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FERAL NEIGHBOURHOODS, INTERLUDE II     12

The Ecology of
Dereliction




Stage 1.

Lost in the sprawl of a bustling city, our vacant lot remains empty by grace of bureaucracy, a contaminated brownfield forgotten behind graffitied plyboard hoarding.

For a while, the concrete remains absolute in its longevity. Then, as the grey slab begins to cede to the elements, its cracks are pried open by the freeze and thaw of winter. Liverwort, lichen, and moss appear as specks of colour, thriving without the need for substrate. Rainwater collects in the buckled concrete and a shallow puddle forms.

The disturbed ground invites the opportunistic plants of secondary succession, ruderal species whose roots pry the crevices further open. Groundsel, ragwort, fumitory, and rosebay willowherb bloom in vibrant pinks and yellows. Fat-hen and bindweed reappear after nearly half a century locked beneath concrete.

A rash of nettles is graced by red admiral, peacock, and tortoiseshell butterflies, and wild rocket draws in cabbage whites. Even poisonous ragwort attracts the cinnabar moth, specialist in sequestering the plant’s toxins for its own defence.

A human moves in. This hidden site offers a safe place, after being evicted from porches and denied shelter. They make the space their home for a few months: sleeping in one corner, scatting in the other. Their toilet will be marked by a vibrant flush of greenery in a year.

Stage 2.

A lattice of roots knits together the earth’s surface, and increased groundcover shields it from the sun. Both help keep the soil moist. Decomposing necromass 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 bird’s-foot trefoil fleck the sward in a melody of flowers. A buddleia sprouts from the rubble, quickly shading out its neighbours. Hogweed arrives—a brownfield stalwart — reaching 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.



Stage 3.

Phytoremediation brings down the concentration of contaminants that originally condemned the space. The taproots of a sunflower draw arsenic into its stalk, and dotted ragwort and mustards reduce lead levels, sequestering heavy metals into their biomass.

The buddleia now stands two metres tall, its honeyed fragrance drawing in red admiral butterflies. The once stagnant pool glimmers green with algal bloom that oxygenates the water. 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. In the shadow of scaffolding and tarp, sun-hungry annuals weaken and shade-tolerant perennials take over.

Stage 4.

An assemblage of flora and fauna now exists in equilibrium, blurring the boundary between dereliction and urbanity. Skinny saplings of London plane, black poplar, and sycamore spear the ground. If left to grow, within a decade their branches would form a canopy, shielding the understory from sunlight. In 50 years, the trees would tower over 10 metres tall, playing host to passing animals.

This does not happen. The local council remembers this space. In come yellow hardhats and high-vis jackets testing the soils’ toxicity, and biologists checking that no species is too endangered to be evicted. Their greenlight brings diggers to churn up the delicate topsoil, shattering the mycorrhizal network, clearing the bracken, and uprooting the plants—forcing the site’s regression to a blanket of grey concrete. 



ARTIST Barney Pau
FERAL ECOLOGIES
Humans
LOCATION London, UK


CONCEPT Pau speculates on the fate of a forgotten site in an urban landscape, tracking the ecological progression of an imaginary derelict plot of land in a city like London. Over the course of 4 stages, the site gradually develops in its ecological diversity — from forgotten concrete sites to thriving biome, before it becomes a site of redevelopment yet again. Exploring metaphors of dereliction, this progression and its subsequent loss to human activity challenges conventional ideas of human progress. The text meditates on the natural reclamation and transvaluation of human space, while also exploring how human and more-than-human worlds can coexist.


THOUGHTS ON THE ECOLOGY OF DERELICTION ︎︎︎










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