What’s behind the fence? – exploring dead land and empty buildings at the RGS-IBG 2021 Annual Conference (online session, Weds 1st Sept 2021)

“They came from everywhere… I fixed the fence, over and over I fixed the fence, but they kept on coming.”

A lone, vulnerable security guard, 2017

As part of next week’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual international conference (which this year is running online: details here) I’m convening a double-session next Wednesday morning (1st September), comprising eight presentations, each considering the quiet and only-noticed-if-you-look human ecology of seemingly empty sites.

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

Here are the abstracts for our international array of presenters:

Session 1Experiencing and managing dead places (9.00 – 10.40 AM BST)

Ruins of (Post)Soviet Arctic: perceiving, coping with and commemorating abandoned sites

Maria GUNKO Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) [presenting]

Alla BOLOTOVA Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland); Elena BATUNOVA Politecnico di Milano (Milano, Italy) [non-presenting]

The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics (Sellheim et al., 2019). During state socialism in Russia, large-scale development of northern territories was due to the need for natural resources extraction with the establishment of control over a vast sparsely populated area (Josephson, 2014). The collapse of the system has led to a reduction of state support for industries, science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Arctic cities outside oil and gas provinces. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings, industrial ruins, idle infrastructures, and marginalized spaces here remain “monuments” to the Soviet period indicating the changing trends. At the same time, these cities remain home to people with community bonds, sharing values, and place attachment (Bolotova, 2018). The aims of the current research are two-fold. First, we explore the perception of and strategies to cope with abandonment in the Russian Arctic. Second, we look at the examples of abandoned sites commemoration by their former residents. The empirical evidence for the study is drawn from Vorkuta – a conglomerate of urban settlements in the Komi republic. At its peak, it comprised 16 settlements built around 13 coal mines, currently less than a half of these settlements are still habitable having severely shrunk in size. The data were obtained from a comprehensive analysis of various sources, such as planning documents, archival materials, expert and in-depth interviews (in person and via Skype), as well as non-participant observations carried out in January 2019.

What’s the use? Rethinking urban vacancy amidst Dublin’s housing crisis

Kathleen STOKES & Cian O’CALLAGHAN, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)

The results of the 2016 census found 183,312 vacant homes in Ireland, a figure that included around 30,000 vacant homes across the four Dublin local authorities. While the Central Statistics Office indicated that this figure was a static rather than long-term measure, the ensuing political storm equated vacant properties with empty homes that could be used to solve Dublin’s burgeoning homelessness crisis. Amidst Dublin’s housing and homeless crisis, calls for affordable housing and fairer property markets have paralleled growing attention in urban housing and land vacancy. A spate of policy measures targeting vacancy have testified to the increased visibility of the ‘problem’ of urban vacancy in the post-crisis period. However, policy objectives construct vacancy within a simple dichotomy between space either ‘in use’ or ‘not in use’, therefore reproducing normative understandings that fail to acknowledge that such sites are always active, in property market formation and subject to ongoing ordering and management. As a riposte to these conceptualisations, this paper puts policy objectives and key measurements of urban vacancy in Dublin into dialogue with the critical literature on vacancy in urban and cultural geography (Ferreri & Vasudevan, 2019; Kitchin et al., 2014). We reflect on the limitations of normative understandings of urban vacant space in revealing the role of vacancy in capitalist cities and suggest that more critical assessments can unearth a multitude of urban processes pertaining to the ordering and management of such sites. This paper draws upon ongoing research in Dublin, which investigates underlying factors contributing to urban vacancy and questions how urban vacancy is identified, categorised and measured.

Empty buildings in the re-making: The case of the Hochhausscheiben A-E in Halle-Neustadt, Germany

Hendrikje ALPERMANN, Université de Lausanne (Switzerland)

Four of the five high-rise slabs Hochhausscheiben A-E in the centre of Halle-Neustadt are empty. And this for over 20 years. Between 2003 and 2016, the shrinking city of Halle reduced vacancy in Halle-Neustadt by half through demolition, enabled through the national program Stadtumbau Ost (Stadt Halle (Saale) 2017). In contrast to many other buildings in Halle-Neustadt in the beginning of the 2000s, the high-rise slabs were not chosen for demolition, but for endurance. But how can their endurance be ensured in the context of a shrinking city? While the buildings have been increasingly dilapidated since they have been abandoned in the late 1990s, a number of practices and relationships have prevented them from being demolished or renovated and contributed to their continuous life between life and death. Against what has been written on ruins in recent academic literature, the high-rises do not stand for a site of disruption (Buchli, 2013; DeSilvey; Endensor, 2012) or “the end of the world” (Pohl, 2020), but rather for a series of promised of renovations and postponed renovations. This turn towards practices and endurance allows us to reflect on techno-political modes of organizing urban change and emptiness. It will lead us to ask how agency and responsibility are distributed and enacted.

In Praise of Shutters: Hidden activity within Neepsend, Sheffield

Charlene Cross, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This presentation takes inspiration from the 1933 Japanese aesthetic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, who made a case for accepting transience, flaws, patina, and shadows within in the built environment. ‘In Praise of Shutters’ draws attention to the shutters and fences of several ’empty’ buildings in Neepsend, Sheffield, to challenge the preconception that these are inert spaces. The images presented form part of a land use study that initially focused upon inert urban spaces, such as wastelands or seemingly empty buildings. However, as the study has progressed, no truly inert spaces have been found to date. Using narratology and a series of photographs taken in Neepsend between July 2020 and the present day, these images of physical boundaries entice curiosity within the onlooker. If the building is not derelict, what’s behind the fence? Walking past a warehouse, the shutters are up and metal work is underway. People heading to the food court across the road, which is made of shipping containers, pause to peep in. The next day, the shutters are down. To those not in the know, will they view the patina of the signage as an aesthetic remnant of the long forgotten past, rather than a marker that provides testament to their long established presence in the area?

Session 2 – Empty sites, re-use, utopia and other potentiality (11.00 – 12.40PM BST)

Rethinking Utopia: The Search for ‘Topias’ in the Paris Catacombs

Kevin BINGHAM, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

Although the idea once had great influence, utopias have proven themselves to be unattainable. Therefore, rather than viewing utopia as an actual destination this paper will argue that belief in the existence of special places of perfection has been replaced by a faith in leisure. As it will be argued, it is the activity of ‘urbex’ that can turn ruins, abandoned places and vacant sites into something similar, albeit temporarily. With this is mind, the paper continues by drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Tony Blackshaw to accentuate the point that the good life is about inventing oneself through a process of self-creation that has been referred to as anthropotechnics. To unpack this standpoint, the paper examines how a group of urban explorers – people who explore man-made spaces that are generally inaccessible to the wider public – find various substitutes for utopia in the subterranean space of the Paris catacombs. As it is argued, forms of leisure such as ‘urbex’ emerge as ‘primary spheres’ of anthropotechnics that instigate the formation of intertwining and interpenetrating ‘topias’ which have been referred to here as ‘reterotopia’, ‘heterotopia’ and ‘scotopia’. Viewed independently of one another, these ‘topias’ refer to the way urban explorers’ experiment with space nostalgically, compensatorily and in a way that incites the five basic senses. As the paper reveals, each ‘topia’ plays an important part in allowing people to discover performativity, locate a sense of collective consciousness, feel intense pleasures and pains, and, above all, experience the euphoria of freedom.

“The dead are tugging at our backs”: exploring migrant life among the headstones of an abandoned cemetery in Tangier

Maria HAGAN, University of Cambridge (UK)

Renewed and intensified criminalisation of sub-Saharan Africans in the northern Moroccan borderlands since 2018 has made their spaces of shelter precarious and their access to accommodation, particularly in cities of the north, a perpetual struggle. Those seeking passage to Europe increasingly resort to life in concealed, abandoned urban spaces. This paper explores the socio-material ecologies of an abandoned Muslim graveyard in Tangier overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and serving as a primary space of life for a group of young Cameroonian men. Drawing on 5 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the community in 2019 & 2020, this paper discusses how, concealed and lawless, this abandoned and decaying urban space operated as a rare negotiated space of presence and sociability for the community. Detailing practices of shelter construction between the headstones, the routine destruction of that shelter by authorities, and processes of camp reconstruction and renegotiation attempted by the graveyard’s inhabitants, the paper proposes an analysis of the liveliness of a deathscape in a context of urban hostility against the migrant body. It traces how the appropriation of this undesirable territory affected the men’s self-perception and influenced their space-claiming practices elsewhere; namely the establishment of a cemetery camp in another Moroccan city.

Fortifying the empty ruin: the nightwatchman, the artists, the trespassers and their antagonisms

Luke BENNETT Sheffield Hallam University (UK) [presenting];
Hayden LORIMER, Edward HOLLIS and Ruth OLDEN of University of Edinburgh (UK) [non-presenting]

The cabin is for use by the nightwatchman,
…who is employed by the security firm,
…that is contracted by the small arts company,
…to protect the now fortified ruin of the former seminary,
…which it hopes to take off the hands of the church,
…who desperately want shot of the whole damned place themselves,
…because of recreational trespass and the liabilities arising,
if only a viable model for transferring ownership can ever be found.

This is the premise for an illustrated piece of performed storytelling, and the predicament that it explores. The modern architectural ruin at its centre is a place of competing claims, and complex social dynamics created by the securitization of property. Lately, it has operated antagonistically, existing as an aggressive milieu. The presentation delves into the ruin’s complex relational ecology, introducing its protagonists, affects, spaces, encounters and events. Ultimately, its chief concern is with the architecture of lives as much as it is the lives of architecture. In particular, the presentation will focus upon how the precarious minimum-wage lifeworld of the nightwatchman, and his embodied relationship to this abandoned site, is both more elaborate and more sculpted by the active concerns of others who rarely appear in person on-site, than we might readily assume. The presentation reports on part of the collaborators’ 2017-2019 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded study of attempts to manage and reactivate the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, a few miles west of Glasgow. Bennett will present drawing upon Olden’s fieldwork, Lorimer and Hollis’ writings upon the site and Bennett’s reflections on the pressure of anxieties about vacant site ownership.

The elephant in the room?: a facilitated discussion about absent owners

Carolyn GIBBESON, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

To what extent does scholarship on vacancy include an exploration of the motives and meaning-making of owners and their professional agents? Where mentioned do site owners only ever appear as cyphers for capital, striped of any attentiveness to their emotional labour? Does attempting to give analytical space or voice to owners and their motivations for vacancy risk loss of a Critical and/or progressive edge? This contribution will facilitate a discussion of these questions, by reflecting on the Session’s nine papers. It will open with a short presentation in which I will draw on my former experiences of working in the real estate sector as a property manager responsible for a variety of property types including vacant sites, and on my more recent doctoral research into the awkward interaction of developers’ and heritage professionals’ differing world-views and practice-logics. Through this I will consider how different groups of people within the built environment and academic sectors view each other to ask why owners are usually ignored despite their control over a site. I will then invite discussion on whether (and if so, how) a greater attentiveness to owner perspectives could augment studies of vacancy, and also tease out the particular difficulties that lie ahead for anyone trying to research owners’ creation and/or toleration of vacancy, whether as profit-maximising landbanking or for more prosaic reasons.

Image credit: Author’s photograph, St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, Cardross, Scotland, Oct 2017.

About lukebennett13
Associate Professor & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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