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Ruderal Ecologies and Abandoned Spaces: Visions of Nature and the City

Updated: Jun 6

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin (from Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders, 1987)

The definition, role, and place of nature in urban environments has been much debated, as the idea of a fundamental distinction between nature and the city has been long ingrained in Western thought (Gandy 2002, Gandy 2013, Ernstson et al. 2019). Post-war academic work in the emerging field of urban ecology challenged this deeply held notion, instead viewing the relationship between cities and nature as a proper object of study. One strand of this work envisioned the city in nature--cities as fully a part of the natural systems in which they are embedded (water cycles, soil profiles, species life, carbon budgets), and as concentrations of embodied energy from nature itself (Cronon 1992). Another strand of this research concerns nature in the city, focusing on the impact of human activity on natural places that often provoke something new, unplanned, fitting neither the imaginary of a pristine, virgin environment nor that of a carefully controlled landscape. To use the Marxian terminology, it is neither “first” nor “second” nature (Lefebvre 1991, Cronon 1992, Swyngedouw 1996), but a third kind that is unintended, unwelcome, occasionally invasive. This third nature makes itself at home in those “abandoned gap[s] of institutional power” (Stoetzer 2018), whether we call them wastelands, brownfields, disturbance sites, terrains vagues or ruins. It is this latter strand of research on nature in the city that this essay explores.

The emergence of the ruderal as object of research

German biologist Herbert Sukopp has been a central force in shedding light on the environmental conditions and cycles in cities, laying the groundwork of urban ecology as a modern science through the creation of the Berlin School of Urban Ecology (Kowarik 2020, Lachmund 2013, Stoetzer 2018). It is no coincidence that this field emerged in postwar West-Berlin as the city was marked by several factors that allowed for particular ecologies to flourish. Berlin was heavily damaged during World War II, provoking enormous quantities of rubble, much of which remained uncleared as development was slow in this enclave of the Federal Republic of Germany located within the territory of the German Democratic Republic (Lachmund 2013). After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, ecology and biology scholars lost ready access to landscapes outside of the city and therefore took an interest in the ecological dynamics that were happening within the enclosed city, particularly on sites of ruins and rubble. This led to a particular focus on “ruderal” plants (from rudus, the Latin for “rubble”): the term refers to communities of plants that emerge spontaneously and adapt to inhospitable, severely disturbed sites (Grime 1977, Stoetzer 2018).

The ruderal had been an interest of botanists since the nineteenth century, but the postwar period renewed this interest as it offered vast landscapes disturbed by war damage, the sudden accumulation of rubble and the shuffle of native and exogenous seeds (Lachmund, 2013). Ruderal ecology is therefore the study of life systems in these disturbed spaces and wastelands, designated either as ruderal “sites,” “areas,” or “biotopes” (Lachmund, 2013), “habitats” (Kalarus et al., 2019) or “communities” (Tabašević et al., 2021). Hildemar Scholz, a colleague of Sukopp’s, characterized these areas in Berlin by “the abundance of neophytes, often of Southern origin, that benefited from the environmental conditions of the city, especially the warmer climate” (Scholz 1956, cited in Lachmund 2013). At the core of ruderal ecology is therefore an encounter between a disturbed environment and species foreign to the place. Anthropologist Bettina Stoetzer talks of “unintended ecologies” that are “neither wild nor domesticated” and form “an ecology of unexpected neighbors in the city” (2018). The unexpected attribute of ruderal areas is also due to the capacity of many ruderal plants to survive buried in the soil for extended periods of time and to finally germinate when climate and light conditions are favorable (Grime 1977).

An appeal outside of the natural sciences

The unplanned and unplannable nature of ruderal ecologies, their constant reaction and adaptation to human-made conditions, and their occurrence in disturbed places that have often undergone tragic events have garnered the attention of scholars and professionals outside of the fields of botany, biology and ecology. Ecology scholars have often approached ruderal areas with a normative framework that looked specifically at the degree of “richness” of these spaces or the level of cohabitation between “native” and “alien” species (Crawley 2004, Müller & Sukopp 2016, Tabašević et al. 2021). The particular conditions that promote a wide diversity of species are particularly sought. Distancing themselves from normative stances, sociologists (Lachmund), anthropologists (Stoetzer), geographers (Gandy), landscape architects, urban planners and designers (Cowles) have looked at ruderal environments with their own theoretical frameworks, cultural background and sensibility to analyze the new social and urban dynamics developing in and around these sites and the relations with neighboring human communities. It is worth noting, however, that ruderal ecology was envisaged from the outset as a systemic approach that included planning, policy, and advocacy, as Herbert Sukopp engaged in interdisciplinary study programs and was advocating for increased connections between the management of these environments and the social and political fabric of the city (Lachmund 2013, Kowarik 2020). This broad discussion about ruderals, both inside and outside of academia, raised awareness on the issue and led to community endeavors to protect specific ruderal areas threatened by development (Lachmund 2013b). These interdisciplinary efforts helped to conceptualize ruderal ecology as an object of study that cannot be disconnected from the social conditions that determine its existence and evolution.

The political seeds of ruderal ecology

The pivotal position of the ruderal between the natural and the social fabric of the city is also a source of conflict when it comes to deciding on the appropriate management of a ruderal area. These conflicts often boil down to the functions that are attributed by different actors to wastelands according to their own values, imaginaries, and professional backgrounds. For instance, Lachmund (2013b) described tensions in Berlin over Südgelänge – an abandoned railway. Conservationists wanted to protect the ecological qualities of the railway through limited access, whereas planners and community advocates wanted it to be an open landscape, such as public park: “The more the wasteland came to be framed as a “ruderal area” and urban planning decisions considered its value as “nature,” [the more] the social use and material form of these areas emerged as new issues of public contestation.“ These opposing groups eventually compromised around an artistic design for a nature park that limited potential alteration from human interaction while allowing access and recreation.

Lachmund also exposes conflicts dealing with the extent to which a ruderal area has to be managed in order to retain its ecological values. Mowing the grass and cutting trees to prevent the growth of ligneous species might be necessary to preserve a specific biotope of meadows, but it can be interpreted in different ways by the public. Some may see it as an attempt to control nature in what they regard as a breathing space for the unwelcome that should instead be left untouched. Others will view a lack of maintenance by the municipal government as a signal of their marginality and abandonment.

Approaches taken to conservation and management of ruderal places also emerge from the historical point of reference that is sought after in restoration projects (Cowles, 2017). Is there an ecological optimum that is to be replicated or maintained? Tensions around ruderal sites arise from different conceptualizations of nature by the various actors involved. These differences lie on the level of adhesion to an “ecological imaginary” based on the idea of a natural equilibrium to be preserved. Different communities of thought therefore form different cohabiting “political ecologies” (Gandy, 2019) each striving to impose their vision for the management of ruderal sites.

Non-intrusive trail in the Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände, Berlin, 2012 (Photo by Assenmacher, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19030686)

An analytical framework for abandoned spaces

Ruderal areas form spaces for functions and practices as diverse as research, recreation, biodiversity, art, design, aesthetic engagement, meeting and empowerment, according to who uses or appropriate them. This juxtaposition of functions echoes Henri Lefebvre’s distinction between natural and social spaces posed in terms of spatial arrangement: “Natural space juxtaposes – and thus disperses: it puts places and that which occupies them side and side. It particularizes. By contrast, social space implies actual or potential assembly at a single point, on around that point. It implies, therefore, the possibility of accumulation (a possibility that is realized under specific conditions)” (Lefebvre 1991). Or, as Cronon observes, the natural is fully entangled with the social, and it is through social categories that we understand, define, and engage nature to begin with.

Ruderal areas are precisely situated at this articulation between the natural and the social. The values attributed to ruderal spaces by different actors and the political relations between those actors affect the ways in which functions are arranged. Following Lefebvre’s distinction, a conception of the ruderal as natural will tend towards particularizing spaces: a ruderal area can be either a wild patch of land left unattended, or a carefully managed ecological reserve, but not at the same (even though they can cohabit side by side). A more social understanding will look at ways and solutions to accumulate functions in one area: a ruderal space can be preserved according to ecological principles and still receive the public.

Bettina Stoetzer recognizes this multiplicity of potentials in the analytic framework she proposes for ruderal ecology, in which the ruderal is a lens that “takes rubble and ruination as points of departure to examine the (after)lives of racial exclusions, economic collapse, and interrupted futures embedded in urban environments.” (Stoler 2008, Stoetzer 2018). In her research (also focused on Berlin), the ruderal is used to draw parallels between unwelcome Turkish migrant workers and the inhospitality of marginal sites that they chose as terrains to experiment with informal gardening. This framework helps us look at “how people, plants, animals, and their environments connect and get entangled in modes of capital accumulation, in projects of nation-making, and in environmental destruction—and how they traverse them” (2013). Such an analytic “shifts attention to heterogeneous and unexpected life amid rubble” and might in the process prove useful for the study of the entangled lives of the Rust archipelago and the adaptation to processes of abandonment. A later memo will look more specifically at how the ruderal can help us interrogate life after abandonment in Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

Osman Kalin's Gecekondu in 2012: informal garden started on a patch of land adjacent to the Berlin Wall in the early 1983 (Photo: Paul Korecky, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)


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Overgrown vegetation in an abandoned stadium, Vilnius, Lithuania, August 2014