RUST BELTS and WILD LANDS: The Anthropocene paradigm as conceptual framework for multi-functional novel ecosystem reserves on derelict urban sites

Ecological Society of America: Novel Ecosystems of the Anthropocene
Paper prepared for the Ecological Society of America's international 2016 conference  
Ft. Lauderdale FL

Matthew Tucker
University of Minnesota

Anthropocene, open space, scenarios, socio-ecological narratives, novel ecosystemsAbstract:


A growing body of research has identified important ecological functions of urban novel ecosystems. However, the urban setting and character of novel ecosystems along with prevailing attitudes of acceptable “natural” aesthetics present challenges that result in novel ecosystem benefits being under-appreciated. This potential oversight is amplified by traditional conceptions of the nature:culture binary, natural resource planning and ecological management largely aligned with 19th century socio-cultural attitudes and aesthetics preferences.  Absent successful alternative models, the lack of appreciation for and substantive ecological benefits of novel ecosystem function may persist.

History indicates that scientific evidence concerning the role and importance of under-valued ecosystems can have significant influence in shifting perceptions of such ecosystems. For example, scientific research regarding the importance of wetland and prairie ecosystems resulted in substantial shifts in policy and perception of wetland and prairie conservation and restoration in the mid-20th century. While both wetland and prairie ecosystems are recognized as endemic biomes, novel ecosystems are endemic anthromes of the Anthropocene and are thus by-products of human agency in both their origin and location. Given these trajectories, substantial questions emerge.

How will the increasing body of scientific research on the importance of urban novel ecosystems influence policy and cultural perceptions of novel ecosystem conservation and perhaps restoration? How can this evidence, in combination with the emerging Anthropocene paradigm and radical reconsideration of human-environment relations, also serve to catalyze changing perceptions and values of novel urban ecosystems and their emergence as accepted models of ecological open space? If such a shift were to occur, what opportunities may emerge for ecologists and design professionals, particularly as relevant to depressed urban areas and persistent issues of urban land use, infrastructure and environmental injustice?


In response to these questions, this paper examines three former industrial sites in highly urban neighborhoods of Chicago, IL; Cleveland, OH, and Flint, MI and their potential function as new urban ecological reserves. Former land uses included a railyard, automotive assembly plant and steel mill. Active industrial land use had ceased for greater than 10 years, therefore allowing novel ecosystems to proliferate.  The general ecological, spatial and aesthetic characteristics of each site were examined and opportunities for potential re-use as urban novel ecosystem reserves were identified.  A conceptual program of potential future use, access and management was modeled after traditional ecological reserves and open spaces. Program themes included wilderness reserve, restoration park, and ecology field station. Each program was applied to the project site through a project scenario methodology. The scenarios identified potential opportunities and limitations for novel ecosystems in expanding ecological and open space function within their respective urban settings. The scenarios also identified potential strategies to address local environmental justice issues. Finally, the scenarios identified promising opportunities for future collaboration between urban ecologists, landscape architects, urban ecology activists, educators and other stakeholders.