Which nature is legitimate?

Riverfront redevelopment and urban agriculture
   With the popularization of environmentalism, a resurgence of urban agriculture has been observed in Taiwan in recent years. NGOs, communities and even the government advocate for community gardens, home gardening, farmers’ markets, local food movements and shrinking the food footprint. The legitimacy of urban agriculture has thus been elevated and even gained the endorsement of official policy.
   Moreover, Taipei’s riverfront area, which was once fenced off by an embankment and regarded as nothing but wilderness, has been given a fresh look and is currently being transformed into spaces for recreation and ecological conservation. Green spaces, playgrounds, an ecological reserve, an artificial wetland, ferry piers, light sculptures that shine at night around the bridges, as well as attractions designed specifically for tourists all comprise the completely new waterfront landscape. Originally, the area suffered from flooding; however, the waterfront now boasts high-priced residential buildings that pride themselves on having the finest waterscape.
   Despite the rising status of urban agriculture and waterfront landscapes, the informal gardens on the riverside have received little attention and have even been excluded during riverfront redevelopment. These gardens were part of the landscape long before the riverside area entered the spotlight, and they have a derelict appearance because they are littered with disused materials and occasionally emit a foul smell because of fertilizer use. Moreover, cultivating informal gardens on the riverside violates land use regulations and hence could be considered an illegal occupation of public land. Currently, informal gardens are considered outdated and illegal spaces that lack the legitimacy to rank as either part of the newly valorized waterfront or the renaissance of urban agriculture.
   However, a long-term evaluation might alter our understanding of these riverside gardens. An analysis with historical depth will reveal that so-called legitimate natural spaces, such as green spaces, artificial wetlands, pet parks and wild bird reserves, are not self-evident; therefore, seemingly outdated informal gardens should not be regarded unquestionably as a type of inferior nature that deserves exclusion.
   As studies of urban political ecology have gained popularity, the traditional dichotomy of city and nature has gradually broken down, and these studies can contribute to our exploration of how these informal gardens arise. The perspective of production of the nature in this field shows that nature is not as pure as some believe; rather, it is the result of social production and cultural construction. Recent researchers have also proposed the concepts of urban nature, urbanization of nature, and urban metabolism to capture the mixed quality of hybrid nature or cyborg urbanization.
   Still, definite answers are not available for how and why hybrid urban nature undergoes alterations. Scholars focusing on macro-structural tendencies use notions such as neo-liberalization, privatization (or commodification), and ecological gentrification to capture the driving forces that lead to changes in the nature of urban spaces. Researchers embracing Michel Foucault’s ideas of power and governmentality tend to promote subjectification and power/knowledge during the transformation of urban nature by depicting the organization of the ecological governance regime. Finally, studies of science, technology, and society (STS), especially Actor-Network Theory (ANT), stress the co-constitution of natural objects, societal elements, and technology as well as the heterogeneous dynamics of their emerging networks.
   Crudely speaking, political economy, Foucauldian perspectives and STS (especially ANT) are the three important approaches for exploring urban nature. While combining these approaches is not an easy task, we believe that such an attempt is worthwhile and can be realized as a multifarious analytical framework containing macro, meso, and micro levels. Therefore, we propose an analytical framework of structural tendencies, governance regimes, and networks of practice to explore the long-term vicissitudes of riverside farming along the Xindian River. We hope to outline the production and transformation of different urban natural spaces and the differentiated legitimacy of these spaces.
   Our analysis is as follows. First, although hydraulic systems were once built by the Han people during their reclamation of the Taipei basin, such systems gradually faded away during the periods of Japanese colonialism and early post-war years, and structural tendencies toward urbanization were promoted during these periods. However, networks of farming practices in the suburbs and riverfronts still prospered at this stage. As part of the food supply chain and with the support of land ownership, a strong network of farming was established.
   However, the 1960s witnessed rapid urbanization and increasing typhoon damage to the now-urbanized area. A regime of flood-prevention therefore arose, which launched the construction of an embankment that separated the waterfront into inner and outer areas. The farms located inside the embankment were thus transformed into land for construction, whereas the land outside was expropriated by authorities, who diminished or even destroyed the once-strong network as they demolished private dwellings along the bank. The flood-prevention regime rendered the outside of the embankment as a place of “others”, and although legal farms were observed prior to the development of waterfront parks, illegal and marginal activities were also abundant. Many migrants from rural areas cultivated informal gardens for sustenance, which led to the emergence of a weak farming network that was illegal in terms of property rights and violated hydraulic regulations but was remarkably lively.
   In the 1980s, a new regime of recreation under the banner of waterfront greenification gradually emerged, and waterfront parks were established; however, informal gardens faced elimination. A number of farmers asked the land owners for legal permission to farm, whereas others simply relocated to more deeply hidden places to continue farming. The weak farming network was thereby diminished and came to be replaced by the new textures and networks of practices that were characterized by waterfront recreation. This process has framed the government’s and citizens’ recognition of informal riverside gardens. The differentiated status of urban nature manifests itself through the rise and fall of riverside gardens.
   Briefly, our contemporary downgrading of riverside gardens can be traced to the structural tendency of urbanization, which facilitates the emergence of the regimes of flood-prevention and then recreation and ultimately leads to the rise and fall of farming networks. This process has dramatically transformed a landscape that once featured the symbiosis of city and suburban agriculture. Based on the recent popularity of urban gardens, the functions of those informal gardens could be reevaluated and incorporated into the cultivation of our waterfront landscape rather than eliminated.

Figure 1. Informal vegetable gardens along the Xindian riverfront.
Source: Photograph by Jo-Tzu Huang.
Figure 2. Area outside the embankment of the Yong-he section of the Xindian River showing an expansive area of informal gardens (inside the dotted line).
Source: Based on Google Earth (retrieved 2002/12/15).
Figure 3. Riverside gardens have been decreasing and the waterfront landscape is being transformed into cycling trails, green spaces, recreation spaces and wetlands.
Source: Based on Google Earth (retrieved 2014/7/18).

Huang, H., and Wang, C. (2015). Which nature is legitimate? The dissolving and reconstruction of vegetable gardens along the Xin-Dian riverfront. Taiwanese Journal of Sociology, 59, 29-91. (in Chinese)

Chih-Hung Wang
Professor, Graduate Institute of Building and Planning