FSC logo
Urban ecosystems
Abandoned railway land

Grassland developed on chalk rubble
on old railway sidings in Islington.


There are many reasons why wasteland exists in towns and cities, e.g.

Such sites may be referred to as brownfield sites but there is some disagreement about this term. Many think the term should only include recently abandoned land but developers often take it to mean previously developed urban land, now almost completely recolonised by woodland, grassland or other semi-natural vegetation.

The value of urban wasteland

Urban wasteland potentially provides lots of different microhabitats (e.g. bare soil) as well as other substrates such as broken up tarmac and concrete, piles of rubble, stones and timber. It often has a varying topography with flat open areas, hummocks, holes and depressions. Here are some examples of urban wasteland.

soil heaps
Heaps of soil and rubble
Areas of gravel
piles of stones
Piles of stones
Trackways with bare soil

Old buildings
old walls
Old walls

Succession is the key ecological process in the recolonisation of these sites. Scattered across urban areas, such sites provide a mosaic of different habitats all in different stages of succession, helping to increase biodiversity (the richness of wildlife) in the urban ecosystem.

Urban wasteland often provides unusual habitats especially in the early stages of succession and therefore provides an opportunity for colonisation by rare or exotic species. Two of the rare species found at Gillespie Ecology Park, a small park developed on abandoned land in Islington (long-tailed blue butterfly and bee orchid) are shown below. Where the sites are linear (e.g. old railway tracks) they have additonal value as wildlife corridors.

Long-tailed blue butterfly Bee orchid
Long-tailed blue butterfly Bee orchid
Area of coppiced hazel trees

An old cooker and fridge
illegally dumped on wasteland

Threats to urban wasteland

Urban wasteland is not only valuable for wildlife but also for human use so throughout history it has been created and then destroyed by redevelopment. Unfortunately today the rate of redevelopment is faster than the rate of creation.

The main threat is the housing shortage. The current government policy is to put 60% of all new housing on brownfield sites by 2008. By 2005 this had already been achieved. In London 73% of new housing in London was built on brownfield sites.

A second threat is the lack of awareness of the importance of these sites to urban biodiversity. Many waste land sites look unattractive; they are vandalised and used by people for antisocial and illegal purposes.

Taxes on landfill, and other difficulties with the disposal of waste material, mean that are frequently subjected to fly tipping. Where such sites are waiting for redevelopment they may be 'tidied up' to try and enhance their amenity value for people, but unfortunately in such a way that is detrimental to wildlife.

What is being done?

Since the government target for building homes on brownfield sites had already been overtaken by 2005, the Environment Agency has suggested that brownfield sites should be considered for sustainable uses other than building and that environmental improvement should be an integral part of the regeneration of brownfield sites.

Many wildlife groups, e.g. Buglife (an invertebrate conservation group) and the London Wildlife Trust, are setting up projects to carry out survey work and highlight those sites of especial value so that they may be conserved or to ensure that policies beneficial to the wild life are incorporated in to the development plans. The Canvey Island Project is a good example of how redevelopment plans can benefit both wildlife and people.

There is also a need to make people more aware of how important some of these sites are and how they can be managed for both people and wildlife. Gillespie Ecology Park in Islington provides an excellent example of how the wasteland character of an area can be protected and managed. Involvement of local schools and communities helps to raise public awareness and give people a sense of ownership.

Looking for a next step?
The FSC offers a range of publications, courses for schools and colleges and courses for adults, families and professionals that relate to the urban environment. Why not find out more about the FSC?

Copyright © 2009 Field Studies Council  
Creative Commons License
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Licence

Do you have any questions?