than the other manifestations of nature."[10]

Kowarik creates this new classification to overcome the prejudice that, even in Germany, sets first nature or preferred cultural landscapes as the correct nature to conserve. This sanctioning of original nature within conservation biology is based on a prejudice for wilderness or traditional cultural landscapes.[11] He is not alone in making this criticism of conservation biology, but his focus on urban nature conservation is relevant to assessing the value of marginal nature.[12] Even though Kowarik is not arguing that first and fourth nature are the same ecological communities, his appeal to functionality and ecosystem processes undermines the dominance of first nature as the sole standard of appropriate nature. This socioecological revision contrasts sharply with the strong argument for pristine nature that we find in American environmental ethicists. For example, Katz argues that the intervention of human intentionality at any point undoes the authenticity of the natural, turns a once natural place into an artifact.[13] This absolutist belief in the authenticity of natural value relies on the strict divide between the natural and the human, with pristine nature as the only ground for natural value.

[1] Kowarik (2005) p. 20.
[2] Denevan (1992), Crosby (1972)(1986), and Butzer (1992)
[3] Sauer (1950), Cronon (1983), Merchant (2003)
[4] Moskovits (2002) for Chicago, Houck (2000) for Portland
[5] Kowarik (2005)
[6] Dettmar (1999) and Weiss (2005)
[7] Kowarik (2005) p. 20.
[8] Kowarik (2005) p.22.
[9] Kowarik (2005) p. 23.
[10] Kowarik (2005) p. 23.
[11] Kowarik (2005) p. 23.
[12] Zimmerer (2000) makes a similar argument for reassessing conservation priorities to include “hybrid-rich” second nature landscapes. For urban nature conservation priorities see Kendle and Forbes (1997) and McKinney (2002).
[13] Katz (1993) (1997) (2000)

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