What a waste — what is the biodiversity value of urban brownfields?

Bulldozed piles of rubble, twisted metal and rubbish — ugly, dirty, smelly, dangerous. Brownfields have an real image problem. Click on picture for PDF of lecture text.

On Friday 9 March 2012, I gave a lecture, so titled, at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Derided as economically useless ‘wastelands’, brownfields are often portrayed as being little more than bulldozed heaps of rubble, twisted metal and rubbish — dirty, smelly, ugly, dangerous. Brownfields, truly, have an image problem.

It starts with the name. Brown is not a cool colour; it is the colour of dirt, the colour of excrement. More importantly, brownfields are seen as not green. And, conversely, green is the colour of the moment, the colour on everyone’s lips. Green is the colour of the countryside; it’s the colour of nature, the colour of goodness. More than this, green has been misappropriated by anyone wanting to link into these aspirational attributes; green has become a powerful brand. Leaving aside the Green Party, which has commandeered the word as part of its very name, even in general parlance the environmental movement is usually described as a green movement, companies are keen to show off their green credentials, we all aspire to green living. Green is so cool. I wouldn’t like to contemplate for a moment what might be the response if I said I was part of a brown movement.

Brownfields are, nevertheless, very important for wildlife; in particular they are important for invertebrates — insects especially. The trouble is that insects are imbued with their own image problem. When Ridley Scott needed a model for his blood-thirsty, parasitic, shiny, armored Alien, he leant heavily on the imagery of insects. If insects were the size of cats or dogs, they would be the most terrifyingly awful creatures on Earth. Unfortunately, even though insects are very small, many people think they are already quite awful enough thank you. Trying to show that brownfield sites are worthy of ecological study and even environmental conservation because of their invertebrate interest, is a doubly uphill struggle. But I will try.

Here is the text of the lecture.

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