Queering the transect: an extract from Natura Urbana
Matthew Gandy is a geographer, urbanist & cultural critic based at the University of Cambridge. His latest book, Natura Urbana, builds on his research of the wastelands & brachen of Berlin, spaces which are alive with nature, culture, politics & history. This extract from the book looks at the notion of the transect, a line through landscape as a man-derived tool of bisecting, analysing & reconsidering - from Frederic Clements to Gordon Matta-Clark.

A botanical transect typically involves walking in a straight line at right angles to a zone of transition produced by natural features such as coastlines, mudflats, marshes, or altitudinal variations. In 1905, for example, the American ecologist Frederic Clements simply described the transect as “a cross section through the vegetation of a station, a formation, or a series of formations.”[i] From the outset, however, there has been ambiguity over the appropriate scale for a transect, and by implication how the data derived from this method might relate to broader inferences about the ecological characteristics of a wider area.[ii]

Hovering between a diagrammatic representation and an analytical tool, it is uncertain whether the purpose of the transect is to reveal identifiable “phytosociological communities” à la Braun-Blanquet and other plant sociologists, or merely serve as a heuristic device for landscape interpretation. Writing in 1954, for example, the American botanist Dorothy Brown considers how the transect might be used for the exploration of “new territory” but refers to undertaking fieldwork by “road cruising,” in a tacit admission that most landscapes are simply too vast to be systematically assessed by walking alone.[iii] In the movement from a “walking line” to a “road line” there is an implicit acceleration, so that details must be interpreted from more infrequent or distant forms of observation.


Modernity itself can be conceived as a series of lines ranging from the regularization of space to a teleological understanding of its own historiography. For the anthropologist Tim Ingold the act of walking in a straight line is an enactment of modernity that connects with the tracing of plotlines, land measurement, and the elevation of linearity to a mode of rational thought.[iv] The idea of “straightening” has multiple connotations extending to questions of racial and sexual difference: an emphasis on linearity as a form of power finds echoes, for instance, in Sara Ahmed’s characterization of “the production of whiteness as a straight line.”[v] Similarly, the performance of the line as a sociospatial inscription of power is captured in the psychologist Carl Jung’s observation, based on his travels in East Africa, that “the white man’s idea is to walk straight ahead.”[vi]

The role of walking as a contrary or dogged display of perseverance emerges as a constitutive element in the spatial imaginaries of European modernity. The cartographic stage under modernity emerges as a series of “points or dots,” with the establishment of “lines of occupation” serving as the logistical precursors to “settlement and extraction.”[vii] The historiographic unease generated by a botanical itinerary with a purpose necessitates a careful reflection on the utilitarian dimensions to walking methodologies. Indeed, the use of the transect as an experimental method in its own right, as undertaken by artists and writers, serves as a useful counterfoil to the perpetuation of certain kinds of unreflective methodological empiricism.


Does the appearance of the “urban transect,” in all its practical and experimental guises, unsettle or merely overlook its complex historical associations with the utilitarian envisioning of nature? There are a number of botanical studies that simply apply the transect method directly to urban areas in order to examine the plant diversity of specific sites.[viii] In other cases a more schematic approach is adopted in order to provide a cross-sectional representation of the urban-rural gradient in terms of variations in the built environment and its characteristic vegetation.[ix]

The transect has also been adopted within some architectonic formulations as a way of depicting urban topography, or as an urban design tool, yet these approaches are invariably schematic depictions rather than a direct application of botanical method to urban space.[x] More prescient, however, are those botanical surveys that have sought to directly challenge the nativist preoccupations of plant sociology, and its colonial underpinnings, by emphasizing the novel socioecological assemblages to be found in urban space.[xi]

Cultural iterations of the urban transect can take several different forms. An urban transect can follow a line produced by infrastructure networks such as roads, canals, or railway lines, as reflected in projects such as the LA-based artist Ed Ruscha’s series of photographs entitled Every building on the Sunset Strip (1966). The simple practice of walking is also a significant motif within land art, exemplified by Richard Long’s performance A line made by walking (1967), which records a transitory impression left by the artist walking across a field. In some cases the transect becomes the ecology of the line itself, as in studies of plants growing in the interstitial spaces produced by transport networks such as roadside verges or railway embankments. In other examples a more conventional type of botanical transect is undertaken within a chosen site, as reflected in a variety of works including Paul-Armand Gette’s 16 mm film entitled Le transect (1974).[xii]


In some instances, there is an attempt to transect space directly as in the performance art of Simon Faithfull, where, in an homage to Buster Keaton, he scales fences and crawls through windows to follow the meridian line as precisely as possible in 0º00 navigation (2009). Similarly, with Gordon Matta-Clark’s intervention entitled Splitting (1974), a recently abandoned house is cut in half so that the transect becomes an active sculptural intervention in urban space. Writers have also used the transect as a way to structure a narrative around movement through space: it can be conceived as a Perecquian literary device to spur heightened forms of observation and creative reflection through the use of an artificial constraint.[xiii]

The idea of the line as a restriction on thought, or a form of conceptual rigidity, is effectively inverted to heighten the experience of space. Examples include the French writer François Bon, who describes the changing landscapes he observes on his regular commute from Nancy to Paris, or François Maspero, who uses the thirty-eight stops along the RER railway encircling Paris as a series of starting points for ethnographic encounters with what he terms the terrain vague of the city’s outer suburbs.[xiv] To what extent, however, does Maspero’s invocation of the terrain vague on the urban periphery belie a certain commonality with the liminal landscapes of colonial governmentality transposed to what the geographer Mustafa Dikeç refers to as the “badlands” of the French republic?[xv]


A botanical transect is an embodied methodology par excellence: the systematic recording of plant life involves not just training the eye to notice small details, drawing on sophisticated forms of pattern recognition, but also the use of other sensory clues such as smell to help identify species, haptic interactions with leaves to explore their surface textures, and an awareness of small variations in light and shade, to produce an “incidental sensorium” that is open to the unexpected. The completion of a transect introduces a degree of “slowness” to the navigation of space that echoes Isabelle Stengers’s appeal for ralentissement (deceleration) in scientific practice.[xvi]

Indeed, the very act of slowing down can be likened to a kind of “ecological loitering” that serves as an entry point into the nuance and complexity of urban space. The point, however, is not that science should simply be done more slowly but should have the imaginative scope to reflect more fully on the practice of research as a relational activity sustained through multiple chains of human and nonhuman interaction.


The transect also resonates with psychogeographical explorations of the modern city. Yet the situationist excursion or dérive, in its classic late 1960s formulation, has little grounding in ecological observation.[xvii] Methodologically, the dérive is a highly impressionistic if not masculinist cultural trope, although we should be cautious in any essentialist form of epistemological critique.

For the Paris-based writer Lauren Elkin, it is attentiveness to the shifting and often invisible contours of the “affective landscape” that marks the starting point for urban walking as a form of social critique as well as critical reflection.[xviii] Similarly, the geographer Morag Rose shows how urban walking can “follow lines of desire, curiosity and coincidence but also invisible threads of power and the whispers of ghosts under the pavement.” Rose emphasizes how the use of walking as experimental practice can “disrupt the banal” and reveal “minor epiphanies.”[xix]

[i] Having first appeared as a verb in the mid-seventeenth century, the English word transect begins to acquire usage as a noun in the early twentieth century, and becomes closely associated with the emergence of ecological science, the elucidation of vegetation patterns, and the application of modern botanical methods. Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com) (accessed 30 July 2019).
[ii] Robert H. Whittaker, “Gradient analysis of vegetation,”Biological Reviews 42 (2) (1967): 207–264.
[iii] Dorothy Brown, Methods of surveying and measuring vegetation (Farnham: Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, 1954).
[iv] Tim Ingold, Lines (London: Routledge, 2007), 85, 87.
[v] Sara Ahmed, Queer phenomenology: orientation, objects, others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 121.
[vi] Cited in Blake W. Burleson, Jung in Africa (New York: Continuum, 2005), 114.
[vii] Ingold, Lines, 85, 87.
[viii] See Kevin Austin, “Botanical processes in urban derelict spaces” (PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2002).
[ix] See Herbert Sukopp, ed., Stadtökologie. Das Beispiel Berlins (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1990).
[x] See, for example, Andrés Duany and Emily Talen, “Transect planning,” Journal of the American Planning Association 68 (3) (2002): 245–266; and Nicolas Tixier, “Le transect urbain. Pour une écriture corrélée des ambiances et de l’environnement,” in Écologies urbaines. Sur le terrain, ed. Sabine Barles and Nathalie Blanc (Paris: Economica-Anthropos, 2016), 130–148.
[xi] In the hands of geographers such as Gerhard Hard, botanical methods not only enable interpretation of the unusual characteristics of urban vegetation but also become a means to interrogate the history of landscape itself in all its ideological complexity. See, for example, Gerhard Hard, “Die Natur, die Stadt und die Ökologie. Reflexionen über ‘Stadtnatur’ und ‘Stadtökologie,’” in Dimensionen geographischen Denkens (Osnabrück: V & R unipress, 2003 [1994]), 341–370.
[xii] Gette first used the transect method derived from “sociobotany” or Pflanzensoziologie in 1974. In the spring of 1975, for example, he presented a 16 mm black-and-white film entitled Le transect in the exhibition “Ögon-Blickar/ New media 1” held at the Malmö Konsthall in southern Sweden. The film, and its associated diagrams, sketches, and photographs, were derived from a study of the Ribersborgstranden beach near Malmö based on the use of a transect, or study line, passing from the lower shoreline up to the windswept dune system overlooking the sea. Working slowly along the transect, Gette recorded all the species of plants he could find along with observations on other biophysical parameters such as elevation, humidity, and temperature. Gette also used a transect for his contribution to documenta 6 in 1977, based on a 35 km walk between Chalon and the industrial town of Le Creusot. See Franz W. Kaiser, “Von einigen Haltungen gegenüber Landschaft sowie über den Künstler Paul-Armand Gette,” in Transect and some other attitudes toward landscape (Ipswich: European Visual Arts Centre, c. 1988), 5–18; Didier Paschal-Lejeune, “Premiers éléments pour un catalogue chronologique des travaux de Paul-Armand Gette repris sous le titre général de Contribution à l’étude des lieux restreints,” in Paul-Armand Gette, de quelques lisières: prolégomènes à un essai de définition de la notion d’écotone(Paris: cheval d’attaque, 1977), 63–73.
[xiii] See, for example, Richard Phillips, “Georges Perec’s experimental fieldwork; Perecquian fieldwork,” Social and Cultural Geography 19 (2) (2018): 171–191.
[xiv] See François Bon, Paysage fer (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2000); and François Maspero, Roissy Express: a journey through the Paris suburbs, trans. Paul Jones (London: Verso, 1994 [1990]).
[xv] Mustafa Dikeç, Badlands of the republic: space, politics, and urban policy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
[xvi] Isabelle Stengers, Another science is possible: a manifesto for slow science, trans. Stephen Muecke (Cambridge: Polity, 2017 [2013]).
[xvii] On aspects of the dérive as methodology see also Philip Conway’s review of Stengers, Another science is possible, in Society and Space (2018).
[xviii] Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (London: Chatto and Windus, 2016), 288.
[xix] Morag Rose, “Confessions of an anarcho-flâneuse, or psychogeography the Mancunian way,” in Walking inside out: contemporary British psychogeography, ed. Tina Richardson (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 158, 159, 160. See also Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, Walking methodologies in a more-than-Human world: WalkingLab (London: Routledge, 2018).

Natura Urbana is astudy of urban nature that draws together different strands of urban ecology as well as insights derived from feminist, posthuman, and postcolonial thought. Postindustrial transitions and changing cultures of nature have produced an unprecedented degree of fascination with urban biodiversity. The “other nature” that flourishes in marginal urban spaces, at one remove from the controlled contours of metropolitan nature, is not the poor relation of rural flora and fauna. Indeed, these islands of biodiversity underline the porosity of the distinction between urban and rural. In Natura Urbana, Matthew Gandy explores urban nature as a multilayered material and symbolic entity, through the lens of urban ecology and the parallel study of diverse cultures of nature at a global scale.  Gandy examines the articulation of alternative, and in some cases counterhegemonic, sources of knowledge about urban nature produced by artists, writers, scientists, as well as curious citizens, including voices seldom heard in environmental discourse. The book is driven by Gandy's fascination with spontaneous forms of urban nature ranging from postindustrial wastelands brimming with life to the return of such predators as wolves and leopards on the urban fringe. Gandy develops a critical synthesis between different strands of urban ecology and considers whether "urban political ecology," broadly defined, might be imaginatively extended to take fuller account of both the historiography of the ecological sciences, and recent insights derived from feminist, posthuman, and postcolonial thought.

Matthew Gandy is a geographer, urbanist, and cultural critic. He was born in Islington, North London & is Professor of Geography at the University of Cambridge. He previously taught at University College London where he was Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory. He has also been a visiting professor at several universities including Columbia University, New York; Humboldt University, Berlin; Technical University, Berlin; UCLA; & UdK, Berlin. He has published widely on urban and environmental themes including the prize-winning books Concrete and clay: reworking nature in New York City (2002) & The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination (2014). His film criticism includes essays on Antonioni, Haynes, Herzog, Pasolini & Teshigahara. He directed & produced the documentary Liquid City (2007), which was premiered in Mumbai and shown at the London Documentary Film Festival & a film based on the Natura Urbana research.


fig.i Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space is puiblished by MIT Press and available at bookshops widely. More information at: 


fig.i Gille Clément’s design for Parc Henri Matisse in Lille includes an ecological refugium created out of construction debris (2011). Photo © Matthew Gandy.
fig.ii hausseestraße, Berlin. A typical urban wasteland (now lost) where the Berlin Wall once stood (2009). Photo © Matthew Gandy.
fig.iii Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974). Six gelatin silver prints.
© The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner.
fig.iv Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974). 16mm film, 10:50 min, color, silent. © The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner.
fig.v The High Line, New York (2011). An ecological simulacrum has been created to resemble elements of what once existed on the site.  Photo © Matthew Gandy.

publication date
13 September 2022

Sara Ahmed, Paul-Armand Gette, Berlin, François Bon, Brachen, Dérive, Dorothy Brown, Frederic Clements, Lauren Elkin, Simon Faithfull, Matthew Gandy, Tim Ingold, Carl Jung, Landscape, Line, Richard Long, François Maspero, Gordon Matta-Clark, Ed Ruscha, Natura Urbana, Nature, Morag Rose, Situationists, Isabelle Stengers, Straight, Straight line, Walking, Wasteland


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