How do rocks “flow” across the urban landscape?

The joy of throwing stones (photo by polandeze - CC-BY)

It may seem very odd to ask how rocks and stones can “flow” across an urban landscape, but I have seen big research grants awarded for much less important topics. I will share the results of my research for free.

Every time I leave my house by foot, I pass through the same woodland, urban streets and park. Several times a week over ten years I’ve walked the same route, and I’ve noticed that each rock is rarely in the same place from day to day.

If you could draw a line between the position of each rock from one day to the next, and play it as an animation, you would see a fascinating dynamic image showing the flow of rocks across the landscape. It would look like one of those sped-up scenes from the movie Koyaanisqatsi.

Rocks enter the urban landscape from these sources:

  • The gradual ongoing dilapidation of stone walls, paths and other masonry structures
  • Spillage and overflow from dumpsters/skips after demolition work
  • Detritus from a householder’s garden “tidy-up” being dumped overnight
  • Stones working loose that have been embedded in the ground

The rocks get handled in several ways:

  • People use them temporarily for a useful purpose (to prop open a gate, chock the wheel of a vehicle, or bash something into shape), or
  • People (mostly children) “mess about” with the stones (throwing them, building them into towers, bashing them against each other to split them open, etc)

Either way, the stones remain in the landscape after use. And they’re always left downhill of where they were picked up, so there’s a constant downward movement of all the stones and rocks.

Some of the stones reach lawns and grassy areas, which get mown weekly from April to November. Before mowing, people first move the stones out of the way, i.e. off the grass. As a result, the stones tend to accumulate in certain places:

  • Around the edges of sports fields,
  • In patches of shrubbery,
  • In the road gutters, and
  • Around the base of buildings and outbuildings.

The number of rocks in these places keeps increasing, except that every now and then one of these places suddenly becomes rock-free. I guess someone has “had enough” and has cleared up—and disposed of—all the rocks from that place.

So, that’s how rocks move across the urban landscape.

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