The insects of the septic fringe — another reason to ignore brownfields?

I recently came across the term “septic fringe”, so of course I couldn’t resist using it. It was originally used in a sociological context to describe the squalid shanty-towns and peri-urban sprawl in developing centres. It immediately struck a chord with me; I fancied that I recognized it … or at least the shadow that remains decades (or centuries) on from slum clearance and piecemeal gentrification.

The brownfield jungle, once septic fringe?

The brownfield jungle, once part of the septic fringe?

The septic fringe is the unregulated, unplanned, insanitary and sometimes lawless squatter zone around the edge of a city. Fuelled by rural-to-urban migration it is built higgledy-piggledy, often along main roads, using whatever scavenged materials may be to hand, without any sewage or waste disposal system and without access to clean water.

Its unfortunate entomological significance lies in the plentiful opportunities that it affords pest insects, particularly disease vectors like mosquitoes, blackflies, blowflies, fleas and cockroaches, breeding in the disordered filth, and with access to a typically overcrowded, poverty-stricken and disease-ridden populace.

There is also an implicit assumption that, further back in human prehistory, a similar, though smaller, septic fringe around the most basic settlements of early protohumans allowed some insects access to a new ecological niche — our domestic dwellings. The reasoning goes that latrines, along with rubbish and food remains dumped around the edge of the basic human encampment, encouraged insect scavengers from the surrounding wilderness, and that these later moved in to attack food stores, skins, fabrics and structural timber as the previously sparse nomadic hunter-gatherer population became more settled and adopted to live in houses — or at least started to inhabit semi-permanent shelters, rather than temporary bivouacs.

The septic fringe is still a feature of many major Third World cities like Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta and Soweto. It happened rather longer ago in London, nevertheless….

To counter the septic fringe is an alternative concept — the affluent fringe. This time following a reverse migration from cities after World War II, colonization was into the suburbs. It left behind partly bombed inner city areas which were poorly populated, and perhaps populated by the poor. Slum clearance created the 1960s housing estates which are also presently being demolished, and a still-ongoing cyclical gentrification uplifts one set of streets, while another area suffers decline. This septic fringe is now a decayed ring between the central city core and the suburbs, and it is where some of the best (and most vulnerable) brownfield sites lie.

Deep in the city centre (London at least) buildings are still being demolished and new developments go ahead, but there is practically no gap between clearance and build; brownfield sites are very short-lived, if lived at all. There is barely a moment between the last load of rubble being carted away and the first load of concrete being laid. Further out, though, sites are still cleared before the next stage of their existence is finalized. It is here that the brownfield sites become unofficial wildlife reserves.

It is also here that derelict and apparently abandoned sites seem to be festering, where land-prices are at their most volatile, and where the wildlife value of these scrappy-looking bits of land is under-appreciated (it’s not real countryside, after all).

Just as the infected-sounding nature of the septic fringe is unappealing and uninviting, the often ugly-looking and dangerous-seeming ‘waste’ land of brownfield sites is also easily disparaged.

I came across the notion of the septic fringe whilst researching a book about household insect pests, where they originally came from ‘in the wild’, and how and when they adapted to become household invaders. The analogy between the septic fringe and the brownfield ring is, perhaps, slightly fanciful, but I’d argue that the hazy, dirty, irregular junction where human activity meets nature is still an important zone to study.

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