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RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition 2024 commended: the new tenants of Govan Docks, by Zachariasz Czerwinski

Zachariasz Czerwinski

Zachariasz Czerwinski, a Part 2 student at the University of Strathclyde, marvels at the fauna and flora that have flourished in Glasgow’s abandoned docks and shipyards

Govan docks, Glasgow.
Govan docks, Glasgow. Credit: Reading Tom, reproduced under Creative Commons license

In a curious act of poetic justice, the areas that have seen the biggest human impact and interference, the most destroyed industrial landscapes, have in the decades since their abandonment become hotspots of biodiversity of great ecological value. Now, with a lot of those sites facing redevelopment, there is a pressing need to recognise and integrate their ecological value into new proposals.

One such example is the Graving Docks in Govan, Glasgow. Completed in 1898, these docks were pivotal in the city’s shipbuilding industry, which reached its zenith just before the First World War when it contributed to the launch of one-fifth of the world’s ships. However, the aftermath of the Second World War marked the onset of a gradual decline in manufacturing across the UK, leading to the relocation of shipyards and factories overseas during the 1970s and 80s. Consequently, the Graving Docks ceased operations in 1987. As industry withdrew, it left behind an ecological vacuum, quickly filled by non-human beings. Over almost three decades, a mosaic habitat flourished, as goat willows, buddleias, ferns and grasses settled the whinstone setts and hand-carved granite blocks of its floors and walls.

Brownfield sites might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing biodiversity in urban areas but current research suggests they might form a key part of the landscapes of future cities. Abandoned industrial areas have found new tenants in the form of pioneering species of fauna and flora. Those species, so-called synanthropes or ruderals, adapt to survive in human-influenced environments. While the ecosystems they form differ from the commonly shared ideas of what is natural, aesthetic or valuable, researchers have found in them incredible resilience, self-regulation and diversity. Their ecological value is said to be equal to that of nature reserves, woodland and marshes, but if their capacity for growth is taken as a measure, they might be the most natural nature.

Recently, the spatial void left by deindustrialisation along the Clyde has seen extensive redevelopment, with other docks like Queens Dock and Kingston Quay being filled in for the construction of the SECC and housing developments. In fact, the Graving Docks are now one of the last ‘undeveloped’ sites along its privatised banks. As the housing crisis continues and property values in Govan continue to rise, the site’s A-listing, which has saved it from proposals in the past, is less of a discouragement for developers. A proposal to build 300 new homes along the site’s southern boundary and reinstate one of the docks for ship repair is now under consideration. There has been significant backlash against redevelopment, especially from the Clyde Docks Preservation Initiative, which wants to see the site turned into a cultural centre telling the story of Clyde’s shipbuilding industry.

It is undeniable that, for a lot of Govanites, the overgrown docks are a blight on the local landscape; an ugly reminder of the loss of prosperity of the former burgh. However, as local groups clash over whether the site should become a residential development or a cultural centre, there exists an alternative interpretation – one that considers the current inhabitants of the docks. The research of Ruth Olden, a landscape architect with a doctorate in human geography from the University of Glasgow, suggests that some of the locals have grown attached to the green mantle covering the site. People living in the area – many of whom used to work in the shipbuilding industry during its heyday – look at the fauna and flora of the docks with appreciation and respect, often pointing out how unbelievable it seems for nature to flourish in such harsh conditions. It is possible that the rewilding of the site has helped many to process the trauma of deindustrialisation, as a mediating scab that allows for the landscape to heal.

In 2014, a group of local residents, researchers, artists and community workers met for a public eulogy, after learning that the next day most of the greenery would be removed with chainsaws to prepare for a site survey. A coracle was built with willow and a life ring, then filled with dried ferns and wood before it was lit and released onto the water of the Clyde – a ritual that proves there is more to the docks than just a story of shipbuilding.

I have the unshakeable feeling that to redevelop the docks as if they were any other brownfield site would be an immense missed opportunity. They represent a unique condition where the landscape of post-industrial decay became host to a novel and diverse ecosystem. As our attention focuses more on the importance of biodiversity in urban areas, the protection of sites like these could become a key aspect of development plans for local authorities. Inspiration can be taken from the disused Victorian railway belt in Paris, the so-called Petite Ceinture, which has been turned into a semi-wild park and green route with huge success.

In Glasgow, however, nothing is certain – as the docks’ turbulent planning history attests. While we await the council’s decision regarding the current redevelopment, nature’s colonising efforts are relentless. In the 10 years since the site was last cleared, the fauna and flora have already made a reappearance. Perhaps we should let it be.

Zachariasz Czerwinski is a Part 2 student at the University of Strathclyde

See the 2024 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition shortlist and results here and all prize-winning entries here