Beyond Concrete guest editor Brian Sholis talks with Matthew Gandy, author of Natura Urbana, about the ecology of concrete, engineered versus spontaneous landscapes, and the politics of design language.
The Bentway’s Beyond Concrete summer season explores the urban ecosystem beneath the Gardiner Expressway, where human-made infrastructure intertwines with flora and fauna. The relationship between concrete and nature is complex and interconnected. In this story series, we’re hearing from experts who engage with these themes in their daily work and have unique perspectives.
Matthew Gandy is a geographer, urban field ecologist, and documentary filmmaker. A professor of geography and fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge, he is the author of the 2022 book Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space, which expands upon his 2017 documentary film with the same title.
Brian Sholis (BS): Let’s begin with concrete. I was intrigued by the studies cited in your book about biodiversity and speciation in urban environments. You mention there are species of mosquitoes, for example, that have evolved to flourish in subway tunnels. Can you share any stories about concrete, or about spaces dense with concrete, that fosters unique ecosystems.
Matthew Gandy (MG): Concrete is fascinating in part because it’s so often aligned with the notion of technocratic modernism and with large-scale infrastructure projects. Of course, the material weathers and changes over time; in recent years, people have become particularly interested in the surface ecologies associated with it. The surfaces of concrete support complex constellations of algae, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Sometimes these generate strange patterns or forms of coloration that can be seen with the naked eye. Or we can send images of those formations to experts who can help us determine which microorganisms are present.
Additionally, concrete structures, particularly decommissioned or abandoned ones, are closely associated with distinctive groupings of plant species. Researchers frequently use the term cosmopolitan ecologies to indicate that the species in a given urban environment have arrived from all over the world.
One last point about your use of the term speciation: Not only do urban sites often have greater biodiversity than a nearby agricultural landscape, but they also often prompt accelerated rates of evolution. Different urban infrastructures can act like island ecosystems, where separation can accelerate the emergence of new species or subspecies. Sometimes urban conditions can be extreme, in terms of temperature or wind exposure or other factors, and it’s fascinating to discover what organisms adapt to and thrive in these environments.
BS: You brought up my use of speciation, but I also want to call the term biodiversity into question, since early in the book you write about the “ambiguous implications” of that word.
MG: It’s always useful to pause and think about the words or concepts we’re using: how they emerged, how they’re deployed in different contexts. Biodiversity is aligned with a science-informed global environmental perspective that evokes the need to protect the abundance of nature and in particular more vulnerable species. There is a politics of ecological endangerment related to it. That term, plus others like nature or ecology are used in both a narrower scientific context and a looser cultural context. It’s important to try and understand what we mean whenever we use these terms.
BS: Indeed, politics is a thread that runs through the book. To consider the larger picture for a moment, you claim that one major challenge facing ecological sciences at the moment is understanding how environments are historically produced. Can you elaborate on how weaving historical forces into our understanding of how environments change can enrich our understanding of urban nature?
MG: There’s been an oscillation, if you like, between an earlier focus on the production of metropolitan nature—things like parks, gardens, and other infrastructure. More recently the idea of spontaneous nature has emerged—sites without an obvious human intentionality behind them. Sometimes these different forms of nature coexist in the same space. In some recent park designs, you have areas that promote the spontaneous dynamics of nature, whereas other parts are intricately managed and engineered. There are interesting possibilities for design to synthesize these different conceptions of nature, but to do so well involves understanding, as best you can, how and why each conception came into being.
Creating socially inclusive forms of knowledge production is important. Everyone can contribute to the exciting collaborative project of better understanding our environments.
BS: Another angle from which I’d like to ask the question of history has to do with landscape study and with popularizers such as the British writer Robert G. Macfarlane, who focus on language, history, and experience more than scientific observation. What are your thoughts on that kind of vernacular landscape criticism and writing?
MG: There has always been an interesting set of relationships between vernacular knowledge and what we might consider to be institutionalized forms of scientific knowledge. In general, nature writing is really flourishing as a literary genre right now. I’m sure many things contribute to this, including concern with environmental threats or the pandemic lockdowns prompting people to engage with the nature that exists on their doorsteps. There is also an interesting rise in citizen science, which has its own interface with academic or institutional knowledge.
All of this is very important, not least because it helps to develop new forms of what we can call environmental citizenship. Anything that contributes to a higher level of public engagement with nature is good; anything that gives people the feeling they can contribute to the study or monitoring of environmental change is also good. I support the things that contribute to people not being simply passive observers or disconnected from their environments.
BS: That answer leads me to another thread that runs through the book, which is your advocacy for scientists and others who have direct, sustained engagement with urban nature to better understand and integrate the observations of amateurs, artists, and even children.
MG: Yes, there is an affective dimension to environmental knowledge that is important but can get lost when you’re noting down the number of birds or plants you see. There is something inspirational, in personal and cultural terms, about attentive observation of our everyday environments. Many different people feel that, and creating socially inclusive forms of knowledge production is important. Everyone can contribute to the exciting collaborative project of better understanding our environments.
BS: I was intrigued, in particular, by your frequent citation of artists. One who was new to me and whose work excited me is Paul-Armand Gette, who you say created a kind of “parallel science” and which seems to offer an early model of successful artistic intervention into conversations about urban nature.
MG: Yes, Gette is a really fascinating example of an artist working with the spontaneous elements of urban nature. I first came across his work at the Pompidou Center in Paris, which displayed a project of his devoted simply to cataloging what was on the site before the museum was built. When I later interviewed him in Paris, in order to get a better understanding of his work, I realized how fascinating a figure he is. He represents an interesting lineage, connecting Surrealist, experimental work made between the world wars to a post-war line of ecological art.
He views the city itself as a zone of ecological or botanical discovery, which links him to the Berlin School of urban ecology and figures like Herbert Sukopp. They were all inspired by actually existing nature in cities. What could be found on an ordinary street corner? Common, interstitial spaces become spaces of enchantment and discovery.
BS: And bringing to that active observation as few biases or preconceptions about what is “natural” as possible.
MG: Yes. Here, I think some of the political and ideological strands come into play. There is often careless discussion about what constitutes “invasive” species, which structures what species or ecological relations are worthy of attention and concern. I’ve been influenced by Susanne Hauser’s emphasis on the word adventive rather than invasive to describe species that have arrived from elsewhere.
This is an area where urban ecology can create a critical discourse in relation to more ideologically charged variants of culture. To take just one example, far-right activists in some Italian cities have attacked trees they considered to be not part of the Italian landscape. It’s important to recognize that scientific discourse and scientific concepts are not neutral.
BS: When I imagine what the average city dweller might consider an “ideologically charged” aspect of urban life, I think of gentrification. And I imagine people view gentrification through economic and political terms. So I’d like to ask what other vantage points—ecological or otherwise—can be brought to bear on how we think about urban (re)development.
MG: Looking at the marginal spaces of nature in cities, at what you could call vernacular public spaces, you see how often they’re used actively—especially for recreation. These marginal spaces are often in parts of the city that have least access to more formal kinds of public space. They can help us see how resources are distributed unequally and open up a possibility for negotiating how certain marginal spaces might be kept intact, as public space or even nature reserves, in the face of development pressures. It’s not easy: one thing I found when interviewing scientists working on urban ecology is that often study sites that had great personal significance for them were destroyed or cleared.
BS: What you describe feels intertwined with what gets described as environmental racism, which brings up another throughline in your book about the ethical obligations we have to nonhuman species. Can the ethical questions that arise from attentive observation to our environment potentially lead to more just frameworks and ways of thinking about our relations:
MG: The whole question of ethics and nature is fascinating. Research for my book led me to reflect, among other things, on how urban cultures are often removed from the everyday reality of food production, or how some societies choose to intervene in nature to achieve certain public-health objectives. These conversations are philosophical and complicated and get bound up in questions of design rather quickly. It’s important to keep them rooted in local contexts. A positive design solution in one city might have adverse effects in another, as when a popular plant-covered “forest” tower in Italy was copied in China and the radically different environment led to persistent problems with dengue-fever threats.
Research with a comparative dimension is not only important but also helps expand the imaginative scope of urban and environmental thinking.
BS: Toward the end of the book, you coin the phrase forensic ecologies and suggest that it can help “intensify research.” I took that to mean that the approach can make research more self-aware and critical, more contextual and historically situated.
MG: The term draws from both forensic entomology and forensic architecture. I think the latter is an absolutely original contribution to architectural theory. I also have a double life as a geographer and an entomologist. So it makes sense that I am drawn to the idea of synthesizing these different fields. In both cases, you’re using patient, structured observation to reconstruct events like crimes. Materially and metaphorically you can see our global environmental problems as global crime scenes, and I like the idea of using a variety of indicators—plants, insects, other organisms—to build a more clear and compelling understanding of environmental change.
The forensic architecture way of working is also particularly fascinating when it involve bringing together a range of experts to not only produce knowledge collaboratively, but to do so transparently. To talk about who is funding the research, to state its purpose clearly, to share the results with the public, that kind of thing. I think it’s a powerful model for developing a stronger consensus about environmental processes that are taking place.
BS: You’ve done extensive research in Berlin and in London, where you now live. But I know you’ve also worked in the global south, specifically India. If you feel comfortable hazarding generalizations, can you talk about the differences between working in such economically and culturally distinct places?
MG: I’ve done research in Nigeria and India. In both cases the work led me to challenge or test a variety of the conceptual ideas and historical frameworks that largely emerged from the global north. When we think about urban theory, certain cities dominate our understanding of how the modern industrial metropolis emerged: London, Paris, New York, Chicago. Rethinking these biases or defaults is healthy and useful.
It’s also important to think about the geography of global knowledge production, and how researchers in the global south will use ideas from Europe or North America as a template, perhaps because they think that’s what journal editors and conference conveners might want. So I’m eager to continue exploring ways to ensure a two-way dialogue that draws upon sources of knowledge and insights from multiple traditions. Research with a comparative dimension, which scholars like Jennifer Robinson have written about, is not only important but also conceptually enriching. It helps expand the imaginative scope of urban and environmental thinking.
BS: Returning to the idea of grassroots observation, I’d like to ask a last question that harkens back to the personal stories you share about exploring wild spaces as a child in 1970s London and your more recent work doing voluntary environmental-data collection. For people not directly involved in landscape study, what is your invitation to help them get involved and better understand and appreciate the unnoticed spaces in their cities?
MG: My invitation is to stop, look, and listen—to slow down. Isabelle Stengers has popularized “slow science,” and the idea has broad implications for how we experience urban environments and urban nature. You may be in conversation with someone and some kind of unexpected interruption—perhaps the sound of a flock of birds flying overhead—can provoke your interest. If you know what those birds are, it can open new avenues for you to interact with others, it can invite local conversation.
The more knowledge we have about nature, the better we can identify plants and other organisms, the richer and more gratifying interactions we can have with each other. There is a treasure trove of knowledge waiting to be discovered; an image of the city as a place where global history unfolds awaits you as you walk through city streets.