Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Paradox of Meddling - San Francisco and the Albany Bulb

As I talk about in the dissertation, we often destroy marginal nature when we meddle with it. As we impose our human/scientific/aesthetic/environmentalist expectations on places claimed by marginal nature, we undo it.  However well intended, such interventions by humans may result in the undoing of marginal nature in waste space.  These habitats are accidental from our perspective, but they are deliberate expressions by the flora and fauna of marginal nature. The Albany Bulb on the bay in San Francisco is like the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto, old construction debris dumped in the bay and forming a place for habitat and humans to interact.

It appears to be a target for nature conservationists wanting to incorporate it into a state park. This YouTube film presents the place and the issues as an ecological and cultural balance [what I term an ecology of place]. A group called Let It Be is resisting the planning and official sanctioning and removal of non-native plants and people. Heidegger might smile.

Vacant land is a prime target for urban improvement schemes that replace marginal nature with what is viewed as appropriate land use. The list of social, economic, and environmental problems associated with waste space is long. Sites like vacant lots and brownfields can harbor pollution, vermin, and disease. They are portrayed as dangerous since they are used for illegal activity and since homeless people often utilize them as campsites, resulting in trash and trouble. The dominant view of urban waste space is that wastelands are "problem" sites for the institutions charged with maintaining public safety and environmental health. Proper management entails reclaiming control over these badlands through police surveillance and investment in appropriate development. Narratives of redemption and restoration are used to justify turning negative spaces into positive spaces. However, there are social and environmental counter-narratives about positive values of these disreputable spaces.

The social counter-narratives are based on how urbanites utilize this kind of urban space as a different kind of “urban commons.” This counter-narrative adds further complexity to the dualities entangled with this kind of urban space, because it suggests they can be viewed as liberated spaces beyond the control of planners and managers. In Kevin Lynch’s posthumously published book, Wasting Away, he celebrates waste places for their social 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…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."

Lynch’s libertarian argument stands out in contrast to traditional urban design and planning narratives of waste space. He insists that allowing space for impropriety is necessary for society, and, just as “red-light” districts are part of urban culture, wastelands play a social role. Lynch appreciates wastelands as sites of freedom from surveillance and control for humans, but he acknowledges the negative aspects of the exercise of freedom that results in illegal waste dumping and contamination. The wastelands become unique spaces where freedom and marginality combine, but Lynch’s social counter-narrative defines this wasteland solely as spaces for human activity.

The scrub woods themselves also find these spaces to be liberated zones where they find root-room to grow. The challenge for an environmental counter-narrative is to incorporate these weedy wastelands within the narrative of good nature. However, good urban nature is expected to stay put in sanctioned “open” or “green” spaces, like parks, preserves, and gardens, and the boundaries of these urban nature spaces are continuously transgressed by weedy marginal nature as it “invades” from the wastelands. Thus, urban environmentalists and nature preserve managers usually push to extend control over wastelands in order to restore them to culturally and ecologically sanctioned kinds of nature. Their control is also evidenced by the rhetorical embellishment of relabeling wastelands as “urban wildlands” or “open space” where sanctioned nature is officially cultivated and controlled. This renaming reconfigures expectations for what kind of nature is proper to these spaces.

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