Reframing Unruly Natures: Graffiti Pier as an Alternative Imaginary for Urban Parks

Authors: Preston Welker*, University of Calgary
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Urban Geography, Feminist Geographies
Keywords: Unruly, Nature, Parks, Imaginaries, Urban Political Ecology
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 17
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Urban parks have long embodied particularly modernist imaginaries of what “nature” is and behavior should be in cities. Scholars of urban political ecology have shown how city parks are produced through complex socio-material relations, where certain natures are labeled “wild” or “dangerous” to legitimize their governance into democratic, tamed urban spaces (Gandy, 2002; Kaika, 2004). This paper centers the former and asks, how might the “unruliness” of natures and spaces be reconceived to illuminate an emancipatory politics? Answering calls for radical alternative socio-environmental imaginaries (Ernstson & Swyngedouw, 2018; Kaika, 2018), I extend the concept of “unruly women” (Rowe, 1990, 1995; see also Branfman, 2019) to the more-than-human to reframe a popular informal park commonly labeled illegal, blighted, overgrown, and dangerous: Graffiti Pier, in Philadelphia. Taking a grounding urban natures approach (Ernstson & Sörlin, 2019), I examine this post-industrial relic of crumbling concrete arches juxtaposed with a kaleidoscope of colorful paintings, regrown woodlands, and teeming with trespassers. Employing historical and visual discourse analysis, I argue Graffiti Pier exhibits a particular kind of unruly nature that subverts traditional imaginaries of urban parks, and their governance, to offer dwellers a uniquely liberated space. Yet similar to “unruly women”, these transgressions are met with controversy, and entangled activism, policing, and accumulation imperatives as efforts mount to transform Graffiti Pier into an official public park. Reframing the unruliness of nature can conjure radical alternative imaginaries of what a “park” can be and offer, while simultaneously rupturing the dueling binaries of nature and the city.

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