The Ecology of Dereliction
Derelict spaces can be found everywhere. These liminal pockets dot our cities, from the untenable to the undiscovered, and form part of the urban ecology that we live in. Blurring the line between culture and nature, and the human and non-human, they can be as small as a crack in the pavement or as large as a disused airfield. Each provides unique opportunities for multispecies assemblages to carve ecological niches for themselves in the sterility of our urban sprawl.
From the human perspective, dereliction means dilapidation, disuse, or desertion; the antithesis of progress. Anna Tsing defines ‘progress’ as the human assumption of improvement (Tsing, 2015). Dereliction challenges ‘progress’ by facilitating natural regress; where anthropocentrism sees dereliction as regress, biocentrism sees dereliction as an opportunity for progression.
Inspired by the liminal, forgotten lots that dot our urban landscape, this essay focuses on a fictional derelict place. Lost in the sprawl of a bustling city, our vacant lot awaits its fate. The structure that stood here was razed leaving a maw of churned earth and piles of rubble. Earmarked for redevelopment, this brownfield remains empty by grace of bureaucracy. Kept in a state of inertia; hiding in plain sight behind graffitied ply-board hoarding. It will be years before developers get their hands on it.
The last humans here left a toxic legacy. Heavy metals and chemical residues trickle and leech through the ground-water; harbingers of death spread by the conduit of life. The exposed flanks of the earth reveal a stratified history; sherds of pottery and shards of plastic form a unique geology, telling a very human story of ‘progress’.
For a while the concrete dominates, absolute in its longevity. A year goes by and little happens. Trash accumulates in the corners, coffee cups and cigarette butts mingling with dead leaves. During winter the grey slab begins to cede to the elements as the lattice of cracks wrought during demolition are pried open by the freeze and thaw of ice. Liverworts, lichens, and mosses appear as specks of colour, slowly beginning to colonise the concrete. Bastions of primary succession, they thrive without need of substrate. Given decades, they will slowly metabolise the concrete into ever smaller pieces. Rainwater collects in the buckled concrete and a shallow puddle forms. The stagnant pool collects dead leaves, the tannins they release staining the water brown.
The disturbed ground invites in the opportunistic plants of secondary succession—millenia of coevolution with humans has refined their tactics and these ruderal species are quick to colonise. Groundsel, ragwort, fumitory, and rosebay willowherb bloom in vibrant pinks and yellows. Greater plantains fan out in rosettes and ribwort plantains spike up their lanceolate leaves. Hints of green tinge the grey as grasses creep along the cracks in the concrete, their roots prying the crevices further open. Fat-hen, locked beneath concrete for decades, sees the sunlight for the first time in 35 years, and the tendrils of bindweed reappear after nearly half a century in the dark.
A rash of nettles is graced by red admiral, peacock, and tortoiseshell butterflies and wild rocket draws in cabbage whites. The next summer their offspring will pupate and hatch in a flush of fluttering colours. Even poisonous ragwort attracts the cinnabar moth, specialist in sequestering the plant's toxins for its own defence.
A human moves in, the first since the space was condemned. The place is a safe place—a secret oasis hidden from the inhospitable march of progress. Evicted from porches, denied shelter, barred from society; they have been left behind and forgotten. They bring their paltry possessions in and make the space their home: sleeping in one corner, scatting in the other. After a few months they move on, leaving a sleeping bag and a pile of shit. Their defecations—nutrient dense fertiliser—soaks into the soil; next year their toilet will be made visible by a vibrant flush of greenery.
Increased ground-cover now shields the earth from the sun, and a lattice of roots knits together its surface. Both help keep the soil moist. Decomposing necromass—peppered with trash—facilitates the formation of a subterranean multispecies microbiome. Wind blown fungal spores germinate and weave a mycorrhizal network into the ground, while burrowing insects and microorganisms metabolise and aerate the soil.
Nitrogen-fixing legumes appear; vetches, clovers, and birdsfoot trefoil fleck the sward in a melody of flowers. A buddleia sprouts from the rubble, quickly shading out its neighbours; in a few years it will stand a metres tall—within a decade a thicket will form. Hogweed arrives—a brownfield stalwart. Standing sentinel, its large umbelliferous flowers reach a height of 2 metres by early summer. The white saucerful flowers of ground elder, wild carrot, and milk-parsley fill the negative space between their cousins stalks.
Phytoremediation helps bring down the concentration of contaminants that originally condemned the space. The deep taproots of a wayward sunflower draw arsenic into its stalk, and the dotted ragwort and mustards help reduce levels of lead. The plants sequester heavy metals into their biomass. When they die, these toxins will return to the soil as they decompose.
The buddleia now stands two metres tall, its lilac rods drawing in red admiral butterflies with a honeyed fragrance that pervades the air. The once stagnant pool begins to glimmer green with algal bloom. The algae slowly oxygenates the water, making it more hospitable. Between the glint of food wrappers, the silt and mulch is metabolised by a developing microbiome, metabolising necromass into nutrients. Small mammals and birds frequent the space to forage. Rodents create a crisscross of desire paths, a territorial robin moves in, and the song of a blackbird is never far away.
The lot now spends its mornings shaded by a neighbouring development. Hidden in an exoskeleton of scaffolding and loose plastic, it has slowly crept up into another grey monolith. Sun hungry annuals weaken as their life-force is rationed, and shade-tolerant perennials take over.
The proliferation of new growth now blurs the boundary between dereliction and urbanity. A haze of ivy tumbles over the hoarding, abuzz with bees, and the white trumpets of bindweed loudly announce their presence to the outside world. This gaudy display gets ignored by most, but a few humans do notice. They clamber their way into the space, adding themselves to the multispecies assemblage. Like their predecessor they respect the space, seeing the green as refuge from the grey.
An assemblage of flora and fauna now exist in equilibrium. Skinny saplings of London plane, black poplar, and sycamore spear the ground. If left to grow, within a decade these trees would join branches in a canopy. Their understory would stabalise and the ground, protected from sunlight and fed with leaf-litter, would encourage the topsoils’ microbiome to accelerate activity. Within 50 years the trees would tower over ten metres tall. An assemblage of animals would pass through every day, both the preying and those predated. In 100 years the stabilisation and maturation of the ecosystem would guarantee indefinite longevity.
This will not happen though. The local council will remember this space and come in yellow hard-hats and high-vis jackets to test the soils’ toxicity. Deemed human-safe, biologists will come and check that no species is too endangered to be evicted. Their greenlight brings builders with diggers to churn up the delicate topsoil, shattering the mycorrhizal network and breaking the ecological equilibrium. They will clear the bracken and uproot the plants, forcefully regressing the site to the sterility of a fresh blanket of grey concrete.
This essay is no more than a projection; by no means definitive. To assume nature’s succession ascribes anthropocentric notions of progress to it. Anna Tsing writes that “as long as we imagine that humans are made through progress, nonhumans are stuck within this imaginative framework too” (Tsing, 2015: 21). Dereliction bridges the gap between culture and nature. The derelict spaces that dot our cities provide evidence of how human and non-human can coexist, without imposing frameworks of existence. Succession, by definition, assumes progression. Ecological succession applies frameworks and makes assumptions on behalf of nature, yet chance and contingency are the biggest factors in succession; nature “has no fixed goals, no unalterable pathways into the future, no inflexible rules” (Pollan, 1991: 184). Our understanding of nature is inherently anthropocentric, but that doesn't predicate our outlook should be too. The separation of culture and nature comes from the human conceit that we exist apart from nature.
As Emanuele Coccia writes “plants […] affect a sovereign indifference toward the human world” (Coccia, 2019: 4); nature will persist to exist, despite our perceptions. Dereliction reminds us that we are not apart from nature, but rather a part of it.
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