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undreds of skylarks up in the air, seemingly standing still over the meadows of a decommissioned inner-city airport. The skylark (Alauda arvensis) is associated with idealized pastoral scenes of long-lost agricultural landscapes. Its disappearance from the countryside has evoked a particular sense of loss and anxiety among geographers and nature writers. In Berlin, skylarks have found a refugium between the runways of the former Tempelhof airport. Currently Berlin’s largest Stadtbrache (urban wasteland), this 300 hectare field is marked by decades of infrastructural use and weathering: the tarmac is covered by lichens; ruderal plants grow in the cracks of former service roads. Various urban biotopes provide ecological niches for rare and endangered insects, spiders, reptiles, and birds that used to be common in rural landscapes before the advent of industrialized farming. Many airfields across the world—active and abandoned—are migratory stopovers, foraging and nesting sites for birds and other species. They exemplify how nonhuman life repurposes infrastructural environments, both along and against the grain of their intended use.
Infrastructure not only moves humans, it is a more-than-human project. The occluded histories of nonhuman life still have to be recovered from the archives of engineered landscapes. Nonhuman life gathers alongside infrastructure networks, sometimes in unexpected ways and outside the parameters of capitalist space and time. Now and again nonhuman agency becomes visible in the historical records of modernity’s vital networks, the moment it disrupts the flows of metabolic systems. Explorations of the botanical city provide a window into the interconnected histories of infrastructure and nonhuman life (Gandy and Jasper, 2020). In the early 1900s, for example, scientists and amateurs created inventories of new arrivals that they termed Adventivflora (adventive flora) by botanizing the railways, canals, harbors, and industrial installations in Europe’s urbanizing regions. These “infrastructural floras” show how plants flourished in spaces of intense human disturbance. Between 1909 and 1927 over 700 new arrivals were discovered in Germany’s industrial Ruhr area. The botanist Ludwig Bonte speculated about the accidental journeys each of these plants might have taken across the globe as a by-product of modernity’s circulating commodities. Bonte wondered which of these new arrivals would withstand, adapt, and someday acquire Bürgerrecht (citizenship) in the region (Bonte 1930: 8). In their celebration of new arrivals, these early twentieth-century botanical studies allude to questions of belonging of these “accidental migrants”, at a time when other strands in German vegetation science such as plant sociology developed nativist and ideologically charged conceptions of nature and its relation to place (Gröning and Wolschke-Bulmahn, 1992). More recent stories from Berlin include the discovery of South African ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), a plant that moved along railways and waterways and now flourishes in a Berlin parking lot (Seitz, 2020: 298) and the route via train from France of a cave spider (Nesticus eremita) that found a habitat in an abandoned railway yard (Zerbe, 2019: 437).
When infrastructures are truncated, stripped down, or set aside in the wake of wartime destruction, geopolitics, or through the impact of economic decline and state disinvestment, these abandoned spaces emerge as laboratorial fields for the independent dynamics of nonhuman life. Abandoned zones speak to the temporalities of infrastructure. They are windows into urban pasts, but in their neglect they contain a sense of futurity. In ecological terms, such spaces are testing grounds to explore how nonhuman life might adapt to infrastructural environments and even thrive as part of new Anthropocene ecologies (Young, 2014). Nonhuman life can also give testimony to urban change as the botanist Peter Del Tredici (2014) points out: whereas early-successional species are markers of fast-paced cycles of change, more stable plant assemblages such as urban woodlands indicate longer periods of abandonment and economic decline. Botanists consider the passing of time in successional stages, but also specific species of plants as indicators of austerity ecologies. Yet with a merely ecological lens we neither gain insight into the political dynamics and types of land ownership and speculation that are driving cycles of investment and disinvestment in infrastructure, nor can we address which communities are affected by abandonment and disconnection from vital services. In urban economic terms, abandoned infrastructural sites are volatile spaces with an uncertain future. Often suspended in a state of “standby” they are awaiting development and thus the imminent destruction of their unique ecologies.
Operational infrastructures can also be havens for wildlife and biodiversity, but differ from abandoned spaces in several ways. Keeping infrastructures in service involves the destruction of nonhuman life. If we think of birds and active airports, only those smaller species are tolerated that do not interfere with human air traffic. Wildlife hazard managers turn airfields into hostile spaces for larger birds by deterring them with pesticides, lasers, sound cannons, and trained falcons and dogs. To a certain extent, the division between nature and infrastructure needs to be retained through ongoing management and maintenance regimes that can even include the “infrastructuring” work of other animals like sheep and goats grazing weeds in the interstices of operating systems (Barua, forthcoming). As the anthropologist Ashley Carse (2019) has pointed out for the city of Colón in Panama, when the work of infrastructuring pauses, nonhuman life can quickly return so that “weediness” becomes an index for the level of state disinvestment and global disconnection of operational landscapes and cities more generally. Furthermore, infrastructures that have fallen out of use produce novel kinds of biotopes through the synthesis of nature and decomposing materials, or even toxic substances. The urban ecologist Ingo Kowarik (1991) categorically distinguishes between what he terms “fourth nature”, the urban-industrial vegetation of abandoned infrastructures that is growing spontaneously, and “third nature” including functional green and manicured gardens. Lastly, abandoned infrastructures are part of wider typologies of derelict land and connect with a sustained body of geographical work on the aesthetic, experiential, and political aspects of ruins, vacancy, and urban wastelands. The city of Berlin has been a focal point for botanists, artists, and various activist groups who have contributed to the ecological valorization (Lachmund, 2013) and cultural re-animation of wastelands (Till, 2011). Their revaluation of former railway yards, airfields, military training grounds, and other abandoned infrastructural zones counters the utilitarian idea that these spaces are no longer in use or bound to be developed. Considering wastelands as lived and inhabited spaces has led to a counter-aesthetic of urban life and concomitant political efforts to protect these sites from corporate seizure up to the present day (see Gandy, 2017; Jasper, forthcoming). Thus, infrastructural wastelands are speculative not merely in a financial sense. These abandoned zones are future-oriented in the myriad possibilities of public life that they promise.
Abandoned infrastructures fluctuate between spontaneity and intentionality. In many cities, redundant railway yards are now transformed into linear parks. Since the early 2000s, Berlin has had a vanguard role in developing infrastructural wastelands into public parks. Spontaneously flourishing nature is integrated in experimental park designs like Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände and Park am Gleisdreieck, which serve as refugia of biodiversity and also as new types of “wasteland aesthetic” (Gandy, 2013: 1305). Landscape designers are working with the unintentional aspects of spontaneous vegetation through new approaches that oscillate between maintaining the status quo, non-design (allowing succession), and intervention to improve the aesthetic value of a site (see Kühn, 2006). If we return to the Tempelhof airfield, landscape designers have employed a mix of conservation and intervention to better accommodate the skylark since this abandoned site was opened to the public (Jasper, 2020). Provisions of care for the ground-breeding birds include the installation of wooden poles and barrier tape around the meadows with “please do not disturb” signs, the closure of the site to visitors at night, restrictions on human leisure activities, and the maintenance of meadows through annual mosaic-like mowing regimes and the use of sheep. This approach of “minor design” with minimal intervention fundamentally differs from more standardized types of landscaping with tree-planting schemes, flower beds, or artificial lakes. It was enabled in alliance with a grassroots citizen’s initiative—“100% Tempelhofer Feld”—which campaigned for a radical approach of non-development to keep the site unchanged in its current state of infrastructural abandonment. In a public referendum, their proposal gained the majority of votes from Berliners against the Senate’s competing scheme for development, reflecting citizens’ enthusiasm to retain the airfield as a space of nature and play, and also sweeping public mistrust in municipal planning projects at the time. Even in their abandonment, infrastructures can become terrains for activist contestation. In Berlin, initiatives to protect these unusual zones against imminent development in the interest of finance or urban planning can now draw on a substantial urban archive of wasteland activism that dates back at least half a decade.
The paradoxical effects of turning abandoned infrastructural zones into public parks can be observed in many cities. Although not intended as financial assets, the edges of linear railway parks in Berlin now proliferate with new luxury housing and office buildings. Rampant construction and intensifying human activities gradually encroach on remaining fragments of spontaneous ecologies. At the same time, biodiversity initiatives carve out new spaces for nonhuman life in the interstices of infrastructure such as habitats for wild bees on traffic islands and rooftops, along roadsides and boulevards. With increasing municipal debt and development pressure in many cities, tensions emerge between ongoing efforts to accommodate nonhuman life and mounting attempts to extract value from nature. Spontaneous vegetation is cheaper to maintain and with the spreading ban of pesticides the role of weeds in cities is being reconsidered. Even the spontaneity of nature is now marked as an “ecosystem service”.
Investigating how infrastructure transforms nonhuman worlds extends the recent geographical and anthropological interest in the sociality of infrastructure (Amin, 2014) and its aesthetic, sensorial, and promissory capacities (Larkin, 2013) to consider how infrastructure is a more-than-human-project. The appearance of nonhuman life in infrastructural zones has sparked new conceptions of nature by botanists and urban ecologists such as the ideas of “plant citizenship” (Bonte, 1930) and “cosmopolitan urban meadows” (Del Tredici, 2014) that take an ethical stance towards rights and care for nonhuman life. As hospitable stopovers for migratory species on their journeys across borders and continents, abandoned infrastructures spark new conceptions of belonging beyond ideologically charged notions of “native” nature. Also within cities and urban regions, these abandoned zones form part of “green corridors” for animals that move across increasingly sealed and fragmented habitats. Furthermore, abandoned infrastructures open new questions about the past, present, and future of more-than-human cities. Infrastructures are repositories of interconnected human and nonhuman pasts from the circulation of life to the ebb and flow of capital through vital networks. In their status as wastelands, these unusual zones are experimental fields for studying the adaptability of nonhuman life and speculating about future ecologies in future cities. At present, however, the future of wasteland spaces and their unique ecologies is uncertain. Recent celebrations of the return of nature to cities in the context of pandemic lock-down measures occlude the extent to which existing spaces of nonhuman life are disappearing. In Berlin, strenuously laboring activists have successfully protected some wasteland spaces as public parks. But many remaining sites are currently lost at a rapid pace to speculative forms of urban development. In the northern district of Pankow, for example, a local real estate developer has recently razed part of an abandoned railway yard and the last city-wide habitat of the endangered natterjack toad (Bufo calamita). Environmental groups have adopted this amphibian as a flagship species in a contentious battle over the wider politics of urban development in the district. At the same time, the flexibilization of nature conservation policy through new mitigation tools like the Ökokonto (eco account) now launched in Berlin, Hamburg, and other cities helps speed up urban development and allows to decouple compensation measures from the actual sites that are being built on. Developers can now mitigate for the destruction of rare inner-urban wasteland ecologies elsewhere, in existing parks on the periphery and even beyond the city limits, dissecting the synthesis between nature and city that has evolved over decades.
In Berlin and many other cities, abandoned infrastructures are a defining feature of the urban landscape. They are repurposed by nonhuman life and provide refuge in the midst of densely built-up environments. Their contemporary destruction or reinvention as parks, challenges us to rethink the place (or placelessness) of nonhuman life in cities and question which forms of nature to tolerate and value, accommodate and co-inhabit urban worlds with in the future, even more urgently now, in the wake of various strategies of accumulation by greening.
This research was funded under the European Research Council Advanced Grant entitled Rethinking Urban Nature.
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Sandra Jasper is Assistant Professor of Geography and Gender at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. Her research interests include urban nature, soundscapes, and feminist theory.