Yet no similar recognition has been extended to the urban-rural interface. How could it? These jungles of marshalling yards and gravel pits, water-works and car scrapyards seem no more than repositories for functions we prefer not to think about: blots on the landscape. The apparently random pattern in which they are assembled seems to defy the concepts of orderly planning by humans and of harmony in nature. Should these edgelands follow the suburbs from the dark pit of universal disdain into the sunlit uplands of appreciation? Their story is at least as interesting as that of the suburbs.
Interfacial landscapes are the very antithesis of all this. The edgelands are raw and rough, and rather than seeming people-friendly are often sombre and menacing, flaunting their participation in activities we do not wholly understand. They certainly do not conform to people's chocolate-box idea of the picturesque. Tidiness is absent: no lawns here. If there is grassland, it is likely to be coarse and shaggy, perhaps grazed by a few sheep enclosed by derelict fencing. If ungrazed, it will be swamped by a riot of wild, invasive plants, fragments of tarmac, wrecks of cars and derelict buildings. We applaud the absence of litter in a landscape: the interface sucks in the detritus of modern life. Not only is litter and household waste casually dumped there, but formal waste-processing operations, such as car crushing, sewage treatment, or waste transfer are often deliberately located here, lest they despoil preferred environments. Edgeland rubbish tips may eventually be grassed over, but the cosmetic treatment of unsavoury artefacts is considered less necessary here than in either town or country.
The edgelands were scarcely noticed by planners until the 1960s, when Professor Alice Coleman of King's College London, during a land utilisation survey, uncovered the existence of fringe land that fell outside the neat land-use pattern of either farmscape or townscape.3 She called this 'the rurban fringe', where the distinction between town and country is blurred and, as a result, farmland is fragmented, or abandoned. She recommended that the rurban fringe should be reduced or eliminated either by being turned into proper townscape, with neatly rounded-off development or into productive farmland. Her views legitimised subsequent attempts to sanitise or otherwise neuter the edgelands up and down the country.
We need to rethink this approach. Although one could argue that it is a contradiction to try to intrude the dead hand of the planner into something whose character is to be free, I nonetheless think that we should. If we do not chronicle and assert the special wildlife and historical value of parts of our edgelands, for instance, these will disappear anyway. In the context of the edgelands, we need to see the planner not as the shaper of an entire environment but as a handmaiden, who helps along a universe he or she does not seek to control.
We also need to kindle greater interest in the edgelands and their component parts. We should see reservoirs and rubbish-tips as sources of fascination; by housing much of the apparatus without which settlements could not exist, they tell us about the way our society is. Car scrapyards are not only interesting but evoke new perceptions of contemporary life. Advertisements show cars in pristine form. In a scrapyard we see how they break, how they crumple and go rusty; in doing so we may find it easier to break free of their stranglehold over our lives and our environment.
Film festivals could discuss the ways in which the aura of excitement and apparent lawlessness of the edgelands have been exploited in film. It would be interesting to see artistic expression of the dynamism that the interface enshrines, rather than simply the decay and redundancy with which artists usually identify it. Interest could be encouraged through the promotion of exhibitions or competitions by local authorities with a stake in interfacial territory. Studies could build up a picture of human demography, industrial use, archaeological features and so on. Older citizens could be invited to describe the changes they have witnessed to their local edgelands during their lifetimes. Guidebooks and guided walks should open up this new world.
The notion of an ambiguous interzone between the urban and the rural is captured by the concept of edgelands. First coined by Marion Shoard, the term edgelands refers to those in-between spaces created by urbanisation where space for nature still persists alongside cities, towns, shopping centres, motorways, canals, and so on. These zones sit between urban and rural areas, and they also sit uneasily between the two categories of urban and rural, often defying an easy definition. The edgelands have been much written about but they have never been entirely pinned down. It is in their very nature to be resilient and flexible, popping up in places where they are neither expected nor wanted, and often not really noticed.
As mentioned above, shopping centres and out of town retail parks are keen to bring some feel of nature into their purview with planted trees, bushes or plants. This may not sit entirely with the idea of edgelands because these are really more corporate garden spaces than edgelands proper. But this just highlights the fluid nature of the concept. But something that always hangs over the idea of edgelands is the question of ownership. These places often give the impression of being ownerless due to their state of deterioration but in other cases, such as the aforementioned retail parks, the impression is one of excessive and dulling control; a dash of nature merely as an appendage to the consumer experience. Ownership emerges as an important question either through neglect or fussy corporate management but once it enters into the discussion it raises some important issues.
And lying at the back of this question of ownership is the repressed trauma of the enclosure of the commons. This devastating, centuries-long process redrew the map of Britain both physically and psychologically. Much of the sense of dislocation that the idea of edgelands brings into play comes from the fact that these areas are often inheritors of ad hoc functions that have grown into being due to the unsettled lack of specificity of the spaces themselves. Their status is often one of an in-between place where much of the labour anterior to modern capitalism takes place. In some way that is rarely noted, the development from large areas of common land just outside habitations to the present edgelands landscapes that we see now is a major shift in the way that we position ourselves in relation to the land. The dispossession of the commons is a wound that has never healed and the odd, blinkered, uncertain ways in which we respond to edgelands spaces is a consequence of this loss of psychic confidence. This land is no longer our land, it is a utility for transient capital investment.
This question of ownership has been discussed recently with reference to urban environments. The increasing development of privately owned public spaces (POPS) is something that is a particular issue in London and other large cities but its implications are of wider importance. These areas appear to be public spaces but they are actually owned and regulated by private landowners. The question of ownership and function here is not so much one of ambiguity and liminality as is the case with edgelands spaces, but one of downright disenfranchisement. In a recent interview the architect Sam Jacob captured the sense of disjunction that these spaces seek to elide:
In any case, it is beyond doubt that the conflict over the means of visual expression within cities has been won by the corporations whose changing visual landscape is a significant part of the experience of living in a city. Many cities are now approaching the look of the 2019 city as depicted in Blade Runner. The role of visual culture in a municipal sense is mostly confined to the interiors of buildings (art galleries) although some public art still exists. But the dominant visual impression apart from architecture is that provided by advertising. In a way that mirrors the movement from common land to edgeland, the visual culture of city centres has moved from municipal public art to corporate advertising.
In some ways, the edgelands have already taken on something of this character but sadly in a rather negative respect. Places like canal towpaths, industrial estates and railway sidings are already locations for sex attacks, prostitution, dogging and murder. The lowest and most unmediated impulses have found their place in the edgelands. But the task for us is to recognise that the edgelands themselves only attract those sorts of behaviours at the moment because they exist in some way outside of the timeframe of the city and also outside of its mores. Traditional folklore often draws upon murder, rape and other such personal tragedies for its subject matter and the edgelands currently provide the lawless backdrop for such crimes.
From the early medieval period through to the beginnings of industrialisation there were boundaries that marked the edge of the village or town. Beyond these boundaries there was a dangerous, wild zone where the nightmares of the community were incubated and born as the monsters and supernatural entities of folklore. Since the completion of the post war infrastructure projects that are documented in Boring Postcards, such as motorway building, we have enjoyed increased mobility, and consequently we have pretty much erased the concept of distinct borders around our communities. The road network has joined distant places together and an unintended consequence is that the notion of an outside to the community has been delegated to the edgelands areas. The edgelands have taken on the character of the vast wooded areas of Britain that used to separate different parts of the country. And, where once we would fear going astray in the woods, we must now face the sinister aspect of the edgelands and begin to populate them with the denizens of a new folklore. 2b1af7f3a8