Written as part of my BA Geography course, this conceptual essay explores ruination, aesthetics, decay, and the role landscape architects play in shaping experiences of urban modernity

The essay charts the genealogical contours of ‘urban wastelands’ as capitalist modernity’s resources and discards, unpacking and dramatizing the aesthetic politics, tensions, and paradoxes that underpin urbanization and urban as processes. It grounds the at-times excessive and pornographic celebration of ‘urban wastelands’ and ruins as sites of potential and freedom, staging a vital intervention into debates over the aesthetic textures of waste and the erasures of ‘ruin porn’ and post-industrial imaginaries.

The paradoxes latent in the ‘urban wastelands’ of the post-industrial city set up a problem space in contemporary landscape architecture concerning whether we can transform industrial ruins and ‘wastelands’ into parks in a way that acknowledges their past uses or whether the ruin fetish is inescapable.

Introduction: the ‘wasting’ tendencies of urban modernity

“[Urban] modernity is always incomplete, always moving on, and always full of hubris” (Dawdy, 2010, p. 762), as a temporal ideology that valorises “newness, rupture, and linear plot lines” (Harvey, 1990; Dawdy, 2010, p. 762). This “cult of the new” (Leach, 1993, p. 3) is twisted up in constantly shifting, paradoxical entanglements of creation and ruination (Berman, 1983; Harvey, 1989, 1990). Urban modernity, a “unity of disunity” (Berman, 1983, p. 15), is a “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish” (Berman, 1983, p. 15), where to be modern is to be in an urban condition where “[a]ll that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels, 2020, p. 6).

In this way, capitalist urban modernity is constantly embroiled in a perpetual cycle of creative destruction, where urban futures arrive at the cost of urban pasts, and urban presents melt away at a moment’s notice (Berman, 1983; Harvey, 1989, 1990). The factories and offices of the present become the ruins of the future, as less profitable and less valuable buildings and spaces are disposed of (Edensor, 2005a). So, as urbanization and urban as processes unfold, they leave behind ‘urban wastelands’, urban pasts deemed irrelevant, useless, and of no value to the urban present.

The aesthetics of these urban wastelands are what this extended essay critically attends to. Why aesthetics? Aesthetics are vital and central to urban modernity’s stories of value attribution, as aesthetics have power (Matless, 1998; Edensor, 2005a; Ghertner, 2010). Areas deemed ‘ugly’ are tucked out of sight, as the ‘wasted’, ruined, by-products of urban expansion and development (de Solà-Morales, 1995; Edensor, 2005a). Productivist narratives of urban modernity and ‘progress’ cast ruined, ‘wasted’ spaces as spaces of nothing, as spaces where nothing happens, as non-functional tera nulli, to legitimate the replacement, filling-in, and clearing of ‘wastelands’ (Edensor, 2005a). Assumptions and scriptings of ruined and ‘wasted’ space as ‘lacking’, ‘depressing’, and full of ‘deviant’ acts are laden with aesthetic evaluations of ruins as ‘ugly’ (Edensor, 2005a). This production of normative mainstream aesthetic tastes excludes spaces, places, and materials that do not align with the dominant aesthetic vision, a vision of what spaces should and should not be in a modern city (Cresswell, 1996).

The urban and urbanization are multi-scalar processes of socio-spatial transformation that tend towards the planetary but are crucially (re)materialised and encountered on-the-ground through the city as prism and material thing (Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Zeiderman, 2018; Angelo and Goh, 2021). Urban sites, like the ruin and wasteland, are temporary materializations and manifestations, articulations of ongoing networks of urban transformation and socio-spatial restructuring (Davidson and Iveson, 2015). Using urban sites in cities as windows and portals allows us to work through debates about the nature of the ‘urban’ (Roy, 2016). Urban as process and suite of metabolic flows is not “seamless” and “ethereal”, but instead is underpinned by “thick, heavy, and lengthy process[es] of metabolic reorganization of the earth’s surface” that are embedded in material realities, have spatial coordinates, and occur in a tangible temporality of the yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Ibañez and Katsikis, 2014; Gandy, 2022). Delving into the ‘ruined’ spaces of urban wastelands allows us to explore points of interjection where ideologically-loaded narratives of urban progress can be critiqued and unpacked, and where the tensions between the production of urban wastelands as discard and their consumption as aesthetic resource can be interrogated (Edensor, 2005a).

The remainder of this extended essay charts the genealogical contours of ‘urban wasteland’ as capitalist modernity’s resources and discards, unpacking and dramatizing the aesthetic politics, tensions, and paradoxes that underpin urbanization and urban as processes. It does this through five interconnected conceptual movements. The first section works through the variegated conceptions and theoretical compositions of wasteland as a point of departure. In section two and three, the essay turns to look at how ‘urban wastelands’ are simultaneously the aesthetic discards and resources of urban modernity, delving into the vital tensions of waste and waste’s intrinsic, situated paradoxes. The fourth section, fetish, grounds the at-times excessive and pornographic celebration of ‘urban wastelands’ and ruins as sites of potential and freedom, staging a vital intervention into debates over the aesthetic textures of waste and the erasures of ‘ruin porn’ and post-industrial imaginaries. The final section draws out the key themes discussed in this extended essay: the paradoxical realities and representations of ‘urban wastelands’ as urban modernity’s discard-resources.

1. Wasteland

The contemporary urban condition has resulted in a “dissolution of […] landscape unity” and aesthetic coherence (Nohl, 2001, p. 224) as urban modernity involves a plurality of aesthetic alterations (Nohl, 2001; Edensor, 2005a; Gandy, 2013). The ‘un-scenic’ aesthetic of ‘urban wastelands’ unsettle the familiarity of urban landscapes, ‘an-aesthetic’, smooth designed spaces, and the progress-oriented and novelty-fetishizing logics of modernity (Saito, 1998; Edensor, 2005a; Gandy, 2013). But what are ‘urban wastelands’ and how are they conceptualised?

Following Gandy (2013), I argue that urban wastelands, as key features of many urban and post-industrial landscapes, are entangled in a suite of utilitarian discourses about ‘empty’ and ‘unproductive’ urban spaces. Waste- implies a normative tonality, while -land implies a spatiality and materiality, such that wasteland is a spatialisation of normative ideas about what is productive and who and what are valid users and uses of urban space. Wasteland is, thus, a spatialised allure towards urban emptiness in a Euro-American cultural imagination, as wasteland and its multifarious linguistic expressions, including the German word Brache, all share an emphasis on the unproductive characteristics of ‘wasteland’ sites compared to other urban land uses, like industry and commerce (Gandy, 2013; Figure 1).

To move away from the emphasis of ‘wasteland’ on the utilitarian characteristics, or rather lack-thereof, of these spaces, an alternative conceptual lexicon has emerged that re-values the discards of capitalist urban modernity (Gandy, 2013). ‘Urban wastelands’ have been (re)conceptualised in this way as ‘terrain vagues’ (de Solà-Morales, 1995), ‘superfluous landscapes’ (Nielsen, 2002), ‘dead zones’ and ‘voids’ (Doron, 2000), ‘loose spaces’ (Franck and Stevens, 2007), ‘drosscapes’ (Berger, 2006), ‘interstices’ (Tonnelat, 2008), ‘ambivalent landscapes’ (Jorgensen and Tylecote, 2007), ‘awkward spaces’ (Jones, 2007), ‘anxious landscapes’ (Picon, 2000), ‘indeterminate spaces’ (Groth and Corijn, 2005), and ‘edgelands’ (Shoard, 2000), among a cacophony of alternative conceptual articulations (Gandy, 2013).

While radical critical architectonic discourse has worked to challenge the utilitarian conception of these spaces as ‘wastelands’, Euro-American media outlets, design professionals, and the inhabitants of cities predominantly consider these spaces in terms of having / lacking, use / disuse, value / waste, and all the graduated articulations between these binary opposites (de Solà-Morales, 1995; Berger, 2006). Thus, this essay considers the interstices of the city through the conceptual grammars of ‘urban wasteland’ to delve into how they operate and are mobilised as urban modernity’s aesthetic discards and resources by urbanites, urban thinkers, design professionals, and urban policymakers in a particular Euro-American context.


Figure 1 Cuvrybrache (German for: wasteland, fallow land) in Berlin-Kreuzberg, Cuvrystraße, Germany; after the overpainting of the Cuvry-Graffiti. Image by Lienhard Schulz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37948464

2. Discard

[Waste] comes to connote not only merely the uncultivated or untended but also the pointless, the misdirected, and the futile; the ineffectual, the foolish, and the worthless; the idle and the improvident; the excessive, prodigal, the improper, the inefficient. (Gidwani, 2013, p. 776)

Urban ‘wastelands’ are, in many ways, the spoils of capitalist urban ‘development’, the by-products and relics of the creative destruction underpinning the (re)production of urban space (Edensor, 2005a). However, they are discards in other ways, as urban wastelands are entangled in not only processes of capitalist ruination, but also processes of aesthetic and ontological violence, governance, and erasure that render urban interstices as devoid of function, value, and meaning, as spaces awaiting intervention and urban development (DeSilvey and Edensor, 2013; Gidwani, 2013; Safransky, 2014). This section unpacks how urban wastelands are urban modernity’s aesthetic discards and modes of discard through three related registers: urban wastelands as literal discards, waste and wasteland as instruments of aesthetic governance and legitimation, and urban wastelands as powerful tools of aesthetic and ontological erasure.

The material spaces assigned the normative, value-stripping labels of ‘waste’ and ‘wasteland’ by urban planners and developers are often the literal discards of urban industries and urban as process (Figure 2), as under-determined excesses of capital that cannot be totally erased and destroyed (de Solà-Morales, 1995; Nielsen, 2002; Edensor, 2005c). The material world is ordered through normative narratives about what matter is useful, and what matter is waste: what matter ‘belongs’ in a modern city, and what is ‘out of place’ (Cresswell, 1996; Edensor, 2005c). Take, for example, Nielsen’s (2002) paper on the waste heaps of Aarhus produced by construction processes. The heaps are produced and rendered by Aarhus’s urban planners as superfluous ‘wasteland’ landscapes excreted by capitalist urban development, as material excesses devoid of value (Nielsen, 2002). Obliterating traces of the carnage of capitalism, by rendering these superfluous material fields as invisible and irrelevant ‘wastelands’, capitalist excesses devoid of value, helps to maintain a modern myth of endless progress (Edensor, 2005c; Wakefield, 2018).


Figure 2 Valves at the Switch House East at Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany by Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93724737

Vitally, waste and wasteland are not only instruments for obscuring the wastes, toils, and excesses of modern capitalist urban development, but are tools for and of aesthetic governance, tied up in normative aesthetic narratives about what sorts of materials, landscapes, lives, and practices ‘belong’ in the urban field (Cresswell, 1996; Edensor, 2005c). As Gidwani (2013) reminds us, capitalist value has an unrelenting history of subordinating needs-oriented value production to accumulative logics by casting certain peoples, places, and practices as wasteful and superfluous, asserting a normative superiority over other forms of value production. To do this, capital disciplines commons-of-waste as sources of untapped capitalist potential, boundary objects of value-in-waiting, and palimpsests of excess prior to and as product of capitalist accumulation that capital can never fully capture and absorb (Gidwani, 2013). Waste is the “unruly other” (p. 781) of capital that “marks an orthogonal logic of dissipation, ever ready to evade, escape, or exceed capital’s dialectic” (Gidwani, 2013, p. 782). To tame the ‘other’ of waste, waste and wasteland are deployed as normative, figurative modes of aesthetic governance, ontological erasure, and aesthetic violence (Gidwani, 2013).

For example, visions of Delhi as a ‘modern’, ‘world-class’ city are legitimated and (re)produced on-the-ground through practices of aesthetic governance (Ghertner, 2010). The aesthetics of urban spaces are evaluated at-a-distance against the aesthetic norm of ‘world-class’ aesthetics, where spaces that are deemed to look polluting and dirty are rendered and treated as urban excesses and ‘wastes’, as illegal landscapes ripe for destruction (Ghertner, 2010), as capital’s “unruly other” (Gidwani, 2013, p. 781).


Figure 3 The River Lea near Cody Dock in April 2021. Photograph by author

These processes and practices of ontological erasure and aesthetic violence are even clearer in the context of London’s Lower Lea Valley (Figure 3), where vernacular proto-aesthetic practices and cultures were sharply undervalued (Fior, 2012; Harris, 2015; Gold and Gold, 2019) and the area rendered as ‘wasteland’ in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games (Raco and Tunney, 2010; Davis, 2014). The Lower Lea Valley was depicted through this lens of terra nullius and disposability (Gardner, 2016), as an ‘empty’ and ‘value-less’ landscape, to legitimate the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for the London 2012 Olympic Games (Gold and Gold, 2008; Coles et al., 2012; Gibbons and Wolff, 2012; Watt, 2013). In other words, the Lower Lea Valley was produced as disposable waste and capital’s “unruly other” (Gidwani, 2013, p. 781) to legitimate processes of urbanization and urban regeneration. So, at the same time, the Lower Lea Valley and its vernacular aesthetic cultures are a discard, to be destroyed (Gidwani, 2013), and a resource to legitimate urban development (Gold and Gold, 2008; Coles et al., 2012; Watt, 2013).

3. Resource

And here we enter the paradox at the heart of urban wastelands. Wastelands are discards and tools of discard yet are simultaneously also the resources of urban modernity. And, more than this, wastelands are also critical resources that can be used against urban modernity, as spaces and sites of intervention and critique of the normative aesthetic and ontological orderings of everyday urban life and urban spaces (Edensor, 2005a, 2005c). This section explores how urban wastelands can be conceptualised as not only discards, but as resources in two registers. Firstly, wastelands are resourceful sites for critiquing the normative orderings of urban space, and, secondly, wastelands are aesthetic resources co-opted by urban development and contemporary landscape architecture practice.

Urban wastelands are under-determined, as, when they are cut loose from regimes of aesthetic, material, and symbolic ordering, their meanings and materials transform and decay (Edensor, 2005c). When urban wastelands are dropped from capitalist circuits of production and are rendered as having no value, ruination takes hold, producing the debris of dereliction. Decay and ruination invert the ordering of matter in the spaces of urban wastelands: the material world is transformed from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The form and texture of objects melt away, their assigned functions and meanings dissolve, and the boundaries between things blur (Edensor, 2005c).

The product of ruination and wasting is a defamiliarized landscape where urban forms regress to strange contortions of their original compositions, normative aesthetics and orders are confounded by the alternative aesthetics of the wasteland, and objects in the wasteland lose their status as self-evident and separate things of value (Edensor, 2005c). This is an opening up of urban space beyond its normative encodings, a process that charges the space of the urban wasteland with latent potentialities for reinterpretation and (re)use against the normative grains of ‘waste’, ‘uselessness’, and ‘void’ (Edensor, 2005c, 2005b). A confrontation with the strange sensualities and textures of discarded and ruined space and things defamiliarizes the ordinary sensations of stuff (Edensor, 2005c). And urban practices staging encounters with the defamiliarizing spaces and landscapes of urban wastelands unfold wasteland as resource, enacting and realising the latent potentialities of urban wasteland space (Rose, 2002; Franck and Stevens, 2007). The space of the wasteland becomes a space and site of critique against the normative orderings of urban space (Edensor, 2005a, 2005c; Speer, 2019). “Like portals or black holes they offer the chance to glimpse at the ‘other’ space of the city“ (Jones, 2007, p. 71).

As the waste heaps of Aarhus were configured as discards by the excretions of capitalist urban development processes, their landscapes and materiality melted and entered flux as they moved towards the molten state of the undifferentiated. As the waste heaps decayed, meaning was destabilised, and their superfluous character yielded a “radical openness” (Nielsen, 2002, p. 60). This openness was exploited by users of these waste heaps, who consumed their superfluous landscapes as resource, as alternative public spaces, spending the waste and toils of contemporary urban modernity in ways that bend against the usual normative grains of highly designed, surveyed, and regulated urban space, in the absence of design, order, surveillance, and regulation (Doron, 2000; Nielsen, 2002). In this indeterminate space-of-becoming, alternative practices and activities take place, such as skating, camping, and bonfire making, that are harder to integrate in more formal, scripted, and controlled semi-public spaces (Nielsen, 2002; Groth and Corijn, 2005; Franck and Stevens, 2007). In this way, the configuration and relegation of the waste heaps by normative urban narratives as discard, as waste, was an opening of the urban space for activities rendered ‘out of place’ in the contemporary city that critiques the normative encodings of what practices and groups belong and do not belong in the city (Cresswell, 1996; Doron, 2000; Nielsen, 2002; Speer, 2019).

But are wastelands really a resource that stimulates a sense of freedom in the city? Wastelands do not always yield a “radical openness” (Nielsen, 2002, p. 60) in their production and delegation as urban discard and excreted excess. Not everyone can use and move through wastelands in the same way, exemplified by the gendering and racialisation (Mott and Roberts, 2014) of subversive and critical practices of urban exploration (Garrett, 2014, 2016). Being in an urban wasteland, and engaging in critiques of normative urban aesthetics, can be a dangerous experience for marginalized groups, and urban wastelands are not a resource for all urbanites (Mott and Roberts, 2014).

Furthermore, wastelands are always liminal, a characteristic that offers both affordances and restrictions (de Solà-Morales, 1995; Tonnelat, 2008). Urban wastelands are the wastes and discards of urban pasts, but also the resources and value-in-waiting for future urban planning and development (Tonnelat, 2008; Gidwani, 2013). Inhabiting the wastelands and interstices of the city, the spaces between buildings and pasts and presents, can be a precarious and restrictive experience at the same time as it can be a liberating one. Freedom in urban wastelands is conditioned by the ever-present threat of development and erasure, as being in the urban interstices is a paradoxical liminal condition between ‘radical openness’ and ‘radical closure’ (de Solà-Morales, 1995; Tonnelat, 2008; Ferreri, 2021). In the context of Tonnelat’s (2008) consideration of the interstices by the River Seine in Charenton-le-Pont, in Paris, France, owners of the riverside strips of ‘wasteland’ were concerned to maintain the outward appearance of land awaiting (re)development. This creates an aesthetic frame that is imposed upon interstitial users, forcing them to stay in a strict, limited role of ‘just passing’ if they want to remain on the site (Tonnelat, 2008). In practice, for the squatters on the banks of the Seine, this means that municipal police monitor the site and regulate the external appearance of the site to maintain visual order and keep the site legible as a construction site waiting for perpetually incoming urban development and investment. Squatters on the urban wasteland are forced to stay ‘out of frame’ in this context by demonstrating cleanliness and temporariness, maintaining an outward façade of order and interim use as not to perturb future plans for the wasteland space (Tonnelat, 2008; Ferreri, 2021).

The celebration of the ‘radical openness’ and possibilities of urban wastelands as liminal spaces and resources is, at times, excessive. Possibilities must always be tempered by the realities of how urban wastelands and interstices are framed as discard and rendered as land awaiting future value and development, and the systems of aesthetic regulation that maintain this narrative (Tonnelat, 2008). Waste is simultaneously value-in-waiting, an imaginary maintained by aesthetic regulation and the imposition of ordering frames on urban wastelands, and an omnipresent logic of dissipation and disruption exceeding capital’s logics and dialectics (Gidwani, 2013).

When the value-in-waiting of wastelands, as urban discards, is realised as value and aesthetic resource by practices of design, planning, and policy making, their aesthetic resources are co-opted in a way that destroys them: wasteland as at once a resource and discard (de Solà-Morales, 1995; Edensor, 2005a). Architecture and urban design seem unable to do anything other than violently transform vacant spaces, “striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magic of the obsolete in the realism of efficacy” (de Solà-Morales, 1995, p. 123).

James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf’s High Line in New York City is instructive here. Their design for the park re-creates the ‘un-scenic’ aesthetics and sensualities (Saito, 1998) of spontaneous vegetation to produce an ecological simulacrum of the sorts of ecologies occurring on the disused elevated section of railway track before extensive re-landscaping (Gandy, 2013; Ebbensgaard, 2017; Rothenberg and Lang, 2017). This contemporary landscape architecture practice co-opts wasteland as aesthetic resource, moulding wasteland into a cultural motif to produce a neo-pastoral urban spectacle that legitimates and encourages real estate speculation (Gandy, 2013, 2016; Erixon Aalto and Ernstson, 2017). And in doing so, the High Line destroys the unstructured “magic of the obsolete” (de Solà-Morales, 1995, p. 123) and the lifeworlds of those who used the site before. The park displaces working class residents of West Chelsea both materially, through increased rents, and symbolically, as a literal and metaphorical bridge between high-end shops, art galleries, and luxury housing (Rothenberg and Lang, 2017). The “glittering surface effects” (p. 11) of the High Line and its ‘orderly disorganised’ aesthetics erase and mask the social inequalities on which its spectacularism depends and produces through its reconfiguration of urban wasteland as luxury urban parkland (Rothenberg and Lang, 2017).

Processes of erasure are central to how urban wastelands are treated as aesthetic resources in contemporary landscape architecture practice. And presenting urban ruins, post-industrial landscapes, and wastelands as a sanitised ‘technological sublime’ attracts visitors drawn to the ‘spectacle’ of charismatic industrial forms (Nohl, 2001; Chan, 2009; Rothenberg and Lang, 2017). For example, Peter Latz’s Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord in Germany (Figure 4) has the structures of the former Thyssen Steelworks at its core, as sublime monuments to the area’s bygone industrial age (Hardy, 2005; Chan, 2009). These are sanitised and selective rememberings of the past (Edensor, 2005b), however, as the post-industrial wasteland of the Thyssen Steelworks was reframed in a way that veiled the industrial edifices’ past functions and social histories (Chan, 2009). A bunker wall became a rock-climbing wall, a blast furnace a concert venue, and a gasometer a scuba diving training centre (Chan, 2009; Hemmings and Kagel, 2010). While the material forms of the steelworks have been retained, this urban wasteland, like so many others, has been culturally reappropriated as an object of pleasure in a way that obliterates the site’s historical industrial significance (Hemmings and Kagel, 2010).

Conventional post-industrial landscape architecture practice then tells us two things about wastelands as appropriated aesthetic resources. Firstly, the dissolution of symbolism in the initial production of urban wastelands as discard results in a liminal state of memory where the material forms of the post-industrial site point towards a monumental past that is materially present but symbolically confused (Hemmings and Kagel, 2010). And, secondly, the design of parks that appropriate urban wasteland as aesthetic resources often do not critically engage with these sites’ historical functions and social histories because nostalgic publics usually visit post-industrial sites to be inspired and disoriented by their industrial, sublime, magnitude (Chan, 2009; Hemmings and Kagel, 2010). Abandonment has become fetishized in a modern cultural imagination, an aesthetic obsession with “the saga[s] of what was once so mighty brought low” (Hardy, 2005, p. 32), a modern “gothic sensibility”, where to enter the urban ruin “is to venture into darkness and the possibilities of confronting that which is repressed” (Edensor, 2005a, p. 13). But how is this fetish and ‘modern gothic’ obsession with the ruin, industrial sublime, and wasteland cultivated?


Figure 4 Building at the Hochofenstraße in the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord in Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Image by Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51050967

4. Fetish

An obsession with the aesthetic contours of urban ruins and wastelands emerges from their treatment as ‘sublime’ spaces of post-industrial dereliction by photographers, writers, and urban explorers through practices of ruin and wasteland fetishization (Nohl, 2001). This ‘ruin pornography’ commodifies the aesthetic of wasteland through a logic of fetish that obscures, erases, and devalues the social relations of disposability going into the wasteland’s production as cultural landscape and aesthetic resource (Marx, 1887; Mitchell, 2002; Cunningham, 2011). Wastelands are fetishized commodities in the modern city, and their fetishization transforms them “into something transcendent” and alluring (Marx, 1887, p. 47).

In these terms, an excessive over-emphasis on ruins, ruination, waste, and urban wastelands as aesthetic resources reproduces, de-politicises, and consolidates wastelands’ positions as the discards, toils, and erasures of capitalist urban modernity (Cunningham, 2011; Millington, 2013; Safransky, 2014). This section explores this idea by taking a deep dive into the aesthetic fetishes and glorifying impulses of ruin porn: depictions and imaginations of ruins and urban wastelands as temples of and altars to ‘delicious disorder’ (Edensor, 2005a, pp. 17–18).

In glossy coffee table books, wastelands are laid out as people-less, fetishized objects of ruinous delight (Figure 5). And this is especially the case with Detroit, Michigan, in the USA, where photographers like Marchand and Meffre (2010) and Moore (2011) aestheticize the spectacular, ruined landscapes of Detroit as ruined, bleak, and dystopian waste-scape (Cunningham, 2011).

Through aesthetic tropes and depictions of de-peopled architectural sites, photographers construct imaginaries of Detroit that celebrate its ‘picturesque’ decay (Millington, 2013). These practices appropriate Detroit’s urban wastelands and ruins to write the city into a mythic apocalyptic past rather than a lively and lived-in present through a ruin porn that aestheticizes poverty (Solnit, 2007; Klein, 2011; Millington, 2013). These depictions of Detroit as zombie and post-apocalyptic obscure the systematic technologies of abandonment through which landscapes become ‘empty’, deprived of public services, and populations are imagined as disposable (Safransky, 2014). In these terms, fetishized and sensationalist depictions of urban decay and resurgent nature treat Detroit’s ruins and wastelands as spectacle, obscuring the lifeworlds, stories, pains, and possibilities of a city that is still lived in (Moon, 2009; Herscher, 2012; Safransky, 2014). “Ruin porn” transforms the “city’s pain into a curiosity” that can be gawked at and naturalised as America’s aesthetic other (Rosenberg, 2011, np.).

This ruin porn imagery of Detroit fails to tell a story: “[t]he decontextualized aesthetics of ruin make them pictures of nothing and no place in particular” (Leary, 2011, np.). The viewing subject is reproduced by the ruin-image as “consumer of dereliction” (Cunningham, 2011, np.). And, in doing so, the settler colonial logics of ruin pornography make a fetish out of Detroit’s urban wastelands as aesthetic resources and commodities to be consumed by obscuring the logics of disposal that underpin their production (Millington, 2013; Safransky, 2014).


Figure 5 Western part of the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Image by Albert Duce, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10103075

5. Paradox

By staging four interconnected conceptual movements, this extended essay has argued that ‘urban wastelands’ are simultaneously, paradoxically, and interactively urban modernity’s aesthetic resources and discards. Wastelands are at once capitalist urban modernity’s literal and figurative discards, tools of disposability and erasure, and its resources and potentials. As the materiality of disposed urban pasts deforms and melts through practices of decay, wastelands become molten and “radically open” spaces of potential for privileged urbanites to reimagine the urban and mobilise the liminal aesthetics of wastelands as critical resource (Nielsen, 2002, p. 60; Edensor, 2005c). However, this supposedly radical aesthetic resource of the urban wasteland is conditioned by its perpetual production as discard and the reality of waste and wasteland as value-in-waiting (Gidwani, 2013).

Wastelands are the paradox of urban modernity, as simultaneous discard-resource. The realisation of the value-in-wating of urban wastelands by capitalist urban development processes, contemporary landscape architecture practice, and ruin pornography destroy and erase urban wastelands by reconfiguring their aesthetic contours at the same time as they consume urban wasteland as aesthetic resource (Hemmings and Kagel, 2010; Millington, 2013; Rothenberg and Lang, 2017). Wastelands in the post-industrial city are produced as commodities to be consumed and worshipped through processes of fetishization, the disposal of the logics of disposal, consolidating their position as urban modernity’s discards through their treatment as resources (Marx, 1887; Rothenberg and Lang, 2017).

As urban wastelands oscillate, transgress, and collapse boundaries between discard/resource, they inhibit the stabilisation of meaning and are surrounded by an aura of all-at-once liminality and pulse with criss-crossing logics of disposability and signification (DeSilvey and Edensor, 2013). Urban wastelands are discard-resources locked into a liminal “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish” (Berman, 1983, p. 15).


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