The Hidden Beauty of Brownfields
Wasteland. Derelict. Disused. These terms usually describe the run-down appearance of a piece of land previously used for industrial purposes. Such wastelands may be contaminated by toxic waste or pollution, with pieces of junk and rubble that testify to its past life as a commercial or industrial site. No one would mistake such a place for a piece of paradise.
And so it is all the more surprising that many such sites, also called brownfields, are home to a mosaic of unusual plant species and insects. According to BBC Nature brownfields are vital habitats particularly in the UK, but are often overlooked.
“Wasteland mini-microclimate” is what bare brownfields become when warmed by the sun. Richard Fox of the Butterfly Conservation stated that such unique habitats are great for insects, especially in a cool and damp country like Britain. Many rare insects thrive on brownfields particularly moths. The small ranunculus, known to have disappeared from the UK in mid 20th century, is cited as an example. Today the species has made a comeback in large parts of southeast England, south Wales, and even sighted as far as Lancashire.
Not only insects but unique plants also flourish in brownfield sites. Hardy plants and wildflowers like rosebay willowherb and dandelions thrive in “wastelands” because there are no common weeds to push them out. This in turn supports unusual insect species which feed on them.
Ecology professor Philip James at the University of Salford declared that brownfields could have a unique ecological importance because they become home to rare species. He even suggested that such sites be left alone when they support the greatest species richness, since they usually change in a few years when soil begins to build up and vegetations change. Professor James described such habitats as transient and added that they could be part of the richness of a changing urban landscape.
BBC produced a series on brownfield sites, documenting the usually hidden richness and beauty of such sites as oil refineries, mini chalk downlands, and old power stations. In an old oil refinery in Essex alone a reported 1,400 species thrive, effectively transforming the area from disused industrial site to an important biodiversity spot. An old power station becomes an “accidental nature reserve” when marshes and estuaries create undisturbed habitats for birds.
The Buglife Invertebrate Conservation Trust advocates the conservation of such brownfield sites. According to their page on Brownfields, open bare areas are often undervalued and targeted for new development projects by most government policies. This is even when brownfields act as surrogate habitats and often as a last refuge for many species affected by humans’ influence on the environment. The biodiversity in them are also not taken into account, even when these are comparatively higher than other habitats because of the low-nutrient content of brownfield sites. Buglife advocates a “biodiversity first” approach to brownfields, conserving sites with high biodiversity and prioritizing low-biodiversity sites for urban development instead.
The hidden beauty and ecological importance of high-biodiversity brownfields can teach us a meaningful lesson on the resilience of nature. It is a symbol of hope that life and nature can thrive even in the most unexpected places; and how much more beauty and richness we can see and enjoy in conserving the rest of our natural world.
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