We all know the story. Whether by the blunt force of natural disaster or economic trauma, a major disturbance leaves a swath of the urban fabric untenable. People leave, plans disintegrate, buildings crumble, and the forces of ruination slowly creep in. An urban wasteland is born. For those of us habituated to the sheen and sparkle of urban promise, it’s all too tempting to view these sites as spatial garbage, or “blight”—emblematic of entropy and decline. Averse to their unsightly appearances, liabilities, and connotations, many municipalities prefer to cloister them away with eight-foot barrier walls and garlands of heavy chains and padlocks until new programs can be proffered. Some of these sites are more obvious and stand out like missing teeth. Many of these territories seem to be owned by nobody, and everybody simultaneously. Still others are just far enough removed from the bustle of everyday life that they simply evade our notice altogether, like repressed memories.
Speculation about the meaning, aesthetics, and potentials of Ruderal Urban Territories (RUT’s) is both timely and deeply rooted in history. As a prototypical city with a contemporary life, Rome offers a poignant lens through which to understand the processes and politics of ruination, as its territory has been subject to varied and continuous states urban occupation for over 2,700 years. Italian Cartographer Giovanni Battista Piranesi was particularly interested in the ruination of Rome he encountered in the 18th century, which he famously immortalized in his Vedute series (“The Views”).
These etchings depict the Eternal City in a state of beautiful decay, and Piranesi seemed to take special care to impart a romantic tone of the picturesque to each scene he crafted. This mode of stylistic license and exaggeration, in which the boughs of trees, crumbling pediments, and pastoral landscapes beyond appear in an almost impossible state of harmony, are said to have both reflected and reinforced the renewed interest in the glory of the ancient world that was sweeping Europe at the time (1).
Two centuries later, young Italian filmmakers like Pier Paolo Pasolini would direct their own lenses toward the landscape of Rome through cinema, this time observing the transitions occurring at the periphery of the city. Looking into the backgrounds of films such as Pasolini’s Accatone (“The Scroungers”, 1961), one can see the simultaneous decay of the traditional Borgate (small Italian settlements) and the emergence of the post-war housing boom, which looms ominously in the immediate distance. The choice to situate the majority of the action of the film within this “no man’s land” between old and new, between inside and outside can be seen as both an aesthetic conceit and an active political statement.
“[Pasolini] had become fascinated with a world which he saw as pre-industrial and almost primordial, a world still enveloped in an epic-mythical dimension, a world marginalized and left behind by history and progress but thus one of the few environments still resistant to the blandishments of the neo-capitalist consumer culture” (2).
The protagonists’ aimless wanderings among these contested territories highlights the economically and geographically marginalized conditions of the urban poor, who always appear to be alienated from the centrifugal forces of mainstream life by a crusty mantle of heavily disturbed earth.
Wasted urban landscapes not only reflect but actively foreshadow states of change and transition in the socio-economic and political structure of cities. In the rapidly de-industrializing context of the 1980’s and 90’s the landscapes of ruination and various “elsewheres” at the fringes of cities play a central role in the visual lexicon of punk rock.
Amid the tumult of crumbling walls, mangled cars, splintered wood, and the protruding rebar of rubble heaps is the vague but essential quality roughness, danger and permissiveness that ruins always seem to conjure. Many punk rock music videos and record covers are set amid these anonymous landscapes of waste, seeming to signal the temporary suspension of decidedly oppressive norms. The critical tension of these settings mirror the aims of the genre itself—ripe with the possibility of leaving one social order in the dust and rebuilding the world on new and radically different terms.
What’s important to note about these examples is the almost morbid fascination and magnetism these territories of ruination continue to exert on us. They seem to reflect latent desires to seek out that which is expressly off limits—to find the sacred in the profane. Yet even more richness exists there, and to reduce the sacralization of wastelands within the popular imagination to fleeting aesthetic curiosities would be to overlook the many socio-ecological implications.
The larger transitional meaning and latent potentials of RUT’s is expressed beautifully in Rebecca Solnit’s recent meditation, “Field Guide to Getting Lost”, in which she observes:
“With ruins, a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped. This is the same transmutation spoken of in fairy tales, when statues and toys and animals become human, though they come to life and with ruin a city comes to death, but a generative death like the corpse that feeds flowers.” (3)
Evoking ruins through this biological metaphor reminds us to resist imagining these places as somehow devoid of life, or as blank slates for new officially sanctioned uses, but to acknowledge that they are often already teeming with activity and transitional vitality of all kinds. It’s precisely this unlikely vibrancy which demands new modes of understanding and exploration by creatives, scientists, and policymakers alike.
Migration, Occupation and Resistance
The first dimension implied by RUT’s is directly related to human patterns of settlement and spatial appropriation. Ruderal urban and peri-urban sites have likely always provided transitional shelter to the cities’ most vulnerable inhabitants. In a contemporary context marked by the growing challenges of urban population growth and mass migration, this patterns is likely to become increasingly pronounced and urgent. Growing levels of regional famine, natural disaster events, and geopolitical conflicts brought about by a changing global climate is projected to accelerate migration globally, with current estimates of climate change refugees expected to reach 200 million by 2050 (4). Although not always a first resort, the occupation and settlement by these vulnerable communities within RUT’s in the form squats and informal settlements is also likely to increase in turn if local and national institutions exceed their capacity to effectively accommodate these unprecedented levels of migration and resettlement.
The intensification of this phenomena is already underway, and is not confined to the storied slums of the global south. Mass migration across the mediterranean sea in has already made global headlines in recent years, with particular urgency in mediterranean countries like Italy, which act as the the first gateways to safety for desperate refugees seeking shelter in the European Union. Those lucky enough to make landfall alive must then navigate the turbulent waters of localized bureaucracy and marginalization. As they seek asylum with few resources and options, many have no choice but to wait in limbo in cities like Lampedusa, Sicily, and Rome for many months or years (5).
To visit the periphery of Rome in 2016 is to encounter a geography of appropriation and resistance arising in response to the complex contemporary challenges of migration and political disenfranchisement. Not far away from the city's bustling historic core and gelato shops is a landscape few tourists ever see—where fragments of ancient aqueducts meander through still fertile farmland, punctuated crumbling remains of the Italian economic miracle. Factories, military outposts, and other abandoned infrastructure teems with illicit forms of life and occupation, much of which remains hidden in plain sight.
Take for example, a vulnerable colony of local seasonal workers and migrant families occupying a former salami factory site in the eastern periphery of Rome since 2009. Known locally as the Museo dell'Altro e dell'Altrove di Metropoliz (the Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere) this site provides much needed shelter, protection and belonging to hundreds of temporary residents from around the world including Peruvian, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Roma families. MAAM is just one of many occupied post-industrial urban sites in the city, and is part of a longer and more established tradition of transforming abandoned industrial and military outposts in the periphery of the city into “Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestiti” (“Self Managed Social Centers”) (6).
Due to the illicit nature of their formation, these sites often exist in a state of legal purgatory. The early years of their existence is especially tenuous, as they risk destruction or eviction by local authorities at any moment. Sites like MAAM are typically established and administered by a nucleus of like-minded, politically organized individuals who work to give political purchase to local inhabitants while building good faith with local communities through artistic interventions and public events. Yet even if these occupied RUT’s can evade forcible eviction and destruction by municipal bulldozers, the long-term public health implications of these informal settlements remains complex and unclear.
Due to the lack of functioning infrastructure and the many material remnants of their former use, RUT’s like MAAM often contain myriad environmental contaminants that range from lead and other heavy metals, to asbestos-laden construction rubble, to other less visible organic and inorganic pollutants that pose serious threats to human health. Yet without the political will or resources to engage in conventional large-scale methods of soil remediation, alternative approaches must be employed in ways that respect and acknowledge MAAM’s human inhabitants. For these communities, many of whom struggle to meet their basic daily needs, the prospect of long-term ecological health is largely an abstraction. This underscores the need to reconcile environmental health concerns with immediate daily realities.
Self-willed Urban Nature and the Emergence of Novel Ecosystem Services
Many RUT’s also nourish unprecedented new forms of self-willed nature in the city which are only beginning to be understood. Aided by disturbed ground conditions, wind and animal seed dispersal, and seasonal hydrological processes over time, RUT’s offer the ideal conditions for what are often referred to as “cosmopolitan urban meadows.” (7). Growing amid crumbling infrastructure and urban waste, these landscapes often contain a variety of spontaneously occurring vegetation which seems not only to subsist but thrive despite human intentions, human impacts, and aggressive urban maintenance regimes. These include remnant native species, heat-loving, disturbance-adapted trees and shrubs such as Common Plantain (Plantago Major) and Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus Altissima), salt and drought tolerant species such as Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and even ornamental domestic garden escapees.
These eclectic botanical assemblages are just one example of a “Novel Ecosystem” at work, and are widely understood as “the result of deliberate or inadvertent human action.” (7). What remains contentious about these landscapes are assessments of their ecological value. Are these plant communities comprised merely of ecologically useless alien invaders hellbent on running amok and wreaking havoc? Or are they the hardy handmaidens of a futuristic native ecology in the early stages of becoming? Although not universally embraced by professional ecologists and conservation biologists today, there is an fascinating body of research and landscape strategy which seek to understand and incorporate the latent value and function of these ecosystems at both local and city-wide scales (8).
The Novel Ecosystems Services (NES) approach to these landscapes recognizes that despite their scrappy or unsightly appearance, the spontaneous plant communities that we observe along our roadsides, within vacant lots and alleyways are already actively involved in a number of beneficial urban metabolic functions, including the absorption of particulate pollution from vehicular sources (9), the active remediation of contaminated soils (10), increasing localized biodiversity (11), benefits to local pollinators (12), and the reduction of urban heat-islands, (13). Novel Ecosystem Services may be of particular and urgent relevance in the context of informally occupied RUT’s where environmental contaminants and inhospitable conditions pose imminent risks to human health and quality of life. If Novel Ecosystems are to be embraced, curated, and in some cases accelerated as a feature of long term resilience planning in cities, it’s important to first recognize which among these species, including those we commonly malign as “weeds” may already be acting as the unlikely pro-bono footsoldiers of urban health.
As they have for millennia in Rome, the inevitable conditions of urban expansion and contraction will continue present challenges and opportunities within our cities. Accelerated by climate change, migration and disinvestment, spontaneously colonized ruderal sites will become an increasingly urgent urban challenge. Despite a long-established cultural and aesthetic fascination with urban wastelands, formal research and engagement with the deeper implications of these sites is still in its infancy. Rather than viewing these territories as problems to be fixed, many urban ecologists and practitioners are starting to pay closer attention to the complex socio-ecological processes occurring within them. Moving beyond this exciting but nascent stage of theory and academic research, will require a leap from academic understanding to creative strategies and future-focused policies that actively informs how these conditions are regarded and managed.
Implied in this growing body of research and action are exciting new horizons for creative and civic engagement that reframe these marginalized territories as assets rather than liabilities in the fight for more just, more vibrant, and more resilient cities. Those within the urban landscape practice are particularly well-positioned to conceive of new modes of co-evolutionary bargaining which respect the existing ecologies and informal cultural heritage produced within RUT’s. Under new paradigms of understanding and collective action, territories and plant communities regarded as functionally and ecologically useless today may ultimately be recognized and utilized as key contributors to the health of the urban ecosystem in the near future. It’s time we develop more coherent ways to work with and alongside these conditions, however messy they may be.
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