Friday 4 May 2012

Book review: Urban Wildscapes

Since Richard Mabey first published his, at the time, groundbreaking The Unofficial Countryside in 1973 many of the scruffy, neglected and wild enclaves of the natural and semi-natural in urban areas and edgelands have been transformed. This has sometimes been in the name of formalising and improving natural recolonisation of redundant industrial infrastructure, to enable reconnection for urbanised populations: disused quarries, slag heaps and factory space turned into nature reserves and country parks; or simply to tidy up, landscape and make 'safe' informal public spaces. Many other marginalised open areas have, often without much public discourse or protest, been washed away in the great tide of urban renewal and development seen in recent decades, replaced by retail parks, park and ride schemes, new roads, business parks and other trappings of car and retail based materialism that are much-used but little loved and have a curious (and depressing) lack of identity or relationship with their surrounding environs.    

Somewhat paradoxically - or maybe in reaction to - this relative decline in the actuality of informal areas of wildness in our towns and cities, the flowering of 'new nature' writing in recent years has included a vigorous and tenacious off-shoot focusing on such places. The prime example being Edgelands: Journeys into England's true wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, an updated and, dare I say it, postmodern tramp across the territory covered by Mabey, taking its lead from Marion Shoard's influential 1992 essay, Edgelands.   

The left-field pathways of the psychogeographical fraternity are also a touch-stone for wildscape analysis; Iain Sinclair, one of the disciplines reluctant figureheads, has heralded Mabey's work as the 'unacknowledged pivot between the new nature writers and those others, of a grungier dispensation, who are randomly (and misleadingly) herded together as 'psychogeographers''.  

Into the dense undergrowth of this environment, given vigour by both light and shade, comes a new book from Routledge entitled Urban Wildscapes, edited by Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan and proclaiming itself to be 'one of the first edited collections of writings about urban 'wilderness' landscapes'. The ideas put forward in the book stem from a conference organised by the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield in 2007.
The foreword makes the important scene setting point that de-industrialising urban areas have generally become more wildlife rich whilst rural habitats have become relatively less so, largely due to creeping development and intensive farming practices (although in my view this latter point tends to extrapolate the worst excesses of industrialised agriculture over the whole countryside; the reality is surely more nuanced). It could even be argued that urban wildscapes could have as much, if not more, value to nature conservation as the well-entrenched policy and practice of managing designated areas in the open countryside and more formalised recreational spaces.

However, the scope of this volume is not purely limited to issues of conservation, or indeed recreation. The point is made, for instance, that areas of undeveloped land in urban areas can contribute to flood prevention, as climate become less predictable, by providing repositories for water run-off, thereby reducing the impact of flash-flooding. A sociological perspective is also embedded in the book: because of their multiple potential utility (and the ever-present threat of development as outlined above) these spaces are often contested landscapes, perceived and used in highly divergent ways, inspiring conflicting emotions; simultaneously both a spur for creativity and innovation and the reviled, unwanted by-product of large-scale socio-economic decline.  

One of the contributors, Dougal Sheridan, provides a usefully inclusive working definition for urban wildscapes as 'any area, space or building where the city's normal forces of control have not shaped how we perceive, use and occupy them'. Such an interpretation becomes a springboard for the diverse range of themes and topics covered in the book, which seeks to set an agenda for new approaches to utilising wild urban space for maximum benefit. And there is significant potential here; Anna Jorgensen spells this out clearly in her introduction: 'Urbanism currently has the task of responding to huge challenges, including climate change, resource depletion, social division and an uncertain future for local, national and global economies. Paradoxically, it seems that urban wildscape is a useful nexus for ways of responding to these challenges'.

The contributors and subject matter provide a wide international perspective, reflecting the fact that issues around urban land-use and contested spaces are a phenomenon common to both post-industrial societies and fast developing economies alike. This also enables elements of contrast between US practice, still sometimes hidebound by a 'frontier' attitude to taming nature, and European approaches to become evident.

Although wide-ranging in its scope, the book is particularly strong in its focus on the positive impact that the wilder places on our doorstep can have in introducing urban children to the natural world, freedom to play and developing imaginative maturity; addressing the contemporary (but also seemingly perpetual) concern over 'lost innocence' in childhood and the difficulty we have in balancing freedom and safety for our children. Three of the chapters in the first section of the book, which explores theoretical aspects of urban wildscapes, cover this territory in complimentary ways, providing a hymnal to the benefits of wild play landscapes. Catherine Ward Thompson highlights a formidable societal barrier to progress in this area: 'Contemporary writing about anti-social behaviour, and the kinds of open space use and users deemed anti-social, has many dimensions, but a common theme is its bias against teenagers and young people.' The contributors quote long lists of reports addressing these issues but are perhaps a little lacking in practical examples of how the challenges posed by attitudes to risk, anti-social behaviour and so on can be successfully met.

A further theme of considerable interest is the problem of the modern ruin, lacking the same cultural value attached to more ancient defunct buildings and structures. A chapter by Christopher Woodward describes a tour around the perhaps obvious, but no less interesting for that, example of Detroit; 'the wrong kinds of ruins' in general perception, because they highlight the failings in our economic and social systems. The city that was once the powerhouse of the American motor industry and manufacturing virility, its inner ghost suburbs now left to rot as the population has shrunk by a half since 1950. This well paced chapter ranges across the US rust belt and Europe, seeking out interesting and positive developments in ecology, urban farming and other 'green shoots' amongst the macro-level dereliction.

This theme is then expanded upon, both geographically and contextually, in the middle section of the book, which sets out a range of case studies including an open-cast coal mining landscape in Lusatia, Germany, a wetland in Shanghai, Christiania in Copenhagen, the urban Don valley in South Yorkshire and the site of a huge railway yard in Berlin. Renee de Waal and Arjen de Wit, in their chapter on Lusatia, pose a central question relevant to all of these sites: 'Appreciated by many as fascinating post-industrial wilderness, the deserted landscape painfully reminds locals of more prosperous times. How can a region deal with this contradiction? Is it possible to preserve the wildscape character of these wastelands without blocking new economic development, or even to use it as a basis for a new future for the region?'. The case studies provided here highlight the attempts that are being made to proactively address these issues.

The third and final section drills down to micro-level examples of landscape architectural and urban design responses to the challenges of derelict wildscape; again providing a wide-ranging review of practice, taking in New York's High Line, Rainham Marshes in the Thames Estuary, Gyllin's Gardens on the edge of Malmo and a 'playable city' project in a district of Vienna. These contributions highlight the spatial and cultural complexity in planning and managing wildscapes without losing their inherent character; with landscape architecture's default position of tidying up and 'improving', maybe more organic and unmanaged community developments should be given their head?  

My main criticism of the book is that, although it is in the most part thought-provoking, some of the contributions add little extra value; Paul Gobster's chapter on Chicago's wildscape history being an example. This may be an inevitable consequence of putting together a book based on a conference. A chapter on 'Playing in industrial ruins' is the weakest link in the collection. Whilst I am all for collaboration, one can only marvel at the logistics of five authors producing one piece of twelve pages and five photographs. It was no surprise to find that this was the work of cultural geographers and I'm afraid its an example of a verbose style of academic prose that I find a turn-off; a detailed and non-judgemental description of 'destructive play' in a disused industrial site did little to dispel the feeling that such activity is called vandalism for a reason.   

Perhaps more importantly, whilst offering a fascinating and broad-ranging description of how urban wildscapes are being used (both formally and informally), I'm not sure the book demonstrates that there is yet a convincing narrative or movement to articulate a trajectory for their long-term future. Ian Thompson makes a similar point in his critical analysis of the Landscape Urbanism body of ideas in a recent issue of Landscape Research. Having said that, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with a professional interest - or more importantly a personal stake - in how we engage with the wilder places around us in urban areas. Hopefully a work like this can help to break down the seemingly binary relationship in an urban context between autonomous nature and human culture so that we can move to a more harmonious equilibrium in the future, based on a landscape-scale paradigm. 


Farley, Paul and Symmons Roberts, Michael (2011) Edgelands: journeys into England's true wilderness Jonathan Cape, London

Mabey, Richard (2010) The Unofficial Countryside Little Toller Books, Dorset

Sinclair, Iain (2010) Foreword in The Unofficial Countryside 2010 edition above

Thompson, Ian (2012) Ten tenets and six questions for Landscape Urbanism  in Landscape Research vol 37 no 1, Routledge, London

Woodward, Christopher (2002) In Ruins Vintage, London


  1. I agree with some of the issues you raise. It can sometimes be difficult to see the contribution in written pieces on this subject. I had only read the 'playing in ruins' piece (which I liked, but you make a good point); this has motivated me to get the book since some of the other ones sound intriguing.

    Not sure how you justify the last sentence since I'm pretty sure the people who are likely to read this book would not hold any such dichotomized views between nature and culture and in any case, the (contemporary) tradition undermining that dichotomy is over 50 years old.

    Nice website by the way

  2. Thanks for youre comments Gisli

    I agree that more enlightened practitioners and academics in the field would not subscribe to this view. However the ideas put forward in this book do not necessarily reflect the dominent view of policy-makers, business or indeed the general public. For every example of a balanced, imaginative and community-focused utility for the wilder spaces in urban areas, I would argue that has been a much larger-scale, incremental reduction in their actuality; reflecting the perception, decision-making, or even indifferance, of society at large.


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