Merely Interesting? Wasteland Aesthetics and Late Capitalist Urbanization

Authors: Maros Krivy*, University of Cambridge / Estonian Academy of Arts
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Social Theory
Keywords: wastelands, urban nature, urban political economy, aesthethics, new materialism, non-human, cybernetics, Tallinn
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Napoleon, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 41st Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 1965 Kevin Lynch characterized the wasteland as "a magnificent resource for recreation," foretelling the ambiguous reception of wastelands in urban geography and design. I suggest to move beyond enduring binaries (ugly/beautiful, dangerous/uncanny, stigma/heterotopia), focusing on the speculative valorization of the apparently valueless instead. I interpret wastelands in terms of being 'interesting' (Sianne Ngai), associating their interest to designers with a post-Romantic trope of nature as a self-organizing potential. The surge in 'wasteland aesthetics,' I suggest further, is intertwined with a politico-economic sense to interest in late capitalist urbanization.

Firstly, I study the "High Line effect": the aesthetics of ruderal plants and other spontaneous forms of nature commodified and instrumentalized for real estate speculation and gentrification. Abandoned inner city infrastructures are now routinely converted into linear parks, facilitating individual sports necessitating linear movement. Wasteland regeneration is a process that is as much politico-economic ("magnificent resources") as bio-political ("recreation").

I observe, secondly, that while the wasteland is a powerful trope of post-humanist, new materialist and non-representational geographies (including its very challenge of treating wastelands as wastelands), there lurks a danger of a neo-cybernetic reaction where the wasteland is interpreted metonymically as a figure of urban self-organization itself. In this latter sense, popularized within "big data" urbanisms and GIS-driven geographies, the urban is naturalized in complexity science terms, where every fact is potentially interesting. Yet this also means substituting urban politics with "gardening" metaphors, while rehashing Hayekian argument that rejects the political itself as incompatible with nature's complexity and self-organizing, emergent properties.

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