The characterization of South Bronx as an urban wasteland in 1970s has deep historical roots. Eddie Adams/AP

“An act of transforming the wasteland is seen as a redemptive activity that’s going to save the individual, the society, and the nation.”

This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.

The term “wasteland” recalls a variety of scenes. To some, it evokes the graffiti-tagged walls of neighborhoods in decline—“blighted” areas that are ripe for urban renewal projects. Others see images of defunct infrastructure. Wastelands can also be quite literal dumping grounds: hills of rubble, expanses of garbage, polluted lakes, and stinky streams.

But the assumptions underlying perceptions of these spaces and how we deal with them today actually go way back—to the Bible. In her book Wastelands: A History, Vittoria Di Palma, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, traces the roots of the concept. The highlights of her conversation with CityLab are below:

So, what is a wasteland?

I can tell you, it wasn't what I initially thought.

There are two major traditions that “wasteland” draws from. One is biblical discussions of wilderness. There’s also the early-modern English context, which has to do with different landholding patterns.

What I found through my research was that in the Bible, you had this term “wasteland” apply to a whole variety of sites: sandy sites, rocky sites, barren sites, and sites overgrown with thorns. There wasn't any kind of consistency. Then, when you look at 17th- and 18th-century English landscapes, “wastelands” were forests, commons, swamps, mountainous regions, and heaths. In every case, there was a huge variety of landscapes that fit into this category. So I struggled with that for while, asking, "what is the unifying characteristic?"

I was looking in the wrong place. These different kinds of landscapes did not have physical characteristics in common. But the thing that united [“wastelands”] was the language that was used to describe them. Their unifying feature was this aversive reaction they inspired. So, the question shifted from "what is a ‘wasteland?’" to "how does a ‘wasteland’ make us feel?" [The term] was really about a subjective reaction rather than an objective categorization.

How are wastelands different today?

What has changed is that different kinds of landscapes are now identified as “wastelands.” A swamp, which was an example of a 17th-century “wasteland,” is now—for us—a wetland with its own unique ecosystem of creatures. It's something we try to preserve, rather than eradicate. Right now, one of the most common types of sites identified as “wastelands” are post-industrial sites that have been either abandoned or contaminated. It's not just the blighted [urban] landscape, but things like chemical contamination and radiation, which we can't even see.

A swamp wasteland drained and divided into plots for farming, depicted in “A Map of the Great Levell Drayned” by William Dugdale from the book The History of Imbanking and Drayning of Divers Fenns and Marshes (London: 1662). (Courtesy of Vittoria Di Palma/The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles)            

Could you elaborate on what has remained constant in our perception of wastelands?

Some of the really significant continuities are that “wastelands,” in the 17th century and today, are sites that are seen to be without value. And they're without value because they challenge notions of proper use. So, these kinds of sites have weeds or invasive species rather than crops or flowers. They have have vermin rather animals. Their inhabitants are also condemned. Critics of the commons in the 17th century talked about the people in “wastelands” as a "starved," "scabby," and "rascally" race. These inhabitants were looked down upon because they, like the commons, were regarded as useless.

So first, there's a value judgment. Secondly, precisely because these people or places are seen as useless or without value, they seem to be calling out for some kind of improvement. In the 17th century, for example, there were programs to drain swamps and turn them into agricultural fields. Improvement becomes a really big part of the picture.

The other interesting thing that happens [when a space is deemed a “wasteland”] is that that marginality makes it a fertile terrain for utopian experimentation. [Back in England], you had movements like the diggers under Gerrard Winstanley who created this proto-Communist society, in which all land and goods are held in common.

You can see echoes of that in cities today, right? I’m thinking of Detroit as the most obvious example of a place that was considered a “wasteland” and is now being reimagined.

That's exactly the argument I'm trying to make. Now, we have communities that are going into Detroit, setting up in abandoned houses, engaging in art practices, communal living, and urban farming. This is exactly what Winstanley and the diggers were doing back in the 17th century on the commons.

Some modern-day efforts to reinvent the so-called “wasted” parts of the city have had very negative effects—intentional and unintentional. The urban renewal drives of the 20th century, or more recently, adaptive reuse projects like New York’s High Line, are examples. What gives this categorization such broad power?

First, the emptiness and malleability of the term. It can be applied to all kinds of different situations.

The other really critical factor is that the term “wasteland” is laden with this ethical imperative that has its roots in the Bible: an act of transforming the “wasteland” is seen as a redemptive activity that’s going to save the individual, the society, and the nation. This concept channels these fantasies that transformation is not just an economic need, but also moral work.

But it comes back to this idea of value judgments. Who decides what kind of activities are sanctioned, and what use of space is justified? This word "wasteland" is often deployed by outsiders who have the power to make those decisions: Riding a dirt bike in this area is not a sanctioned activity. What we want is a jungle gym for kids. These are all kinds of value judgments about what kind of people we want in this area and what kind of activities we want to see happen. Ultimately, calling an area a “wasteland,” in 17th century or today, has often been a tactic used to justify some kind of intervention that benefits the person deploying the term—and may or may not benefit the area’s original inhabitants, and flora and fauna.

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