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Jennifer Foster, Post-Industrial Urban Greenspace Ecology, Aesthetics and Justice, Oxon: Routledge, 2023, 164 p.

ISBN: 9781032410777
Aurore Caignet

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  • 1 Gentrification is a process that refers to the regeneration of a working-class and/or deprived are (...)

1The main focus of Post-Industrial Urban Greenspace Ecology, Aesthetics and Justice is not industrial ruins per se. Indeed, there is already a significant number of publications on the topic, which were written by scholars working in the fields of cultural geography, art history, industrial archaeology, literature, anthropology, amongst others, one of the precursors in this area being cultural geographer Tim Edensor, author of Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics, and Materiality (2005). Although this publication is used as a reference by Jennifer Foster, who is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Canada, her interest is more specifically directed towards urban ecology, as well as alternative aesthetics and approaches to urban planning in cities that still bear the mark of deindustrialisation. The introduction sheds light on some of the detrimental aspects of deindustrialisation, such as job losses and the disappearance and/or displacement of local communities, socio-economic polarisation, unequal access to greenspaces in low-income neighbourhoods and exposure to air pollution and soil contamination partly derived from social and racial stigmatisation. The author thus argues that “[r]acial injustices produce uneven, environmental conditions across cities […]” (19). Poor spatial access to greenspaces would therefore be correlated to racial, ethnic and socio-economic factors. Jennifer Foster also offers a few examples of public engagement and community action in order to shape decision-making processes and protect post-industrial urban greenspace from the risk of destruction by gentrifying1 and privatising agents.

2This book may be of great interest to those who are concerned with histories and memories of disused industrial places – their remains are considered as archives by the author – and their significance in rapidly changing urban settings. Even though some definitions are sometimes needed for a wider readership (e.g. the “neoliberalization” of the city), researchers from a variety of disciplines (urban geography, landscape architecture, urban planning, environmental planning, amongst others) are provided with a conceptual framework, especially in a second chapter, that may be applied to the study of post-industrial sites in cities as contested places and novel ecologies, such as new greenspaces which materialised unintentionally amongst derelict industrial infrastructure and which are now home to non-human inhabitants. These themes are developed in three chapters, each one being dedicated to a different case study, thus allowing the author to compare and contrast several approaches to urban planning, as well as experiments with urban greenspaces in post-industrial settings. The reader will also find theoretical insight into “everyday aesthetics” and multisensory experiences in relation to the way humans perceive, and interact with, nature in urban environments, as well as ecological politics and environmental (in)justice.

Environmental aesthetics in the post-industrial city

3According to the author, there is a lack of interest towards nature as found in cities from scientists and naturalists, because they may be more preoccupied with a form of nature imagined as pristine, found in a non-urban, non-degraded environment. She draws on philosopher Emily Brady’s idea that one’s experience of the environment may be influenced by social conventions which make one more inclined to adhere to what is commonly accepted as beautiful or aesthetically positive, and thus appreciate dominant Western landscape prototypes such as “the sublime” and “the picturesque” (Brady), hence a rejection of ecological systems that do not conform to these aesthetic typologies. In this respect, post-industrial greenspaces found in urban environments do not correspond to what Foster calls the norms of Western urban planning and design. Yet, former industrial sites offer a chance to also accept alternative and unconventional aesthetics so as to avoid their systematic conversion into tidy and attractive open spaces that reflect the tastes of affluent citizens.

Urban greenspaces as novel ecosystems

4Urban ecology is still a young field, and this new study shows that urban ecosystems, which do not conform to conventional environmental aesthetics, are worthy of serious consideration. As the author explains, cities are endowed with high levels of biodiversity thanks, in part, to the habitat provided by various buildings, warmer temperatures that extend growing and flowering periods, and even the inadvertent facilitation of seed dispersal through human activity and mobility. She mobilises the concept of “novel ecosystems”, which was coined by Chapin and Starfield in 1997, to describe ecological systems that thrive in post-industrial settings, given the fact that they do not result from human management and are therefore self-sustaining; this correspondence also stems from Foster’s realisation that “[…] where environmental conditions bear no similarity to those that preceded industrialization, novel ecosystems are the norm. In fact, they present vital life options that are anything but degraded, working against the legacy of industrial harm to renew life” (Foster 26).

5The focus of her research is not greenspace that is carefully curated to please the many who adhere to dominant aesthetic conventions, but urban greenspace which is unregulated and may seem neglected and even uninviting amongst post-industrial ruins. However, such “landscape scars”, as she calls them, may be particularly valuable to those who share a personal connection with these places of memory. Although Foster claims that they “[…] are often honoured by local communities as emblems of previous times when things were different, before the hardship of industrial decline” (3), one may also argue that, to some, they are also physical reminders of difficult times characterised by poor working conditions and a polluted living and working environment.

Ecological gentrification2

  • 2 Green, environmental or eco-gentrification (Quastel) refers to the process through which greening (...)

6More often than not, though, disused industrial sites – whether they are dilapidated factories, old railway tracks, quarries and the likes – are sought after and not simply “disregarded” – that is the term used in the book summary – once they become obsolete. Perhaps Foster could have made it even clearer that, since the beginning of the 21st century, they have become increasingly valuable to city planners and property developers, including those wishing to convert post-industrial sites into greenspaces. After all, as recreational areas for the public good, they may also serve as marketing tools to add value to a particular location. As a matter of fact, the author’s previous research explored the rise of redevelopment initiatives integrating the preservation or creation of post-industrial greenspaces, for this practice is deemed both sustainable and desirable, regardless of the complexity of the planning process which is likely to involve the public and private sectors, as well as non-profit organisations and community-based groups (Foster and Sandberg). Yet, the theme of eco-gentrification is not developed in this new publication which already tackles many other issues.

Environmental justice and the instrumentalisation of ecology

7While there is already a plethora of case studies dealing with the gentrification induced by the redevelopment of former industrial sites and neighbourhoods, the author does not dwell on this topic and instead develops a subtheme dedicated to “the socio-politics of environmental aesthetics” and the political issues that the aesthetic dimensions of post-industrial greenspaces raise. The latter may indeed be embroiled in decisions about where to invest and which aesthetic preferences to prioritise, as well as in short-sighted and environmentally unjust policies, thus generating a deeply unequal treatment of people. Based on field research and informal on-site interviews in Toronto, Milwaukee and Paris, and the analysis of policy and planning documents, archives, reports, films and documentaries, three case studies offer original thinking and examples on the question of environmental justice in an urban context. What is considered as a modern environmental justice movement, which came about four decades ago in the US, was an activists-led reaction to the environmental inequalities and the racism affecting disadvantaged, marginalised and racialised populations (Holifield, Chakraborty and Walker); the field of environmental justice is still expanding and has generated interdisciplinary studies in humanities and social sciences.

8The present study is concerned with ecology being used as “politics by other means”, for instance when greenspaces are correlated to the erasure of communities and their histories – those who are poor, working-class or Indigenous communities – and help mask the persistence of environmental degradation generated by former industrial activities. The Spit, a dump that became a bird refuge in Toronto, Canada, is a case in point since, to quote Jennifer Foster, “[the] environmental aesthetics of the Spit also obscure the perilous environmental conditions that wildlife are exposed to as they are drawn to toxic habitat” (Foster 10). It must be noted that whilst the author draws attention to ethical issues relating to the exposure of wildlife to contaminants found in polluted post-industrial greenspaces, she also wonders whether the latter should remain entirely unmanaged. As these essential questions remain open to further debate, the idea of creating a shared commons (which is briefly hinted at in a chapter presenting the conceptual framework) provides another approach that would deserve further consideration when discussing post-industrial urban greenspace ecology, aesthetics and justice.

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Bibliographie

ANGELO Hillary, “Added Value? Denaturalizing the ‘Good’ of Urban Greening”, Geography Compass, vol. 13, 2019, 1-14.

BRADY Emily, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

CHAPIN F. Stuart and Anthony M. STARFIELD, “Time Lags and Novel Ecosystems in Response to Transient Climatic Change in Arctic Alaska”, Climatic Change, vol. 35, 1997, 449-461.

EDENSOR Tim, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics, and Materiality, Oxford: Berg, 2005.

FOSTER Jennifer & Anders SANDBERG, “Post-Industrial Urban Greenspace: Justice, Quality of Life and Environmental Aesthetics in Rapidly Changing Urban Environments”, Local Environment, vol. 19, no 10, 2014, 1043-1048.

HOLIFIELD Ryan, CHAKRABORTY JJayajit & Gordon WALKER (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice, Oxon: Routledge, 2018.

QUASTEL Noah, “Political Ecologies of Gentrification”, Urban Geography, vol. 30, no 7, 2009, 94-725.

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Notes

1 Gentrification is a process that refers to the regeneration of a working-class and/or deprived area by middle- and upper-class incomers who gradually replace earlier residents, the latter being priced out and displaced because of increased property values.

2 Green, environmental or eco-gentrification (Quastel) refers to the process through which greening helps make an area more desirable to wealthier in-movers, thereby increasing the cost of living and the property value of an area and excluding socially vulnerable residents (Angelo).

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Aurore Caignet, « Jennifer Foster, Post-Industrial Urban Greenspace Ecology, Aesthetics and Justice, Oxon: Routledge, 2023, 164 p. »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol 22. n°57 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 février 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/lisa/15886 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/lisa.15886

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Auteur

Aurore Caignet

Aurore Caignet is Lecturer in British studies at Rennes 2 University, France. She completed her PhD in 2018 with a thesis entitled Representing, Reinterpreting and Reimagining Industrial Heritage: The Promotion of Renewal in Post-Industrial Cities in the North of England (1970-2010). Her work is focused on industrial heritage and its representation, industrial landscapes, as well as on the regeneration of post-industrial cities and the reshaping of their image and identity.

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