UCLouvain Honorary Doctor Matthew Gandy, whose documentary Natura Urbana focuses on Berlin, is fascinated by urban wastelands.
Matthew Gandy holds a PhD in geography from the London School of Economics and is professor of cultural and historical geography at the University of Cambridge, where he leads the ERC Advanced Grant Rethinking urban nature project.
Are these really ‘wastelands’?
They’re rich in biodiversity. They begin as tabula rasa – Berlin’s bomb sites, say, or other kinds of abandoned areas – then plants and invertebrates appear, many rare and endangered, some having arrived on the wind or on birds’ feet. Over time such spaces will revert to wild urban forest. But they’re also important culturally – artists flock to them – and socially – marginal spaces in neighbourhoods that often don’t have access to public green space. Berlin has protected a few of these spaces as nature reserves or public parks, but in almost every city they’re under intense development pressure because they’re seen as empty.
So what you found in Berlin applies to other cities?
To some extent but we need to recognise that the European urban experience is not the centre of the universe, and thus widen the discussion over what we understand as landscape and nature. In my landscape course at Cambridge, for example, I’ve added material about Japanese and Chinese landscapes to step outside a narrow European-American frame. In a similar spirit, Berlin’s Wasteland Twinning Network holds ceremonies involving scientists, artists, writers and activists to ‘twin’ wastelands in different cities worldwide to highlight their potential as alternative cultural spaces.
What unusual species have you encountered in urban sites?
In north London I’ve done research on a fly that looks and even buzzes like a bumble bee but is completely harmless, and very rare, otherwise birds wouldn’t assume it had a sting and would eat it. It’s a Batesian mimic (an insect that resembles a poisonous or stinging insect but is harmless) with the scientific name Pocota personata, and a wonderful example of what unexpected organisms can flourish in a city. Batesian mimics such as this fly are often associated with rotting wood, and very old or fallen trees are an unusual ecological space, especially in cities.
How do you work with your students?
I like to take them outside the classroom and visit sites. Because I’m interested in cinematic geographies and filmmaking, I also like to take them to films in fully equipped auditoria to experience the cinematic landscape as a powerful visual and acoustic experience. I also hold writing workshops to encourage them to be imaginative and think of writing as a craft that takes time to develop.
What might cities look like in 20 years?
There’s a lot of anxiety over the future of cities. How will they withstand climate change, flooding, high temperatures, economic restructuring, and other challenges? I think cities can be considered experimental zones where culture and science explore how to live with environmental change and social difference. Cities can serve as urban refugia where nature is protected and flourishes. Socially, cities point to ways people can live with each other and with nature. Politically, we’re seeing a widespread metropolitan versus anti-metropolitan divide, and urban nature is part of the debate over building more inclusive and progressive cities.
Does your research address that debate?
Much of my conceptual work is in urban political ecology. I’ve tried to modify that conceptual framework, for example, by suggesting that social sciences take biological sciences more seriously. The word ‘ecology’, for instance, is often used as a metaphor rather than being part of a rigorous interdisciplinary approach. I’m also interested in how agency can extend beyond the individual human subject. Complex kinds of agency involve people and non-human nature, and urban wastelands provide a perfect stage to explore these socioecological entanglements.
The UCLouvain Science and Technology Centre has awarded the title of Doctor Honoris Causa to four leading scientists: Prof. Isabel Arends (University of Utrecht), Prof. Tim Benton (University of Leeds), Prof. Yves Bréchet (INP Grenoble) and Prof. Matthew Gandy.
This article appears in the December 2020 - January-February 2021 edition Louvain[s]