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Rust Archipelago: Natural and Human Geographies After Abandonment

Joseph Heathcott

This project investigates life in disinvested and deindustrialized landscapes in three metropolitan regions: Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Detroit.  The project has been generously funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.  Joseph Heathcott serves as the Principal Investigator, with close collaboration of Research Associates Cédric Gottfried and Veronica Olivotto.


We examine the impact of racial discrimination, capital flight, and the withdraw of public services on neighborhoods long beset by these processes–what we term the “Rust Archipelago.” As a series of spatially distinct zones of discard, the Rust Archipelago nevertheless constitutes in ensemble form a variant mode of urbanity that results from the slow violence of neglect and disinvestment, sharing characteristics across distances, such as vacant buildings, crumbling infrastructure, polluted environments, impoverished families, and other signatures of neglect. Over time, residents in these communities have had to cope with life amid abandonment, and to devise ways of mitigating conditions, repairing damage, creating new opportunities, knitting together community, and demanding justice.


The goal of this project is to move beyond debates about the causes of racial discrimination and disinvestment, discussions of its aggregate impacts, or the most efficacious policy interventions, though these are important to the story. Rather, we propose to take a close, careful look at life as it has actually unfolded in the Rust Archipelago, how people who live there conceptualize their surroundings and engage in modes of care and repair, and the efforts of disinvested communities to assert their rights and interests in building a future.

Activities, publications, and other results

This is very much a project in the early stages of research.  However, we have been producing reflections in the form of field notes along the way.  Thus far we have shared ten such reflections on the project web site, with the following topics:

Land Inventory, Vacancy Rates, and Spatial Distribution in Philadelphia

Reconfigurations of Meaning and Sense of Place in Abandoned Communities

Putting the Ruderal to “Good” Use? Challenges of Urban Nature Management

The Philadelphia Land Bank (LPB): Origins, Purpose, Politics, Successes and Ongoing Challenges

Banking on Land: Property in a Post-Industrial Age

The Inconvenient Archive: Land and Memory

Dissembly: How Architecture Falls Apart under Abandonment

Ruderal Ecologies and Abandoned Spaces: Visions of Nature and the City

Measuring Vacancy and Abandonment in Three Post-Industrial Cities

Notes on Post-Industrial Space: Global Processes, Local Effects

Weediness and Entanglement in the Post-Industrial Landscape

Slow Motion Katrina: Race, Political Economy, and Lost Cities

What is the 'Rust Archipelago'?

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