The Social Ecology of Ruins

Written by Theo Rouhette

The proliferation of decayed factories, military installations, rural villages or transportation networks is often attributed to the force of creative destruction under capitalism, the endogenous process that ‘incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’ (Schumpeter, 1942). Marxist thinkers focused on the relevance of creative destruction for critical urban geography and the study of urbanization (Harvey, 2008). Urbanization exemplifies how capitalism provides both the means of production of an urban architecture and social organization fit-for-purpose, as well as the conditions for its subsequent abandonment and programmed decay through social disintegration and urban exodus. Where this ‘accelerated archaeology’ captures essential characteristics of capitalism, ruins capture as material symbols the urban decay and programmed obsolescence inherent to capitalist development (Stallabrass, 1996).

Cities like Detroit or Glasgow, with histories characterized by rapid cycles of industrialization and abandonment, of development and depopulation, are privileged sites of investigation of ruins. The semantic used to describe these places in the literature and the media perpetuates this symbolism, Detroit becoming ‘the monstrous city’ haunted by ghosts and zombies (Draus & Roddy 2016). The cultural corollary of this lens on ruins is the emphasis on the dystopian representations in cinema, literature, music and arts. To the image of the photographic portfolio of Camilo Jose Vergara, this ‘dark side’ becomes their dominant aspect in the popular imaginary, which results in their association with poverty, violence and neglect, up to post-apocalyptic and post-human narratives of the future in science-fiction (Dobraszczyk, 2017)⁠

However, Henri Lefebvre reminds us in his writings on the right to the city that ‘the most important thing is to have multiple readings of the city’ (Lefebvre, 1996). If we were to consider the ruins of our cityscapes, could another narrative of their emergence and of their societal functions be proposed, and what would this new story tell us about the potential afterlives of ruined space?

The essay will explore how social ecology, a critical social theory developed by the life-long radical activist and political theorist Murray Bookchin, can offer an alternative lecture of ruins. Social ecology considers the on-going ecological devastation to be the consequence of social problems, and proposes a model for future societies rooted in mutual aid, diversity and freedom. Tracing the roots of the multidimensional crisis back to modes of organization structured around hierarchy and domination, from patriarchy and class struggle to speciesism, it advocates for a radical transformation of society around humanist, ecological and democratic lines (Biehl, 2015).

This brief overview of the social ecology of ruins will focus on three aspects of the rich body of literature of this theory. First, social ecology is rooted in a radical critic of capitalism and urbanization that influences how we frame the production and meaning of ruined space. Second, its ecological humanism, working towards a reconciliation of nature and society, will propose alternative meanings and roles of ruins as urban materialities. Lastly, we will explore how the afterlives of ruins can become the material repositories of its political project, communalism, allowing emancipatory practices to emerge in the shell of the past.

Ruination as erosion of citizenship

First, how can the social ecology critic of urbanization generates an alternative definition and reading of the emergence of ruins in cityscapes? In Urbanization without Cities, Murray Bookchin argues that the trends of rapid urbanization should not be taken as a mere growth of cities, or a change in degree, but rather as a transformation in kind of the urban sphere. Urbanization is diametrically opposed to citification, or the process of building ‘communities of the heart’ where, through collective empowerment and moral associations, inhabitants of the city become active and engaged in public life and develop a sense of citizenship rooted in shared ideological concern (Bookchin, 1992). The historical metamorphosis of human-scaled cities into industrial towns and ultimately financial megalopolis, to use Mumford’s terminology, has precisely destroyed the material grounds for rich and dynamic civic life, with devastating political and psychological effects on individuals who become mere taxpayers and consumers rather than active citizens.

The consequences of the process for a working definition of ruins in general are important. Ruins are defined and imagined as buildings or infrastructure that were built, used and subsequently abandoned or neglected, left to linger and decay; leaving what Edensor (2001)⁠ calls a locus horribilus that becomes an authentic allegory of destruction for Walter Benjamin (Stead 2003)⁠. Yet, from a social ecology perspective, it can be argued that they do not become ruins after they fall into misuse, but instead are raised as ruins as soon as they are planned when they do not intend to meaningfully contribute to the civic lives of citizens but instead generates an isolating sprawl, a view shared by Peter Calthorpe in his talk on building better cities (Calthorpe, 2017).

Photo 1: Unfinished building in Sandyford, near Dublin, by Crispin Rodwell/Bloomberg

Indeed, if the purpose of the urban materiality is to support active public life, and urbanization stands in absolute opposition to this original purpose, then it can only be deduced that the constructions erected by the forces of profit, capital and money are, even before their construction, useless and emptied of their historical purpose, in a metaphorically ruined state. The status of ‘ruins in reverse’ is expanded beyond unfinished architecture (DeSilvey & Edensor, 2012)

Therefore, urbanization in social ecology bears more resemblance with the process of ruination itself than with the mere development of the urban over the rural, as “city space with its human propinquity, distinctive neighbourhoods, and humanly scaled politics […] is being absorbed by urbanization, with its smothering traits of anonymity, homogeneization, and institutional gigantism” (Bookchin, 1992). The mechanism of urban planning, described by James C. Scott in his analysis of the high-modernist city, demonstrates how huge, hierarchical and centralized cities were raised through systematic demolition, standardization, rationalization, and taylorization, as observed in the writings and architectural achievements of Le Corbusier (Scott, 1998). This complete mechanization leaves a city devoid of life and civic engagement, in a mist the architectural symbols of the forces of state planning and market expansion.

The hidden potentialities of ruins

Reconciliation of nature and society through interstitial ecologies

Yet, are we not taking the risk of limiting our comprehension of ruins when approaching them from such a socio-economic critic of capitalism and urbanization? The philosophical outlook of social ecology, following a rich dialectical tradition from Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, isa humanist and ecological outlook that can inverse the recurrent lecture of ruins as dark, violent and threatening spaces. Developed in The Philosophy of Social Ecology, this eco-humanist philosophychallenges the historical divide between nature and society, both its Hobbesian and Rousseauistforms, in order to conceptualize society, or ‘second nature’, as an organic emergence from the environment, or ‘first nature’ (Bookchin, 1994). This developmental approach focuses on their co-evolution, adaptation and interdependence seeing nature as a ground for ethics.

Applied to the materiality of ruins, they shift from being the mere left-overs of the capitalist mega-machine to become the precursors of a reconciliation between nature and society. Indeed, ruins are sites with their own ‘interstitial ecologies’ where the wide variety of organisms, from trees, bacteria, mosses, grasses, birds and scavengers, re-vegetate and recolonize a space once appropriated by humans. These sites become the geographies where new forms of competition, mutualism, and symbiosis emerge at the liminal space between the anthropogenic and the biotic realms, challenging constructed dichotomies : ‘[s]uch spaces are perhaps best understood as ‘ecological cofabrications’, where a unique ‘politics of conviviality’ accommodates both human and non-human agency’ (Desilvey & Edensor 2012)⁠.

Photo 2: Shot of a vegetated attraction park in Austria, by Stefan Baumann.

In that sense, urban wastelands and abandoned factories transform into what ecologists call ‘novel ecosystems’, and what social ecologists would call, ‘novel ecocommunities’. Ruins hence are seen as liminal sites for such a re-harmonization advocated by social ecologists, echoing similar calls from radical thinkers, such as the ‘ecological sensibility’ of Herbert Marcuse and the ‘renewal of life’ of Lewis Mumford (Marcuse, 1969; Morris, 2017). Thinking of ruins as lived spaces with more-than-human geographies opens up new ways of conceiving the afterlife of ruins and its ecological components, be they plants, scavengers, or city dwellers.

New sensibilities and imaginaries in ruined spaces

Despite this potential, the current ruin imaginary is rooted in decay and decline, making evident the effects of capitalism, but also distancing itself from the people living and experiencing the place. Ruin imaginary focused on derelict infrastructure and architecture, less so on the people, can create demoralization, embarrassment and disempowerment (Apel, 2015). Yet, the dialectical thinking of social ecology encourages us to imagine not merely what is but also what ought to be in a democratic and ecological society. What universe of possibles can we imagine for ruins?

As vegetation and animals create new forms of life where they were once eliminated, ruins further provide a space for rupture with the conventional, with the expected, with the conform, and where the normative ideas embodied in the design of the city indeed break down. This lived absence of formal settings or of codified rules in ruins is the opportunity to experience what is beyond the reality of urban life, both materially and affectively. This allows ruined spaces to accommodate and encourage alternative narratives about the concrete, the memories, and about the marginal in the urban fabric, away from the visions of planners, promoters and decision-makers.

Photo 3: The HAUS, abandoned bank in Berlin that the collective Die Dixons and 165 artists took over to create a living experience through arts from a variety of styles and disciplines(photo credits: kersavond on

Taking advantage of the ruins liminality, collectives of artists and activists develop a vision of what society could be, could look like, could be lived and experienced. Ruins seenas sites for transgressive, communal arts create opportunities for decentralizing, democratization and engaging communities (Krause, 2011). The politicization of arts in ruins further occur through what Anja Kanngieser refers to as performative encounter, or a collective and creative articulation ‘dedicated to activating new relations between people, and is affirmative of autonomous and convivial ways of living and being’ (Kanngieser 2012).⁠ Performative encounters reflects how experimentation, this expression of novelty and creativity, shapes and is shaped by the alterity of ruins. By expanding their field of possibles, encounters around marginal materiality can create networks and collaborations where alternative imaginaries and sensibilities can spring and flourish.

Communalist practice in the ruins

Aware of the latent potentialities of these ruined spaces, we will now interrogate the ways in which their afterlives can be used and shaped by the communal practices advocated by social ecologists. Communalism is a living solution to the multidimensional crisis that seek to challenge the state and the market by advocating for direct democracy at the municipal level. Inspired by a rich tradition of libertarian socialism and eco-anarchism, it bears special interest for what Bookchin called in The Ecology of Freedom, the ‘forms of freedom’, the instances where human societies have emancipated themselves from systems of control through mutual aid and reciprocity (Bookchin, 2005). While communal institutions and practices are diverse, exploring them provides insights on the possibility of using the afterlives of ruined space to promote social change. Inspired by an organic thinking of materiality and a vision of potentiality of urban fabric, so-called ruins shift from being a waste to a resource to be used and lived in creative ways ranging from political resistance to community building and urban regeneration.

Resistance and the right to housing

First, abandoned blocks, derelict buildings and empty flats have notoriously been occupied and used as an act of political resistance to the housing crisis caused by speculative commodification. The squatting movements all over the world testify to the potential of empty buildings to recover from the status of ruin and adopt a new envelope as homes, refuges and camps. Talking about the Berlin occupation-based movements of the 1960’s, Alex Vasudevan explores how these oppositional strategies have effectively attempted to form an “alternative public sphere and a renewed right to urban life”, in the words of Rene Lefebvre (Vasudevan, 2017). The characteristic modes of self-management, or autogestion, challenges the hierarchies and discriminations in the housing sectorthrough the creation of radically autonomous spaces where conventional norms are disrupted and new ones can be created around collective and common property.

Photo 4: K77 after the fall of the Berlin wall which precipitated a wave of squatting in East Berlin, by Michael Schroedter

This alternative habitus made possible by occupation of abandoned or empty buildings produces a common field where co-operative living, political commitments and emotional attachments all intersect. The transgressive re-appropriation of ruins constitutes grounds for communal practices through solidarity and collective self-determination.

Kastanienalle 77, or K77, in East Berlin.exemplifies how this progressive transition from squat to communal housing project evolves, and how ‘architectural experimentation come to play in the performance of alternative political practices’ (Vasudevan, 2017). The fall of the Berlin Wall precipitated a wave of squatting in East Berlin from which K77 springs, an abandoned complex of three houses and three interior courtyards that hosted more than 100 persons since its creation. In the words of German artist Joseph Beuys, K77 is the fruit of an effort to build a ‘social sculpture’ in a common space for ‘non-speculative, self-defined, communal life, work, culture’. K77 developed and evolved into an ‘architectural laboratory for user participation and self-organisation’ hosting a non-profit cinema, a ceramics workshop, studio space and a homeopathic clinic (Vasudevan 2017)

Community building and empowerment

What starts within the ruins through squatting can further flourish when they are seen as shared resource for the local community. Then, the derelict land and space can be re-appropriated, re-used and re-infused with social and ecological activities that can strengthen and support strong community bonds in a deprived neighbourhood or village subjected to ruination. Through a process of education and mutual aid, collective activities and projects in the ruins contribute to the empowerment of local communities both materially and socially.

The types of transgressive encounters in what can be qualified as ‘void’ spaces, where void is taken “as a locus for the reconstruction of subjectivities, where the suspension of inherited determinations calls for the practice of choice”, are all testimonies of the emancipatory potential of ruins (Sebregondi, 2017). As opposed to a ‘neoliberal citizenship’, where individuals are reduced to mere constituents and consumers, communalism in the marginal and ruined spaces could provide opportunities to forge a revived sense of citizenship through participation (Brown, 2017). The creation of ‘informal alternative learning spaces’ further echoes the importance of paideia in social ecology, or the collective education of members of the city (Haworth & Elmore, 2017). The Do It Yourself (DIY) culture springing in a wide variety of cities, such as community gardens in Glasgow,demonstrates how ruins can be active agents of community empowerment and social revival (Crossman, 2016).

A short digression away from urban centres to the countryside might further help understand this process, where it is rural exodus rather than urban exodus that is the motor of ruination. The disenfranchised youth of crisis-ridden countries effectively re-colonize abandoned villages in the mountains to develop a materially self-sufficient and politically horizontal community lifestyle. The eco-villages, or eco-communes, of Lakabe or Matavenero in Spain and Torri Superiore in Italian Alps are all examples of how ruins were re-infused with life and creativity.

Photo 5Panoramic view of Torri Superiore, in Italian Alps, a previously abandoned village restored in 1989 by a local association and now operating as a cultural center (by Ecovillaggio Torri Superiore)

Space and urban regeneration

Going further down the rabbit hole, we start to see how ruins framed under the communalist lens can participate in the re-organisation of the spatial politics of cities and paradoxically become the material basis for urban regeneration. The transgressive nature of ruins can participate in the formulation of a new culture where open public space becomes the space of self-determination and where “a politic of possibility” can evolve (Springer, 2013).

Through the emergence of counter- and sub-cultures, the decomposers, or scavengers, of ruins, transform these spaces into laboratories and play-grounds where the post-capitalist and post-industrial life can be invented and grown. A practical experimentalism infuses the ruins, giving birth to food cooperatives, electronic DIY laboratories, artistic performances and the likes. Through communalist practice and appropriation, ruins are reshaped into convivial and playful social environment, much like New York’s neighbourhoods were envisaged by Janes Jacobs.

Of particular relevance in a context of refugee crisis, the neighbourhood of Exarchiaexemplifies this potential of the built environment in the centre of Athens. This historically anarchist space of resistance is using several empty and abandoned buildings of the neighbourhood to build a culture of solidarity where more than 3000 refugees are now hosted. The derelict City Plaza Hotel is well known for being occupied by refugees and has been reconnected to water and electricity, has a cafeteria, language classes and a medical clinic. Yet beyond this one squat, it is a whole neighbourhood of political and communal spirit (Baboulias, 2014). An empty lot that was once meant to be turned in a parking lot has been brought under communal control and transformed into a green oasis by activists. This cradle of alternative lifestyles resists to the Greek crisis through a civic spirit and solidarity using empty buildings are material grounds for their development.

Photo 6: The Navarinou Park in Exarchia, Athens, was vacant until local activists took it over to create a greenspace (photo by Jan)


Schönle noted in his account of Russian approach to destruction and decay that “[s]omehow we cannot leave ruins alone and let them simply exist in their mute materiality. We need to make them speak and militate for our theories” (2006). Taking the risk of excessive abstraction and polarization on a subject filled by tensions and ambiguities that prevent any fixed interpretation, the essay briefly explored how social ecology can provide alternatives readings of ruins, of their meanings and stories, of their ecologies and functions in potential futures.

The critic of urbanization, focused on the decline of civic life in modern societies, challenged the definition of ruins in an urban fabric where the historical purpose of buildings is undermined by the forces of capitalism. Yet through an eco-humanist outlook, these spaces can become privileged sites for the re-harmonization of nature and society where new sensibilities and narratives can emerge through transgressive encounters. Ruins are then seen as grounds where communal life can emerge, from squatting in abandoned buildings and renovating a derelict village to creating a culture of solidarity and self-management in a neighbourhood.

Thinking organically about ruins complements the narratives focusing on their destructive symbolism and their potential for ‘profane illumination’ and proposes an account of ruins as material grounds for community building and emancipation. Witnessing such a dialectic between ideology and materiality mediated by human agency, the ideas and imaginaries that we collectively choose to foster and actualize will determine whether or not the afterlife of the ruins that populate our landscapes will be one of entropic decay, communal revival, or anything in between.

Photo 7: Abandoned amusement park in Lemery, Philippines (by Fantasy Worl) .

Let’s revive the ruins!



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