Spencer Powell on Jorgensen and Keenan, Urban Wildscapes

Urban Wildscapes is an edited collection of writings which takes the forgotten, neglected, and abandoned spaces in the urban landscape and sets out to show how social and environmental value may be found in the most unlikely places. However, the book also goes beyond this in seeking to broaden the concept of wildscape as a spatially located place and establish it as a way of thinking about how we can best use the existing urban assets around us to create more cohesive, sustainable and meaningful landscapes. Christopher Woodward begins Part One on theorising wildscapes with an examination of the ruin voyeur’s favourite, Detroit, and how nature’s appropriation of the ostentatiously designed shrinking city presents a more troubling ruin than that of the spontaneously built, unplanned Plotlands community in Laindon, Essex. Questioning the very definition of what is meant by sustainable design, Woodward explores the disjuncture that exists between artistic representations of ruin, and ruin in the consciousness of those living in its shadow. The mirror he holds up makes uncomfortable viewing for those of us living in cities ‘built as if they would last forever’. Paul H. Gobster offers ‘a natural history’ of the Chicago city region and the role of its wildscapes in recreation and conservation, while Catharine Ward Thompson explores the ways in which the development of managed parkland and ‘official’ green space has gone hand in hand with increasing regulation and restriction of what activities are permissible in such spaces – particularly for young people. The socio-spatial exclusion which results from this is highly damaging, and Thompson makes a persuasive argument in favour of ‘urban wildscapes that welcome changing uses and users, and offer rich, edgy, exciting opportunities for so many young people who otherwise endure such poverty of environmental experience’. Katy Mugford similarly deals with the issue of young people’s detachment from the landscapes around them in her innovative comparison of the positive developmental qualities of wildscapes recognised and promoted in children’s literature, and the risk aversion ‘foisted on today’s children by those who experienced freedom only a generation before’.

Part Two provides a wealth of case studies demonstrating how wildscape ideas are being incorporated into practice. Renée de Waal and Arjen de Wit’s study of the restoration of former coal fields in Lusatia, Germany, provides a particularly thought provoking insight into the challenges associated with finding holistic new uses for wildscape on a regional level, while Marian Tylecoat and Nigel Dunnett’s chapter on the transformation of a former Sheffield wasteland into Manor Field’s Park demonstrates how the competing demands of sustainability, community opinions, and financial thrift may be reconciled to provide multifunctional, recreational wildscapes at a fraction of the cost of more traditional tabula rasa approaches – a particularly timely example in an age of austerity where budgets for parks, recreation and the environment are all under strain. Part Three seeks to establish the ‘implications for landscape practice’ of reconsidering how we view such wildscapes, though in reality it serves more as an extension of part two, with smaller scale case studies brought into the mix.

While written from a landscape architecture perspective, and therefore containing an abundance of detail regarding plant types and the process of natural succession, Urban Wildscapes concerns itself more with the positive potential of wildscapes as facilitators of social wellbeing and inclusion than with the technical process of landscape architecture practice. The book’s strength therefore lies in the breadth of its ideas, its rejection of established norms in contemporary urban design, and its accessibility to practitioners and non-practitioners alike. The left-field line of thought means it is unlikely to spark a paradigm shift in the way we view urban wildscapes and plan new urban landscapes. Indeed, at various points in the book the authors concede that the wildscape concept may only work in relation to a more ordered, sanitised, ‘other’ space which constitutes the mainstream. But as a contribution to the wider debate on sustainability and how to ensure cities remain responsive to their inhabitants underlying needs, Urban Wildscapes is a valuable, horizon-expanding read.

Spencer Powell, 2013


Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan (eds), Urban Wildscapes (London: Routledge, 2011). £32.99

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