Urban Feral Landscapes

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Urban feral landscapes such as the 12 retroceded hectares of IOR park in Bucharest are sites of social and ecological reappropriation and spaces of alternative ecological, cultural, and economic production to the dominant logics of the city. They are examples of collectively crafted biodiversity, continuously reconfigured through processes and practices of multispecies gardening.

Name of Material in the local and Latin language
Urban feral landscapes/non-prescriptive spaces/maidan (rom.)
Type of Phenomenon
Multispecies gardening involves various ways in which both human and non-human communities engage in direct and indirect practices to attend to, care for, and maintain environments. It encompasses activities that enable, cultivate, maintain, protect, transform, and transfigure landscapes to support and enhance their continued life-worlds and livelihoods.
Commonly Observed Locations
Neglected, abandoned, and/or contested marginal urban landscapes occupied by various ecological and social actors
Frequency and Duration
Daily, seasonal social and ecological practices and processes; multi-year micro and macro political and economic processes

Physical Appearance or Manifestations
Ruderal, feral, and other kinds of vegetal (over)growth, human and non-human spatial appropriation
Underlying Causes or Mechanisms
Socio-ecological resilience within, against, and beyond suspended political, legal, and economic processes.
Related Phenomena or Events
Inhabitation, refuge, appropriation, and caring/maintaining by humans (including everyday leisure activities such as walking, dog walking, sports, picnics etc., but also foraging and squatting, and acts of care such as bringing water) and non-humans (including by ruderal vegetation and feral and other urban-dwelling species). Destruction (arson, tree felling, deliberate poisoning/drying of trees by drilling in their roots, continuously facing the risk of being paved over). Community formation, mobilisation, counter-contestation (protests, actions, activities) social and ecological precarity (linked to temporary uses during transitional phases between development) anti-gentrification mobilisations.

Environmental Impact
Positive: heightened social- and bio-diversity; refuge for plant and animal life in the city, Negative: risk of dominance of certain species deemed nuisances (e.g. invasive, allergenic, disease carrying).
Effects on Human Life and Infrastructure
Ecosystem services: reducing temperatures, purifying the air, and retaining rainwater, sequestering CO2, producing urban soil, ecological corridors, habitats for wildlife. Refuge for practices that might not fit in the dominant urban logic (loitering, cruising, foraging, squatting); reconfiguring relationships between humans and their environment outside organised urban forms (park, square, garden, nature reserve, etc). Political mobilisation for the right to shared life in the city (and against privatisation).
Historical or Cultural Significance
Enduring manifestation of shared human and non-human right to the city and its nature. This is echoed by the Romanian notion of the maidan, a term whose meaning has shifted from referring to an open space inside or at the edge of cities to something akin to a wasteland or feral landscape. The term maidan, however, still carries a socio-ecological imaginary of shared space distinct from Western European bourgeois notions of public space, which might be reclaimed in rethinking the historical and cultural significance of feral landscapes in Bucharest and other cities.

Methods of Observation and Detection
Observation and monitoring through ongoing onsite presence (quotidian, seasonal, exceptional) including daily use and occupation of the site (such as dog walking, jogging, bicycle racing, picnicking, cruising, feeding feral cats living on the site, leaving water out for hedgehogs, watering saplings, taking a shortcut) as well as (artistic) activities and workshops, protests (making of human chains around destroyed areas, weekly protests on site and at city hall) and discussions, planning, and organising around the park’s continued future. Inventorying, witnessing, and 1:1 mapping of trees through a comparison of the scales between humans and trees.
Monitoring Technologies and Equipment
(Artistic) activities and workshops, with the aim of attuning the body to its environment, heightening multisensory observation and observation of the environment through the body, and shifting one’s perception of the relations in which the body is placed. Online, social media, and whatsapp groups sharing and collecting information, observations, and testimonials about past and current activities and events. Onsite mapping of traces of practices and processes that have shaped it through sketches, photographs, sound and video recordings, citizen science/participatory mapping and inventorying of the site’s vegetation using software such as TreePlotter on smartphones with photographic and GPS capability, and measuring tapes.
Data Collection and Analysis Techniques
Onsite presence and occupation, discussions with passers-by through continuous exchange, and sharing of ideas. Archiving of memories and testimonials of historical and current uses of shared and public forms of archiving (online maps, citizen newspapers, social media and whatsapp groups) cultural & artistic regeneration/reproduction, collective & open-ended calculation of eco-benefits of existing and destroyed trees using TreePlotter software to map and draw the practices and processes that have made and transformed the site.
Role of Scientific Institutions and Organizations
Landscape architects, arborists, biologists, ecologists, citizen scientists and other related occupations that can support participatory mapping and inventorying by sharing their knowledge and time.
  • Map of Titan park – also known as Alexandru Ioan Cuza park or IOR park. The area outlined in red is known as the retroceded area of IOR. Urban feral landscapes are part of the continuum of green open spaces in the city, but are distinct in their appearance and in the processes and practices that produce and reproduce them.

    Map of Titan park – also known as Alexandru Ioan Cuza park or IOR park. The area outlined in red is known as the retroceded area of IOR. Urban feral landscapes are part of the continuum of green open spaces in the city, but are distinct in their appearance and in the processes and practices that produce and reproduce them. Image/photo credits: Maria Alexandrescu

  • 3. Textures of paths and structures – Urban feral landscapes are characterised by a certain degree of neglect and abandonment, but also by signs of ecological and social appropriation. Existing infrastructures might be transformed by new ecologies, and new infrastructures might be formed through repeated practices.

    Textures of paths and structures – Urban feral landscapes are characterised by a certain degree of neglect and abandonment, but also by signs of ecological and social appropriation. Existing infrastructures might be transformed by new ecologies, and new infrastructures might be formed through repeated practices. Image/photo credits: Maria Alexandrescu & Andreea David

Urban feral landscapes are instances of entanglements of non-human entities with human infrastructures and have always existed on the margins of (processes of) urbanisation.

They occur in cities everywhere, but their specific configurations are always contingent on the historical and material conditions where and from which they emerge. The material entanglements that constitute urban feral landscapes carry specific imaginaries, which, at times, gather and mobilise more-than-human communities around them. This sets the conditions for practices and processes that might be considered a form of multispecies gardening. This challenges the idea that feral landscapes might exist only through neglect and abandonment. Instead, it suggests alternative approaches to guide and influence more-than-human agencies –either through the mobilisations of multispecies coalitions; or to use Anna Tsing’s formulation, as latent commons, entanglements that might be mobilised in common causes.

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    View of procession after protest – When urban feral landscapes are threatened by enclosure, communities might mobilise through actions and protests. These political actions might be supported by different forms of ongoing presence as ongoing protest and reclamation, but also of care, maintenance, and monitoring. Image/photo credits: aici a fost o padure / aici ar putea fi o padure

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    Textures of community mobilisation - At the same time, urban feral landscapes become sites of community mobilisation and reclamation through practices of occupation and care, whether through picnics, activities, workshops, planting, protests, and a myriad of other daily and seasonal activities. These practices not only play a participatory part in the multispecies gardening of the park, but also work towards supporting and maintaining socio-ecological resilience. Image/photo credits: aici a fost o padure / aici ar putea fi o padure & Andreea David & Maria Alexandrescu

Location

The 12 retroceded ha of IOR park in Bucharest illustrates entanglements and practices that might be mobilised around reclaiming and contesting the enclosure of a feral landscape. Initially constructed in the 1960s under state socialism, this area of IOR park was privatised in 2001 via an act of restitution law and was intended for real estate development. Caught in litigation processes driven by real estate speculation, this area has become a site of social and ecological refuge and re-appropriation and an example of collectively crafted bio- and social diversity, continuously reconfigured through multispecies gardening. Following several trials and appeals, the restitution was deemed legal in 2022 due to the municipality’s failure to prove its use as a park and public amenity. Yet the area’s use by both human and non-human inhabitants persisted in various forms for over 70 years. Attempts to halt this usage included partial physical enclosure and destructive actions to the park’s nature, including the deliberate killing of trees and repeated cases of arson. In response, civic movements have organised protests, actions, and activities to defend, reclaim, and mobilise new forms of shared multispecies inhabitation. These mobilisations make clear the importance of the continued presence, use, and practices and processes of multispecies gardening in both making this landscape and legitimising its continued and future existence.

 

 

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    View of a formerly burned central area of the retroceded IOR area, now field – The retroceded area of the IOR park is an example of a feral landscape, where human actions have transformed the landscape, at times through destructive means, and ecological processes have appropriated the spaces. The endurance of such landscapes speaks to the historical and cultural importance of such places as shared social and ecological spaces, for both the community, but also for the city. Image/photo credits: Maria Alexandrescu

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    Textures of vegetal variation – The environmental disturbances in urban feral landscapes result in heightened biodiversity. Some of these plants might have already existed there, some of these plants emerge spontaneously from seeds brought in by wind, and by birds, humans, and other animals. Image/photo credits: Maria Alexandrescu & Andreea David

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    Maps used for the participatory inventorying of trees – The participatory mapping and inventorying of IOR used software such as TreePlotter, shared by rpr_birou de studii contemporane, in order to calculate the eco-benefits of the vegetation. The area was split into fictional administrative divisions to facilitate the mapping, each with a name determined by the participants. Image/photo credits: aici a fost o padure / aici ar putea fi o padure & rprVerzi

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    Textures of trees living and dead – Mapping and inventorying of trees allows participants to see the destruction but also the richness of the site, what was there and what could still be Textures of trees living and dead – Mapping and inventorying of trees allows participants to see the destruction but also the richness of the site, what was there and what could still be there. Image/photo credits: Maria Alexandrescu & Andreea David

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    Snapshots of tree diameter measuring – Acts of measuring are also acts of bodily engagement: the act of measuring tree diameter is also an act of embracing the trees. In this way, the gestures of citizen scientific inquiry also become new ways of attending to and relating with the nature of feral landscapes. Image/photo credits: aici a fost o padure / aici ar putea fi o padure

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    Textures of tree destruction – The effect of enclosure measures at times facilitates destruction of the habitats formed in these feral landscapes. In IOR, many trees have been drilled in the base and had harmful chemicals poured into these holes in order to dry and kill them and in turn, justify their eventual felling. The community's care and attendance to the destruction is a form not only of monitoring these sites, but also of changing the relationship between humans and these environments. Image/photo credits: Andreea David & Maria Alexandrescu

Product/Effects

Beyond the role feral landscapes play in providing ecosystem services and biodiversity in urban environments, sites such as IOR allow for different ways of engaging with non-human agencies and open up space for more-than-human mobilisations for the shared right to life in the city. This opens up alternatives to neoliberal greening projects that tend to streamline, homogenise, and mediate nature/culture divisions through (capitalist) forms of urban planning and maintenance regimes, further deepening the division between humans and our environment. Bypassing the predetermined, and at times, consumption-oriented relations often reproduced by urban landscape forms such as garden, park, or nature reserve, urban feral landscapes have the potential to shift the social and ecological agencies at play through multispecies gardening.

Written by Maria Alexandrescu and Andreea David

Guided and edited by Gaja Mežnarič Osole