The Potential of Absence
Informal Green Space and its Unexpected Legacies
Text and photographs by Christoph Rupprecht
Vacant lots, dismissed after another housing bubble bursts. Concrete banks of a flood-protected river, scheduled for re-greening projects that will never be funded. Street verges nobody cared to decorate with flowerpots. Railway verges, necessary buffers mown or sprayed to keep them “empty.” Leftover gaps of space in the infrastructure, too small to be monetized. These are not places we expect to leave behind legacies. We can understand them through absence: no buildings, no plans, few rules. But freedom of purpose can also mean freedom from purpose. It makes room for actors often excluded from urban discourse—and their legacies.
Plants and lichens are usually the first visible pioneers of the urban ecological frontier. Seeds, patiently waiting in the soil for decades or carried by the wind, germinate to make the most of openings in the urban landscape. A crack in the pavement is plenty to work with. Fences, intended to limit access, instead facilitate rampant growth. Signs and legal liabilities matter little to plants. Whether left alone or periodically removed, spontaneous vegetation creates informal greenspace from absence—a floral legacy, inviting all to join. 
Animals follow, searching for food, shelter, company, or play. Verges teeming with butterflies, with vacant lots where moles rule underground and nocturnal feline choirs at night. An insect banquet in the form of leaf sap, until a grazing deer plucks it underneath the power line. Only mythic creatures remain in the hidden city of Theodora, but informal greenspace is firmly in the claws and paws of the nonextinct—a faunistic legacy. 
People come looking, too, curious what’s going on. A place to walk the dog off-leash, find flowers, bugs, or solitude. Urban exploration (as the grown-ups like to call it) fills in for journeys past, far from the parents’ watchful eyes. A shelter for the night(s), but with due care to not offend the wealthy people’s eyes. The bucolic pleasure of growing vegetables and wine combined with urban density, where gardens space is precious. Together, everyone’s footsteps, experiences, and shaping of the place—another, informal, yet personal legacy.
All these legacies are as inherently transient as the informal green space they are made in. Everyday a new building might take its place, even though the seed bank was refilled, forage enjoyed, and memories of adventures are still alive. Planners and developers rush to find commercially viable and visually attractive ideas, anything to bring these spaces back into the formal economy. The New York Highline shows how we can sanitize them, to make designer parks in line with norms of beauty and lure tourists (send that land price soaring!). But is this the only future worth it? What could we inherit if we resist this urge to prescribe purpose? How can we learn to embrace floral, faunistic, and informal legacies?
1. Christoph D. D. Rupprecht and Jason A. Byrne, “Informal Urban Green-Space: Comparison of Quantity and Characteristics in Brisbane, Australia and Sapporo, Japan,” PLoS ONE 9, no.6 (2014), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099784.
2. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
Christoph Rupprecht is a PhD candidate in urban geography and ecology at Griffith University, with a Magister Artium in Japanology from Ludwig-Maximilian University (Munich). He enjoys combining qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the role informal greenspace plays for urban residents and urban nature.
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