Dirty Old Town

There are parts of the city where the remnants of heavy industry remain, relics of a bygone age when factories outnumbered offices. It wasn’t long ago that these areas bustled with activity, but many are now little more than urban wastelands, a stark reminder of how quickly ‘progress’ can render things obsolete. These places were collateral damage as the industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution. Ghosts of a vanished world.

There’s a bleak beauty about these places (as opposed to Black Beauty, who was a horse). One of my favourite spots sits in the shadow of two giant gas towers, painted in claret and blue in honour of the local football team. These cast-iron monoliths, scheduled to be pulled down at any time as part of decommissioning of the long-abandoned gas works, are a familiar and much-loved part of the city skyline, and will be fondly remembered by many. Extending away from these towers in every direction is a desolate landscape that shows the influence of the hand of man at every turn, including the infamous monstrosity known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (or the Gravelly Hill Interchange to give it it’s correct moniker).

Two of the city’s many rivers flow through this dystopian dreamworld, both of which having been straightened and forced through concrete box sections and culverts to fit around the roads and factories. The canalised rivers sit directly alongside actual canals, constructed to transport goods in the days before road and rail. In the industrial heyday of the early to mid 20th century these watercourses would have shown a resplendent array of colours and odours resulting from the reaction of myriad heavy metals and chemicals discharged from sundry businesses (incidentally the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined to describe the music that was born in these industrial areas, the pounding rhythms a facsimile of the noise from presses and forges that would operate around the clock). Thankfully environmental standards are much higher now, and many of these urban waterways are rich in wildlife, including the charismatic kingfisher. They remain the lifeblood of the area, vibrant green and blue corridors through a desert of concrete and steel.

The concrete desert is surprisingly diverse. A small number of active businesses still remain, survivors of a dying age, but these are vastly outnumbered by a mosaic of factories closed and factories gone, vast tracts of urban waste in their stead. The term urban waste has a negative connotation, but it’s something of a misnomer. It describes an endlessly fascinating range of land uses, the most interesting of which are those areas where nature has begun to gain a toehold once again, having been kept at bay for so long. A proper ecologist would never use the term urban waste, of course. Us nerdy types prefer descriptions such as ‘early pioneer successional vegetation’ or ‘open mosaic habitat on previously developed land’, both rather dry descriptions of what planning policy refers to as brownfield land (to distinguish it from the green belt, you see). The plants and animals that thrive in these areas are an intriguing and hardy bunch, forming a unique community type that is rare outside of these anthropogenic zones. Characteristic species include ragwort, rosebay, mugwort and nettle, all things that are the bane of gardeners but provide a superb nectar source for pollinating insects. The loose, friable substrate of many demolished sites also provides nesting opportunities for a broad range of invertebrates, including solitary bees and wasps. Coupled with the omnipresent butterfly-bush, the value of these areas to insects is obvious, and where things are valuable to insects they tend to support a host of additional species further up the food chain. One such species is the black redstart, a beautiful bird about the size of a robin, which is amongst the rarest of breeding species in the country. This bird has a curious habitat niche, favouring those remnant industrial landscapes (often near water) that provide a rich selection of potential nest sites and abundant invertebrate prey. Traditional heartlands for this species have included the London docklands and cities including Birmingham and Sheffield, although it remains scarce and elusive to this day.

Our half-demolished industrial landscapes have long inspired artists of all descriptions, from the classic to the modern. One of my favourites is Eliot Hodgkin, perhaps most known for his depictions of WWII bomb sites after the blitz. These sites are often strikingly similar to the brownfield land that I describe above, and in Rus In Urbe (1946) he captures a host of familiar pioneer plant species with a backdrop of wartime London beyond. These species: rosebay, dock, dandelion and nettle, are all common sights on a walk through the urban wasteland. His work has a simple beauty, and I urge you to seek it out.

Sadly, many of the landscapes similar to those painted by Eliot Hodgkin are disappearing, lost to urban regeneration. It’s entirely understandable; to most these sites are inherently unattractive when compared to ‘green’ sites, and often occur in areas where investment in new infrastructure is desperately needed. One could argue that the tendency to develop these areas as cinema complexes or retail parks with the same five shops and restaurants isn’t the best use of the land, but that’s a discussion for another day. What is very clear is that the loss of these wonderful urban biodiversity sinks is as regrettable as it is inevitable.

Sometimes the ugliest things can be the most special, or at least that’s what I was told frequently as a child. These brownfield mosaic habitats are a true national treasure, but are destined never to be valued as such.

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